COLUMBIA — Dean R. Lawrence Dessem attempted to calm dozens of frustrated law students at a quickly called meeting Thursday afternoon at the MU School of Law.
Concerns began building after the 2011 Best Graduate School rankings from US News & World Report were leaked to law students Wednesday. The 2010 report ranked the MU Law School at 65; this year, the school has dropped to 93.
Dessem sent an e-mail to the students Wednesday evening after learning of the leaked rankings. The message was forwarded to faculty on Thursday morning.
Jonathan Hutcheson, who is getting a dual-degree in journalism and law, had prepared for the meeting and came with papers and charts in hand. Addressing Dessem, who was the only administrator to speak at the meeting, Hutcheson raised several concerns, including what the law school will do to help students get jobs.
Hutcheson said there is a widespread perception that the school's career services department is not helpful and that it hurts job placement. He thinks the school's perception will be nearly impossible to overcome *without drastic change. At this point, Hutcheson said, he has seen more job opportunities coming from the journalism side of his degrees than the law side.
"My concern is that the perceived value of my law degree is dropping like a rock," Hutcheson said after the meeting.
Hutcheson, who has been in the Law School since the fall of 2006, said he was one of many students nationwide to use ranking reports as a way to help him decide which graduate school to attend. He said the rankings are a measurement people use and take seriously, whether the rankings are completely accurate or not.
"There doesn't seem to be much of a sense of urgency or direction on concerns — concerns that are not new," he said.
Tracy Gonzalez, assistant dean for admissions, has headed the career services department for the past year and a half. She attended the meeting and wasn't surprised at the concerns but still found them hard to hear. Career services puts together about 26 programs in an academic year; however, student attendance is often low, she said.
"We can't force them to attend," Gonzalez said. "I just want them to know how much we personally care about their future, and it was disheartening to hear that they don't think we do."
Gonzalez said the department will continue to provide communication pipelines to firms big and small, giving more students employment opportunities.
The US News graduate school rankings are based overall on expert opinions about the quality of the graduate program and statistical evidence from faculty, students and research. More than 1,200 programs and 12,400 experts were surveyed to gather this year's data.
According to the magazine's Web site, the law school ranking methodology is based on a weighted average of 12 factors in four categories: quality assessment, selectivity, placement success and faculty resources. After the factors are weighted, the top school is given a score of 100, after which the rest of the scores are calculated as a percentage of that. The rankings derive from the scores, but sometimes programs tie.
A program's reputation, which is based on expert surveys, accounts for 40 percent of the score. Although placement success is only 20 percent of the score, the refrain at the meeting was that it is a significant weakness for MU, and students worry the slide will continue.
Dessem said both before and during the meeting that the magazine's ranking should not cause alarm. The report measures things that can be counted but doesn't measure quality of teaching, programs and other categories that cannot be quantified, he said. MU's score dropped only six points, he said, but when that tied with other schools, it translated into a drop of nearly 30 positions.
Dessem used bar passage percentages as an example of flawed data. In Missouri, 90.4 percent of people who take the bar exam pass it — data used for this latest ranking. Ninety-five percent of MU Law School students passed the exam, which meant they beat the state figure by five percent. This can skew results compared to schools with lower state passage rates, he said.
"I think it's a gimmick to sell magazines by masquerading a social science," Dessem said. "I would question any purportedly scientific study where a school could go up or down 20 or 30 places in a year."
He plans to address student concerns by continuing to hire quality teachers, improving the career services program, getting students out to firms earlier and increasing internship opportunities.
"We won't be satisfied until 100 percent of our students have jobs," he said. "We've got to work together on that."
"I think we get lost debunking the methodology of the rankings," said professor Philip Harter. "Even if the report is a total mistake, and we return to number 65, I still think we need to address the issues brought up."
Brianna Lennon, a law student who is also working toward a doctorate in public policy, said she has researched how the rankings are calculated. Lennon said she isn't concerned about her future or the future of those currently enrolled, but she did predict recruitment will be hurt.
Lennon said she also had a problem with the methodology, especially employment numbers. Because schools self-report employment numbers, they can report whatever they want, she said.
Larry McMullen, a 1959 graduate who works in Kansas City, said his initial reaction was that it's a flawed report.
"I know this law school well. I know the quality of the teaching and the quality of the professors," McMullen said. "It's bogus to say that this law school is in 93rd place. It's as good as any law school in the nation with regard to the quality of the education provided."
McMullen said he has never paid much attention to the ranking and thinks it will not hurt MU graduates in getting jobs in the Midwest.
"If I could talk to MU law students," he said, "I would tell them they don't need to be concerned about it."