St. Thomas loses coveted law school ranking over error

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2012 - 1:14 PM
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For a few shining moments, the University of St. Thomas School of Law ranked 16 spots higher in the U.S. News and World Report than it had last year, a significant leap.

Today, it has no ranking at all.

After St. Thomas announced that it had reported an incorrect percentage of its 2010 graduates who had jobs at graduation, the magazine stripped the school of its No. 119 spot on its "Best Law Schools" list, banishing it to the category of "unranked."

Employment statistics for new lawyers are an increasingly scrutinized measure of a law school's quality. Class-action lawsuits have been filed against more than a dozen law schools for intentionally inflating data to recruit students and land a higher perch on U.S. News' influential list of "Best Law Schools."

St. Thomas has stressed that its error was an honest mistake, reported immediately after it was spotted in an advance copy of the rankings published this month.

In an open letter to the magazine, Dean Thomas Mengler slammed the decision to unrank the school, saying that it will "create a disincentive for law schools to promptly report mistaken or erroneous data."

But in a response on Wednesday, the editor of U.S. News stood by the call.

"Whether intentional or unintentional, St. Thomas received a rank it should not have received," Brian Kelly wrote.

The revised data led editors to place a red asterisk by the description of the school, noting that 32.9 percent of its graduates were employed at graduation -- not the 80.6 percent the school first reported. The line item the school got wrong, a percentage, corresponded to a line it got right, a raw number of students with jobs at the time of graduation.

"We remain deeply sorry that we failed to catch this discrepancy," Mengler told alumni in an e-mail. "It will never happen again," he added in an interview.

The share of students employed nine months after graduation, 86.5 percent, is correct in the rankings, the school says. U.S. News gives that number greater weight than the one at graduation.

The publication announced late last week that in response to St. Thomas' data correction, it would place the school in the "unranked" category "until the publication of the next Best Graduate Schools rankings and until the accuracy of each school's next data submission is confirmed to U.S. News."

'No good deed ...'

Mengler responded Monday with a forceful letter questioning the publication's methodology and decision.

"I should now be a strong believer in the adage 'no good deed goes unpunished,'" that letter began.

"When other law schools lied, you called on all law schools to protect the integrity of the data," he wrote.

"We did that even for an unintentional mistake."

Mengler suggested during an interview that U.S. News ought to have recalculated the rankings using the correct data. He pointed out that when other schools admitted to knowingly reporting inaccurate data, U.S. News did not revise previously published rankings.

The publication reviews errors, which are uncommon, on a case-by-case basis, Kelly responded Wednesday in an e-mail.

Last week, the magazine also removed the ranking of the University of Houston, which over-reported research spending for its College of Education by about $10 million.

Kelly characterized St. Thomas' error as "highly inflated" and "troubling because the school was given multiple opportunities to correct it after submission."

"We concluded that the correct number would have had a material impact on St. Thomas' ranking," he said.

St. Thomas had been ranked second among the four Twin Cities law schools, behind the University of Minnesota (19), and ahead of William Mitchell (127) and Hamline, whose status is "rank not published," meaning the school ranked below the U.S. News cutoff for publication.

Jerry Organ, a St. Thomas law professor who has publicly called on law schools to be more transparent in reporting employment data, said he agreed with Mengler that U.S. News' decision could have a chilling effect on reporting errors.

Organ has argued that the American Bar Association ought to monitor and cross-check LSAT and GPA statistics.

Auditing employment data is much more difficult, he said, because schools gather the data themselves by calling and e-mailing graduates.

An organization such as U.S. News can only cross-check the employment data it gets from universities -- something that, in this case, it clearly did not do, Organ said.

"It is not clear to me that U.S. News is interested in making the investment in resources it would need to assure that its rankings are based on reliable 'employment at graduation' data," he said.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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