Chat with Michigan Law School's Dean of Admissions about the Wolverine Scholars Program

The blogosphere has come down hard on Michigan Law School's recently announced Wolverine Scholars Program. I'm excited when any law school innovates, so I chatted with Dean of Admissions Sarah Zearfoss to find out what's what. Our Q&A below:


1. Could you explain what the Wolverine Scholars Program is and who is eligible for it.

Our new Wolverine Scholars Program will invite applications from University of Michigan undergraduates who have at least completed their junior year and at most are scheduled to graduate in Winter or Spring 2009 (that is, rising and graduating seniors) who have cumulative GPAs of 3.80 or higher; review will take place during the summer, and will substitute for the usual LSAT requirement an intensive review of the undergraduate curriculum. It is a non-binding program; if an applicant is admitted, he or she is free to apply to other law schools—but since we are not requiring the LSAT of the applicants, it is of course our hope that we will attract people for whom Michigan is their first choice, and who will choose to enroll here rather than going through the hassle of applying to other law schools (including the necessity of taking the LSAT).

2. You've come under a lot of fire in the blogosphere for the program. For example, MoneyLaw, Above the Law, TaxProf, and Prof. Henderson (of Indiana) have basically accused you of a transparent attempt to game the rankings. Prof. Henderson has gone so far as to say that "the only rational explanation is that Michigan seeks a rankings payoff." How do you respond to that? If gaming the rankings wasn't your only motivation, or your main motivation, what was your reasoning behind the program?

Well, I'd have to actually say the opposite is the case—that is, a desire to manipulate the rankings would NOT have been a rational motivation for this program. Consider, if that were the purpose, whether it would make sense for a public institution whose every admission decision in recent years has been subject to FOIA requests from multiple organizations to announce something so publicly! Further, since we anticipate being able to matriculate at most 5 to 10 Wolverine Scholars—a fractional sliver of our typical entering class of 360—this couldn't be a successful route for manipulating the rankings, even if we were so inclined. That number of people couldn't possibly affect our LSAT median, and is quite unlikely to affect the GPA median by even 1/100th, let alone materially.

Instead, we were motivated by a desire to strengthen our intra-institutional ties with the undergrad community, which is our single biggest feeder and at which, nonetheless, there is a persistent, unshakeable rumor that it is impossible to be admitted to Michigan Law if one attended Michigan for undergrad. As a result, we lose a lot of people who don't apply, thinking it's just not worth their time—and we therefore we miss getting applications from many students who would be great additions to our class. Relatedly, we needed to think creatively about ways to increase the applications we receive from our single biggest source of in-state residents (given that we are a public institution with a goal of matriculating 20% of the class as in-state residents). Bottom-line, we had well-considered policy objectives here, and our policy decisions have never been dictated by blind obeisance to rankings.

3. If you are willing to admit X students a year without an LSAT score, why require an LSAT score from the rest of the class? Why not just do away with it completely?

We have found the LSAT to be an excellent tool for predicting first-year grades, and believe that it is an exceptionally well-designed standardized test. That does not mean, however, that there may not be limited, special circumstances where reliance is not necessary, or not appropriate. We have a LOT of data on Michigan undergrads who enroll here at the law school, and the data lead us to be very confident that we can learn what we need to about ability to succeed here from a rigorous examination of the curriculum of those students who have proven themselves able to achieve at a very high level. We just don't have that body of data for other schools.

4. Some other law schools -- including top law schools like Georgetown and Northwestern -- have admissions programs that do not require an LSAT score. Any idea why people are piling on Michigan and not on those other schools?

Michigan certainly does get people's attention when it comes to admissions issues! But I suppose it's also timing; the programs that I know of are not of recent vintage, and I do think that attention to standardized tests and to rankings has really amped up in the last couple of years.

5. Colleges and business schools innovate constantly with their admissions requirements. For example, a number of top colleges make the SAT optional, while Harvard Business School has the 2+2 program. Why do you think law schools are generally so resistant to experimenting?

I confess I have found it rather surprising that in a climate where many organizations are examining the appropriate use of standardized tests, one very small outside-the-box step by one law school should attract such apparent shocked skepticism. Law schools (and the law as a field, more generally) tend to be very conservative in their approach to any proposed changes, however, and so I suppose the reaction was not completely unpredictable. I've had a lot of supportive emails, though, from prelaw advisors and admissions consultants, so I'm hoping that once the initial excitement winds down, the people who really matter to us—i.e., our applicants—will see that we're trying to be critically thinking about what we're doing. That can only be a good thing from their perspective.