While other law school deans complain about the U.S. News & World Report rankings, Al Garcia did something about it.
The dean of St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami Gardens, Fla., boycotted the annual rankings, considered by some one of the most important and prestigious measures of a law school. He refused to fill out the survey.
"I have personally stood in front of The Florida Bar's standing committee on professionalism and attacked U.S. News & World Report because it does a disservice to groups like us that represent minorities," Garcia said. "Everybody decries the survey, but everyone participates in the survey. Boycotting is not going to solve matters, but I figured I would put my money where my mouth is."
But while St. Thomas University's information box on the magazine's annual rankings is the only one to include all zeros and "not availables," the school is not the only one to complain about the survey issued this month -- some bitterly.
The magazine's law school rankings have stirred controversy for years. All 188 accredited law schools in the country are ranked and scored in a variety of areas from factual data such as cost of education to more subjective assessments such as general impressions of managing partners and deans around the country. A full 15 percent of the ranking is based strictly on how much money the school spends on students, which causes at least some public school deans to complain it makes no sense to penalize them for giving students a good education for less money.
Other administrators worry that since much of the ranking is based on surveys of managing partners and deans -- and their general impressions -- unrelated points like a school's football program might prove to be a factor in the ranking.
Still, few schools wouldn't want to reach the top tier, joining such Ivy Leaguers as Yale, Harvard and Columbia. Three Florida law schools -- and one in South Florida -- have done so. Schools that make the top tier defined as the top 100 waste no time crowing about it, issuing news releases and using the ranking in promotional materials to recruit students, faculty and donors.
But many schools -- particularly the ones in the bottom, or fourth, tier -- take great issue with the rankings, calling them arbitrary and unfair. They say they discriminate against schools with part-time students, minority students, and students who "game" the system by taking easy electives to boost their grade point averages. What is concerning to critics is that law schools sometimes tailor their programs to score higher -- even eliminating part-time programs because those students typically test lower.
The University of Miami Law School -- South Florida's only first-tier law school -- has been climbing the rankings in recent years, going from a ranking of 82 in 2008 to 71 in 2009 to 60 in 2010. Other top Florida law schools include the University of Florida at 47 -- the highest of any law school in the state, up from 51 last year; and Florida State University, which ranked 54th, down from 52nd last year.
The other South Florida law schools -- Florida International University and Nova Southeastern University -- remained in the fourth tier this year, defined as 140 and below. FIU fell from the third to the fourth tier three years ago and has remained there.
Patricia White, dean of the University of Miami Law School, did not return calls for comment by deadline.
Other South Florida deans are not enthusiastic about the rankings.
Garcia complained the survey emphasizes Law School Admission Test scores, grade point averages, student-faculty ratio and other measures that he feels are outdated. He notes the American Bar Association, which determines law school accreditation, is in the process of reviewing its standards for judging law schools.
"What U.S. News & World Report should be looking at is do you provide the skills necessary to make the students competent and ethical lawyers," Garcia said, adding the magazine features a separate diversity index "to mollify people who serve minority and underserved populations."
"Let's face it, we're not going to move up through the ranks based on diversity, neither is Florida A&M, neither is FIU," Garcia said. Recently accredited, Florida A&M University in Orlando is the state's only law school at a historically black university.
Yet with bar scores on the rise, several mock trial wins and more than 650 students, St. Thomas's law school is "doing great" -- no matter what U.S. News & World Report says, Garcia said.
Alex Acosta, dean of FIU's law school for less than a year, bristles about the rankings.
"Every dean I've spoken to feels it has an unfortunate impact on legal education, and giving the magazine additional publicity furthers that, so I decline to comment," Acosta said.
However, FIU, with 530 full-time and part-time students, has something to crow about, receiving the magazine's fourth highest ranking in the country for diversity, reflecting a 44 percent Hispanic student population. Florida A&M tops the list with a 41 percent black student body.
Athornia Steele, dean of Nova Southeastern University's Shepard Broad Law Center in Davie, is ambivalent about the rankings. "The rankings are there, and there are students that pay attention to them," he said. "I am not one to get overly excited about them. There are lots of schools in that fourth tier that turn out excellent law students, but I understand the marketing value of ranking them.
"What I have said and what I continue to say is schools identify their mission and do their best, regardless of what their rankings are."
Toward that end, Nova issued a new mission statement, a year in the making: "To ensure that students develop the knowledge, skills and values that are the heart of becoming trusted, highly adept professional lawyers who are respected for serving their client, their community and justice."
Nova also scored on the diversity index, ranking 32nd nationally, with a 20 percent Hispanic student body.
Steele said he was aware Garcia planned to boycott the survey. But he shared the views of other law school deans that a boycott is pointless since almost all of the information provided to the magazine is already available through the ABA, which maintains law school statistics.
"We provide the information largely because the truth is they can get the information from the ABA," he said.
With 1,000 students and full-time and part-time programs, Nova has exceeded the average Florida Bar passage rate for the last several years, including last July with an 85 percent passage rate and 82 percent in February to lead the region.