Defending Alabama

The University of Alabama, that is, and in particular Dean Ken Randall. Randall has been called to task by Brian Leiter and Gordon Smith for his comments to the Tuscaloosa News about Alabama’s rise in the new US News rankings. Randall said: “It is a proud day for our campus, the legal profession, and the entire state of Alabama. We have proven that our state can offer premier educational opportunities.” Brian places Randall (and others) in the Decanal Hypocrisy Hall of Fame. Gordon called these the “most over the top comments of the season.”

OK, everyone knows I’m biased. Alabama is my academic alma mater, a place where I spent my first eight years in teaching. But there are a couple of reasons why I think this criticism of Randall is harsh. The first, as it relates to the H-word (hypocrisy.) Bucking the dominant “official line”, Ken Randall declined to sign the LSAC letter critiquing US News rankings. (Gordon notes this.) People may disagree with Randall’s decision, as well as his comments, but they can’t quarrel with his consistency.

Second, Randall’s comments are capable of a more generous reading. For example, his second point – that the school has proven that Alabama can offer premier educational opportunities – is not necessarily a claim that this new ranking provides the proof. Indeed, if you listened to Randall travel across the state, you’d have heard him offer that same message for years – well before the new ranking. This is simply a point of pride and a bit of marketing. And it’s something else – something that folks in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and the like will appreciate: it’s an opportunity to respond to both the external critiques, and the internal self-image problems, of a state that hasn’t always excelled in education. In this sense, the comment is both a retort to outsiders and a rallying cry to residents. The US News rankings were an opportunity to get this message into the papers, but it is a message that he has been effectively delivering for many years.

Finally, as to the most apparently problematic comment – that the new rankings are proud day for the campus, profession and state – the critiques I think overstate the case. First, this comment was offered to the local mass media and sounds in the language of sports and competition – something anyone in Alabama would recognize as part of the state’s patois. It is also a way to stir up donors. Like his comment about offering a premier education in the state, these words are designed to convince alumni that the law school is a worthy investment.

I suspect that someone could raise a defense of the other offending deans, so I don’t mean to damn them by my failure to comment. And I also don’t mean to argue that US News offers “accurate” rankings. I now teach at a school that is new and utterly unranked. That fact is surely disconcerting to some potential students. Yet I would also put many aspects of our program head to head with schools in the Top 50 – including, yes, Alabama. So in this sense, these rankings very much hurt Drexel. (And as I’ve shown previously, most newer schools do quite badly in the US News reputation competition.) But these rankings do provide some information to students (and, by the way, potential faculty) who might otherwise know very little about the University of Alabama’s of the world. And they also produce significant benefits for schools that do well – in terms of money, faculty recruiting and student recruiting. Isn’t it just as disingenuous to act like the rankings are no big deal, then quietly reap their rewards? And isn’t that what most of the other schools in the Top 50 do every day?

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2 Responses

  1. Scott Moss says:

    A good and fair defense of Dean Randall. I’d also go further: I don’t fault any dean whose school got a rankings boost for using those rankings to trumpet his or her school. As profs, we envision ourselves as fair, neutral commenters on law and (to an extent) legal academia — but that’s not the job of a dean. The job of a dean is to pursue the best interests of his or her school, and that includes helping boost its reputation, which publicizing good rankings certainly can help do.

    I suppose the danger for a dean bragging about rankings is that next year s/he may have to explain an 8-place drop in rank, but that’s uncommon enough that, were I a dean whose school jumped in the rankings, I’d go brag. I’d be failing to pursue the interests of my school if I didn’t.

  2. Nate Former-Arkansas-Dweller Oman says:

    I largely agree with Scott on this one. I also think that Dan’s point about educational bragging in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, etc. is spot on. Indeed, to the extent that Alabama’s bump in the rankings gives the Dean a chance to talk to the local newspaper about how education in the state is — and should be — something for local citizens to take pride in, it is a strong point in favor of U.S. News rather than against it in my book.