Amid controversies over free speech, the school’s ‘peer assessment’ score pushed it below the competition
Aaron Sibarium • November 17, 2022 5:00 am
Yale Law School dean Heather Gerken is framing the school’s decision to pull out of the U.S. News & World Report law-school rankings as an altruistic one, arguing that the “profoundly flawed” rankings “disincentivize programs that support public interest careers.”
But a closer look at those rankings suggests that Yale, which has over the past year been the locus of a fierce debate about free speech and drawn unwanted attention for its response to campus controversies, may have had a selfish reason to jump ship. The elite law school was starting to slip on one of the key indicators that determine a law school’s overall ranking, according to U.S. News & World Report‘s published methodology, raising questions about how long it would continue to occupy the number-one slot.
The “peer assessment” score is a measure of how deans and tenured professors across the country rate a law school’s quality on a scale of 1 to 5. Accounting for 25 percent of each school’s overall rank, this metric is the single most important factor in U.S. News & World Report law-school rankings—and one reason why Yale consistently lands at the top of them.
For many years, the law school’s peer assessment score hovered between a 4.8 and a 4.9, which meant it usually tied or exceeded Harvard and Stanford’s scores. But in March 2022—amid the free speech controversies, including the administration’s abuse and intimidation of a second-year law student, that thrust the top-ranked school into the national spotlight—Yale’s peer assessment score dropped to 4.6, its lowest in over a decade.
Though the drop didn’t dislodge Yale from its number-one position overall, it did put the school behind Harvard and Stanford in the reputational rankings, a sign that the law school’s perch was more precarious than it once seemed. Further hits to the peer assessment score could have pushed Yale to second or third place for the first time since U.S. News & World Report began ranking law schools, shattering a major source of its prestige.
A few hours after Yale’s announcement, Harvard Law said that it would also be pulling out of the rankings, a decision it claimed had been in the works for “several months.” The school saw a slight drop in its peer assessment score, from 4.8 in 2021 to 4.7 in 2022.
Yale Law School did not respond to a request for comment.
In recent months, Gerken has struggled to fend off a series of public relations disasters related to the political climate on campus and the administration’s response to it.
Between September and October, 14 federal judges, including James Ho of the 5th Circuit and Elizabeth Branch of the 11th Circuit, said they would no longer hire clerks from Yale Law School, citing concerns about free speech and intellectual diversity. They pointed to a September 2021 incident in which administrators pressured second-year law student Trent Colbert to apologize for using the term “traphouse” in an email, as well as an incident from early March in which hundreds of students disrupted a bipartisan panel on civil liberties.
The clerkship boycott prompted Yale Law to issue a statement affirming its “commitment to the free and unfettered exchange of ideas,” which outlined a number of steps the law school was taking to protect free speech—a tacit indication that administrators, including Gerken, are aware they have a problem on their hands.
Gerken’s statement about the school’s decision to pull out of the rankings did not address the drop in its peer assessment score. Instead, she blasted an “ill-conceived” system that “stands squarely in the way of progress,” announcing that the “rankings process is undermining the core commitments of the legal profession.” As a result, she said, “we will no longer participate.”