Grading has emerged as a flash point of discord at law schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, with students and faculty pushing administrators to choose between traditional grades and a pass/fail system.
The University of Chicago Law School on Tuesday became the first among the top 10 schools, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, to tell students that it plans to stick with its traditional grading scale for the spring semester, instead of moving to pass/fail grading. That decision comes in contrast to a growing number of elite schools that have already committed to pass/fail grades for the spring semester or winter quarters, including Yale Law School, Stanford Law School; Harvard Law School; Columbia Law School; the University of Virginia School of Law; the University of Pennsylvania School of Law; the University of California, Berkeley School of Law; and the University of Michigan, which is allowing students to choose whether they want to stick with the traditional grading scale or go pass/fail.
Meanwhile, law professors have taken to blogs and other outlets to debate the issue. Some are arguing that pass/fail grading is the most humane approach during this deeply unsettling time, while others say that students must learn to prevail amid adverse conditions. The issue is particularly fraught given that grades and class ranking play a huge role in law students’ employment and co-curricular opportunities, such as law review eligibility.
“As we approach the new quarter, I and our faculty and administrators have given a great deal of thought to how to approach grading in a world where it is critically important that we continue to deliver excellent education,” wrote Chicago Law Dean Thomas Miles in an email to students Tuesday. “To that end, we intend at this time to maintain the status quo on grades at the Law School for the spring quarter. We will continue to watch developments in the next few weeks, and will make adjustments if the situation warrants.”
Miles wrote that student input at Chicago and other law schools was “sharply divided” over grading this semester, and that he took their comments and feedback from the faculty into consideration when making the decision to maintain letter grades. Chicago is in a better position to maintain its grading system than many other schools because of its small size, because it will begin a new quarter next week, and because its faculty has had more time than most to prepare for online classes, Miles wrote.
That decision has angered many Chicago law students, who argue that the coronavirus pandemic will impact students differently. Those caring for children, for instance, won’t have the same bandwidth as childless classmates to study. And students who are at risk of major complications from COVID-19 face more complications and stressors than classmates with no preexisting conditions. More than 200 Chicago law students signed an open letter to Miles asking the school to adopt a pass/fail grading system for the upcoming semester.
“People are very pissed,” said a third-year Chicago law student Wednesday, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern that she would face retribution from the school for speaking out. “Mainly, people are pissed at Chicago because the administration doesn’t seem to really care about how this is going to disparately impact people—whether it’s lower socio-economic classes, those caring for loved ones, or those who just don’t have reliable Internet.”
Chicago students are also worried about their school acting out of step with its peers, and how that might influence the job market, the 3L said. If all the top schools adopt pass/fail grading systems, then all students would be on an even playing field on the summer associate hiring front, they noted.
A much smaller group of Chicago law students signed a counterpetition in favor of maintaining some form of the traditional grading system, citing a desire to have letter grades for 2L summer employment purposes and to ensure high-quality class participation.
“Many students chose to attend the law school due to the balance struck between collaboration and incentives for personal academic growth,” the counterpetition reads. “We worry a mandatory pass/fail grading system would disrupt that balance by reducing class participation and lowering the quality of discussion.”
But a growing push to move the summer associate interview cycle back from late July and early August into January 2021 may relieve some of the pressure law schools feel to maintain their traditional grading systems. Columbia Law School—the school that traditionally sends the highest percentage of graduates into associate jobs at large firms—earlier this week told students that its on-campus interview program will now take place in January. Chicago has also told students that OCI has been pushed back from this summer, though it has not specified the new timeline. Columbia administrators said law firms asked for the delay in summer associate hiring, which will allow them to look at two semesters of traditional grades for candidates. Additionally, it will give firms more time to assess their upcoming hiring needs, as the pandemic has upended their operations.
And at least one major law firm—Hogan Lovells—has released a statement reassuring law students that pass/fail grades will not be held against them in the summer associate hiring process.
Harvard Law School saw firsthand how sensitive the grading issue is. Less than a week after announcing that students would be able to opt for traditional grades or pass/fail grading, the school reversed course and made grades mandatory pass/fail. Harvard law students advocated for the mandatory system, arguing that faculty were advising them behind closed doors to not take the pass/fail option. Forcing students to choose puts the students who are struggling the most with coronavirus-related challenges in an unenviable position, they argued.
Some students at the University of Michigan Law School are now making similar arguments, as the school has adopted an optional pass/fail system.
“Academic performance this semester will be based on an inequitable and unpredictable playing field, dictated by COVID-19 and its asymmetrical effects on our student body,” reads a student petition in favor of a mandatory pass/fail system. “Many students reasonably want the ‘opportunity to succeed’ this semester, a chance to demonstrate academic improvement through their grades. However, the material conditions of our learning have unfortunately become too disparate; it would be wrong to rely on and trust in a letter grading system this semester.”
But the student body is split on the matter, with some preferring to have a choice on how they are graded. They have circulated a counterpetition arguing in favor of sticking with the grading scheme that has been announced.
Meanwhile, law professors also are at odds over the right way to handle grades among the pandemic. Noah Zatz, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, posted a letter on Facebook that he sent to his faculty colleagues about grading, which advocates for a mandatory pass/fail scheme.
“I have heard from students struggling with mental health difficulties exacerbated by stress, isolation, and worry,” Zatz wrote. “I have heard from students relocating across the country to be with family members who are extremely vulnerable, for whom they are terrified, and with whom they confess they will find it very difficult to live in close proximity, despite their love. I have heard from students in precarious economic circumstances whose ability to study has been seriously disrupted by loss of access to the library, both as a physical space in which to study relative to their marginal housing situation and as a way to access books, and who lack reliable internet access from home.”
At the same time, some students have told Zatz that they have been relatively insulated from the effects of COVID-19. Assessing students facing such drastically different circumstances with letter grades will only exacerbate the stress and anxiety of the students who are already struggling, he wrote. (As of Wednesday morning, UCLA Law had not announced how it will handle grades this semester.)
Others have argued that law schools should maintain their grading curve. Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law—Houston, wrote on the Volokh Conspiracy blog that grades help identify which students are struggling and need more academic support or are in danger of failing the bar exam. This is particularly true at non-elite schools, he noted. And law students should learn that lawyers cannot abandon their responsibilities, even amid a pandemic.
Blackman said in a subsequent post that other law professors have reached out to say that they agree with his arguments.
Still, it’s looking more likely that Chicago and other law schools that do not adopt new grading systems will be outliers, as each day brings more announcements of law schools moving to pass/fail.
Duke law professor James Coleman last week sought to reassure students in his criminal law class, noting that many universities canceled the spring semester or went pass/fail during his senior year of college, in 1970, due to protests over the Vietnam War. (Duke is among the law schools that have moved to pass/fail grading.) That change had little long-term impact on him and his classmates, beyond turning some into life-long activists, he noted.
“I don’t know how you feel about the law school’s decision to grade all courses credit/no credit,” Coleman wrote. “But I hope none of you agonizes over it. In the long run, it will have no effect on your career.”