In 2002, the University of Houston Law Center was ranked 50th in the U.S. News & World Report annual law school rankings.
Today, it’s ranked number 70.
Some faculty members and students at the institution believe that the downward slide may have been the cause of Monday’s resignation of Nancy Rapoport, the center’s dean since 2000. Others say that notion -- and the rankings themselves -- are phooey.
“After six years as dean, I don’t think this is a really big deal,” says Michael A. Olivas, a law professor at Houston and director of the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance at the school. “There is a shelf life for deans, you know. These rankings are definitely not how I measure the success of a dean.”
But, according to students who attended a faculty member meeting last week, some professors directly criticized the dean for the drop. While the U.S. News rankings are regularly derided by educators as poor measures of quality, many of those same educators worry about how their institutions fare.
Joy N. Hermansen, who has seven more months before she graduates from the school, was reluctant to give names of faculty members who were particularly critical of the dean. “I know that most deans don’t stay longer than six years, and maybe it was time for the dean to move on anyway,” she says. “However, I doubt she would have resigned but for the recent events related to the rankings because our school is up for accreditation next year. That’s a really bad time to not have a dean.”
One professor, who wished to remain anonymous, said that faculty members and student groups had been meeting regularly since the most recent rankings came out to discuss what could be done to boost them. The professor indicated that none of these meetings involved the dean.
Hermansen says that students began to concurrently rebel against Rapoport. "I’m sure the fact that a few irresponsible people, not thinking about the consequences of their actions, posted messages seriously criticizing her and her actions on public Internet forums bothered her," says Hermansen.
"Dean Rapoport, as one faculty member described her, prides herself on being an 'outside' dean -- one who spends most of her time meeting with people outside the law school to try to improve its reputation," she adds. "This would be in contrast to an 'inside' dean who spends his or her time mingling with students and is very visible on campus. Therefore, we really don’t have much insight into her thought processes or most of her decisions."
While Rapoport did not respond to calls for comment for this story, there is evidence that the magazine rankings have, in recent years, weighed heavily on the minds of administrators and faculty members. In an article published by Rapoport in the Illinois Law Review in 2005, she detailed a plan called Project Magellan, which was begun after the law school dropped below the 50th spot in the U.S. News rankings.
“Magellan is raising important issues and forcing us to make some hard choices,” wrote the dean. “In our last few brown-bag discussions, we’ve talked about making some changes that may, over time, improve our rankings -- at least as long as every other school above us in the rankings doesn’t make these changes at the same time that we do. Most of those changes (to improve placement, to reconsider how we award financial aid, to change the curriculum slightly, and to encourage different choices for placement of articles by faculty) are likely to make our school better than our rankings will demonstrate.”
Donald J. Foss, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the university, cautioned against putting too much stock in the rankings in a recent Houston Chronicle story regarding the dean’s departure. In a press release, he stated that plans to appoint an interim dean and a search committee in the immediate future.
Olivas also cautions against putting too much stock in a dean’s ability to affect the rankings of the school. He says that funding shortcomings resulting from the state’s Enron scandal as well as continued and rebuilding efforts from Tropical Storm Allison are challenges that will not soon go away. He says that these situations have affected the magazine’s ranking of the school, but that the school is actually doing much better than the drop would indicate.
“It’s a much more complicated story,” he says. “This is not Tolstoy or a tragedy. Most of us respect Rapoport for the job she has done and want her to come back as a faculty member.”
Rapoport’s last day is scheduled to be May 31 and she said in a statement put out by the university that her plans may include a year-long sabbatical and a return to the university as a professor.
“I approached every one of my decisions with a simple goal: to make this school a better place for its faculty, students, staff, and alumni,” the dean said in a letter to faculty members, students and staff. “With your help, I am certain that this school can continue to achieve great things in the months and years ahead.”