Imagine that you hold a job where you control the fates of powerful people. The decisions that you make have a major impact on the status of the institutions where those people work and, consequently, the status of those people. Yet your subjects have absolutely not say over what you do. They do not pay your salary, do not elect you, and can do nothing but complain if they don't care for how you exercise your discretion.
Sound good? Not so fast. The people affected by your decisions do complain—loudly, repeatedly, and publicly. They're good at it, too, as their own work qualifies them as something very much like professional complainers. And though the parties that your decisions disadvantage naturally head that unpleasant chorus, even those who enjoy vast benefits from your decisions disparage the legitimacy of what you do.
It gets worse. Few people really understand how you make your decisions. Far from acting arbitrarily, you apply statistical tools to a wide range of data when you compile your rankings (for that is what you do at your job). That means you have relatively little discretion in how you rank universities and graduate schools (for that is what you rank). You thus suffer the responsibilities of power without enjoying many of the perks.
That, I think, pretty well summarizes the job of the fellow at U.S. News and World Reports who heads that magazine's efforts to rank educational programs. I've been spending a lot of time poring over the law school rankings of late, trying to figure out just what how the U.S. News & World Report ends up with the rankings it does. After much befuddlement, I decided to go straight to the source. It proved surprisingly easy. I simply called the magazine, asked to get put through to Mr. X (as I will call him, so as to protect him from further harassment), and picked up my jaw when he picked up his phone.
My jaw fell not only because Mr. X actually took my call, but because he had one of the saddest voices I have ever heard. We exchanged a couple of calls and many emails after that, and so far as I could peg the guy's mood it didn't change much. Granted, he may have been suffering from some recent and unfortunate news. Some of the things he said about his critics led me to conclude, however, that he must feel down quite often. And, granted, he might just have a disposition to feel that way. But the more I thought about his job, the more I began to sympathize with him.
Would you want a job ranking law schools? I don't think you should. You wouldn't really enjoy a great deal of power, given your task of objectively applying dispassionate formulae, and even those you rate highly would disparage your efforts. So pity Mr. X, a fellow whose job cannot rank among the happiest.