"Sextonism," after former NYU Law School Dean John Sexton (now President of NYU), is a disease familiar to law faculty, in which a good school suddenly lapses in to uncontrolled and utterly laughable hyperbole in describing its faculty and accomplishments to its professional peers. The NYU alumni magazine, which was sent to all law faculty nationwide, was so plagued by Sextonism that a Stanford professor memorably dubbed it "law porn."
Alas, another fine school appears to be stricken now: UCLA (whose new Dean, Michael Schill, has just moved from NYU--a fact which may simply be coincidental). A brochure has just arrived in faculty mailboxes nationwide announcing UCLA's "new faculty" hires--a good set of hires, as I've noted on two different occasions (here and here)--yet the brochure then spoils this fine accomplishment by placing it under the banner of the following laugh-out-loud proclamation:
"UCLA School of Law is emerging as the strongest law faculty in the United States."
What? What about Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, Columbia, NYU? Not close. What about Michigan, Virginia, Texas, Penn, Berkeley, Georgetown? Perhaps competitive in some ways, in other ways clearly not. I will say this: it seems to me, and I expect other informed observers, that UCLA has a clear edge now over Northwestern, Cornell, and USC (as well as Duke, of course).
By a reliable measure of faculty quality UCLA ranked 14th before these appointments, and by an unreliable measure, it ranked 16th (in "reputation" among academics). The new appointments are, indeed, good ones, and together with recent losses at Cornell, Northwestern, and USC give UCLA a realistic shot at the top ten.
But "the strongest law faculty in the United States"! Yikes, that is embarrassing.
If you spot other outbreaks of Sextonism at law schools in your neighborhood, do let me know! And, happily, there is an effective treatment for Sextonism: perspective and restraint.
UPDATE: Tad Brennan (Philosophy, Northwestern) points out to me that I'm reading the UCLA brochure the wrong way:
"You don't appreciate the meaning of the word 'emerging.' 'UCLA School of Law is *emerging* as the strongest law faculty in the United States' has to be understood in line with such statements as:
"'Saddam Hussein was an *emerging* threat to the United States.'
"In other words, it's roughly a negation-operator, as in: 'Three is an *emerging* even number.'
"Now does it make better sense?"
To which I add: yes! Thank goodness for philosophers.