Hey! Look at that! Looks like University of Chicago Law School has at last caught up with the rest of the elite law schools and instituted mandatory pass/fail grades. Because, you know, there’s a GLOBAL PANDEMIC going on and there are actually more important things than law school grades right now.
As you may recall, two weeks ago (Oh God, was it only two weeks ago? It seems forever ago.) Dean Tom Miles announced that the school was maintaining letter grades and their curve. Student reaction was anything but supportive — indeed a petition, signed by 300+ current law students urged the administration to change course. And today Dean Miles sent an email to students letting them know that, for this quarter, the law school is moving to pass/fail.
Dean Miles’s email:
On March 24th, I let you know that we would begin the term with the status quo on grading practices, and that we would continue to watch developments and make adjustments if the situation warranted. After much deliberation, the Law School will adopt a mandatory Emergency Pass/Emergency Fail grading scale for the Spring Quarter of 2020.
This policy was reached after much discussion among the faculty. Thoughtful and insightful input from students, employers, administrators, and accreditors, as well as the experience of our first week of remote teaching, informed these discussions. I appreciate the many students who wrote to me and others to express their preferences and offer suggestions. Views on this question varied widely, and there were many creative ideas for alternative approaches. The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented circumstance that presented equities and interests that are difficult to balance. It is clear that no solution will be perfect.
This decision will disappoint many students. The opportunity to receive grades under the Law School’s usual system was important to many students as they pursue personal and professional goals. For some students, the grading system factored into their academic plans over quarters and years.
These considerations must be weighed against the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has significantly altered the personal lives and living circumstances of many students. The unexpected and significant burdens of illness, family care, and economic distress threaten some students’ ability to participate in academic life in the usual ways. Any time our students face personal challenges, we seek to make individualized accommodations to allow them to continue their studies. It has become clear over the past two weeks that the extension of stay-at-home orders, the substantial uncertainty of the duration of the crisis, and the unusual need for accommodations make this school-wide change a compassionate step.
The Law School remains dedicated to a distinctive and empowering legal education. Our faculty holds itself and our students to a high academic standard, and our usual grading system is, in our normal operation, an important means of providing feedback to students on their academic progress. It has never been our only means of doing so, and during the Spring Quarter, we will continue our other ways of offering students meaningful feedback. The Law School’s commitment to academic excellence is an enduring value, and our temporary suspension of our usual grading practices will not diminish it.
I hope that the first week of Spring Quarter has demonstrated that the excitement and power of teaching at the Law School will be just as great in the remote format as they are in person. We wish that we could convene with you in our usual classrooms and clinic rooms. Our faculty have been working hard to transition to remote teaching, and I know that under the circumstances, you will bring your usual insights and thoughtfulness to class discussions, too. Our learning in Spring Quarter can be just as satisfying and engaging as it usually is, regardless of the technology or grading policy.
Even with the suspension of our usual grading practices, Spring Quarter may present challenges for students. The Law School will continue to offer new ways of making class content accessible to students who are navigating unanticipated obstacles. For example, recordings of each class will be available in Canvas, and many faculty have adjusted their methods for class participation. Students who are in need of accommodations or assistance will continue to work with Dean Todd and his team as you always have when the need arises. We also look forward to remaining connected with you through virtual coffee messes, student roundtables, and other events.
Irrespective of the grading policy, I know that many of you are concerned about the impact of the pandemic on your careers. The Law School will, of course, support you during this uncertain time as we always do. Our faculty will recommend you as enthusiastically as ever, and our Office of Career Services will provide its signature individualized guidance and extensive programming.
There will be questions on how the mandatory Emergency Pass/Emergency Fail system for Spring Quarter will apply in specific instances, and more details on the implementation of this policy will follow shortly. If this change influences your choice of courses in Spring Quarter, remember that the Add/Drop deadline is Friday, April 10, 2020 at 5:00 PM.
You have my best wishes for an intellectually engaging Spring Quarter and especially for safety and good health.
So now students at Chicago can take a sigh of relief, without worrying that balancing the craziness of COVID-19 with law school will tank their GPA. And yes, even with a semester of pass/fail grades, they can get a job.
Kathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, and host of The Jabot podcast. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).
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