Villanova Law's disclosure comes amid growing distrust about law school rankings

Villanova Law admitted it inflated grades on data that figure in national rankings. Many officials say rankings give an inadequate picture of quality.
Villanova Law admitted it inflated grades on data that figure in national rankings. Many officials say rankings give an inadequate picture of quality.
Posted: February 09, 2011

The disclosure that Villanova University's law school altered admissions data that figure prominently in national rankings occurs amid ongoing concern that the rankings offer both a false picture of educational quality and create incentives to manipulate grades and test scores.

The nation's most prominent rating service, U.S. News & World Report, for years has been the focus of scorn among college and university administrators who say that at best it gives an inadequate picture of educational quality.

But James Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, a group that tracks the legal-employment market, says the U.S. News ranking system also has triggered distrust among law school administrators themselves.

Many fear that they and their schools could be disadvantaged by competitor schools that manipulate data in ways that technically comply with the rules but perhaps present an overly rosy picture.

"There is a lot of distrust," Leipold said of law school administrators and the rankings.

The issue came to the fore over the weekend with the disclosure by Villanova University that its law school had knowingly submitted inflated admissions statistics to the American Bar Association for use in its guide to law schools for prospective students.

The data also are used by U.S. News to compile its highly influential law school rankings.

"I think that those of us in legal education understand the implications of data that is entirely self-reported," said JoAnne A. Epps, dean of Temple University Law School. "Everyone wants the outside evaluation to be as favorable as it can be."

But Epps said she doubted there was widespread cheating, and did not believe the ranking system had a built-in incentive to fudge the numbers.

Still, she criticized rankings such as U.S. News for focusing on metrics that tell little about the real value of the educational experience at a given law school.

"The ranking is pernicious," she said.

Of the Villanova disclosures, she said: "I am really aware of how sad this is."

Perhaps not surprising, some laws schools apply a highly technical and legalistic approach to deciding what data can be submitted and what information should be left out, Leipold said.

That is sometimes the case with reports on how many law school graduates have found jobs, as well as with admissions data.

Schools often employ their own graduates, adding those numbers to the placement data, or count students employed outside the law, or exclude evening or part-time students from their admissions data.

"Typically what you see are people trying to lawyer this to death," Leipold said.

Robert J. Morse, director of data research at U.S News, said that to ensure the integrity of the data used in the rankings, the magazine asks law schools to submit the same information that they give to the ABA. Law school deans also are asked to sign a sheet of paper attesting to the accuracy of the information.

The LSAT scores and the grade-point averages, the two sets of data that Villanova said Monday had been inflated, account for 12.5 percent and 10 percent of the rankings, Morse said.

"We assume schools will report data honestly to the ABA. This was not the case this time," he said of the Villanova information.

Villanova disclosed the matter to students, faculty, and alumni in an e-mail Friday, saying that law school employees had submitted false admissions data to the ABA for an unspecified number of years prior to 2010. The university said the 2010 data for the current crop of freshmen were accurate.

Law school dean John Y. Gotanda, who started on Jan. 1, said that Villanova was conducting its own investigation of the matter. It was unclear whether the results of that probe would ever be made public.

The falsified data appeared to have been submitted during the tenure of former law school dean Mark Sargent, who stepped down in 2009 amid a Kennett Square prostitution investigation. Police said that Sargent, who was not charged in the probe, had been a customer of the ring and provided information that resulted in a no-contest plea by a man accused of running it.


Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

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