Top Law School Sparks Controversy For Maintaining Grading Curve During COVID-19

Living in the midst of a global pandemic is stressful. Misinformation abounds, purchasing toilet paper feels like a victory, and the coronavirus continues to wreak its devastation. Faced with unprecedented circumstances, law school educators are doing their best to make online education a thing, and students are, perhaps rightly, concerned about the potential impact on their GPAs.

The trend, particularly among elite law schools, has been to move to pass/fail grading. It takes some of the pressure off of students who are dealing with a whole host of real world ish that makes learning the rule against perpetuities even more challenging than usual. But it is not without its negative consequences. As long as the timetable for Biglaw summer associate jobs remains the same (interviewing begins in summer/fall), students at schools that implement pass/fail systems will be judged solely on one semester’s grades, a move that can dramatically impact the summer associate opportunities students have. (Note: Columbia Law has moved their on-campus interview program to January 2021 to give students a second semester of grades to show Biglaw firms.)

But despite potential issues, pass/fail seems to be where top law schools are going. As Berkeley Law dean Erwin Chemerinsky said, the pass/fail system is the “fairest, most compassionate, and most equitable” way to deal with the upheaval surrounding COVID-19.

But that’s not what’s happening at University of Chicago Law School. The law school, which is on a quarter system and about to start spring quarter, announced yesterday they were keeping the curve — at least for now. From Dean Tom Miles’s email announcing the policy:

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. 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.

I sincerely hope that the many steps that have been taken both at our University and around the world will help to “flatten the curve” and hasten the end of this difficult period. I hope that our online learning environment will quickly become comfortable for everyone involved and that its growing familiarity will make this decision about grading feel like just another part of that. One of the benefits of being part of a small, intimate community is that we can adjust swiftly if that proves not to be the case.

And the immediate response Above the Law has received from students there has not been positive:

UChicago Law admin just told us they’re keeping standard grading system in place for spring quarter. We’re now the only T6 school to still have grades. Please expose them for continuing to be the most out of touch law school in the country.

Another tipster pointed us to a petition — signed by 247 law students — which pointed out that as a school on a quarter system, Chicago Law students already have two sets of grades available for recruitment purposes and that students who are already dealing with the biggest impacts from the pandemic are the most disadvantaged by keeping the curve:

We understand that this switch may complicate calculations for scholarship awards, journal placement, and rankings. However, we believe this impact is outweighed by the number of students who will be disproportionately affected by this grave and evolving situation. Due to the nature of our quarter system, all students already have two or more quarters of standard-issue grades under the current system. However, many students may not have the time or capacity to think about class rank or graduation awards in the midst of this international pandemic. Furthermore, under the current system, students have reason to be unsure about health and academic outcomes if they contract the virus. This is particularly concerning for our peers who have chronic illnesses, are immunocompromised, and may need to take more protective measures than others. There are also many students, some with disabilities, who have voiced that the adjustment to distance learning has further complicated challenges they already face with concentration and other aspects of the traditional classroom environment. Some of these issues may also apply to students forced to return home to a different time zone. These concerns are exacerbated by the expectation of live classes and the agreement clause included in the Law School survey administered to assess remote teaching needs, which prohibits students from downloading or personally recording any online lectures.

Tipsters also pointed to the perceived lack of compassion in the law school’s announcement:

[T]he law school sent out an email today that is summed up by: “We don’t see how any of you could be facing challenges severe enough to merit any change to the law school curve. If more people contract the virus and die, we may reassess.” They are also committed to making case-by-case exceptions even when students with disabilities and other disadvantages know they cannot rely on the “kindness” or “empathy” of professors. Exams are, after all, graded blindly and on a nondiscretionary curve.

And they had pithy comments about the competitive concerns about the job market:

Clearly, UChicago knows something they don’t or has very little faith in its students to stand out in the job market (the #1 concern of admin and faculty) without arbitrarily assigned numbers.

While it’s undoubtedly a difficult situation, the comments we’ve received so far show the members of the Chicago admin have put their finger on the wrong side of the scale. But we haven’t heard from everyone. Are you at Chicago (or another law school keeping grading the same amid COVID-19)? Feel free to sound off by email, by text message (646-820-8477), or by tweet (@ATLblog). A fun or insightful response — we’ll keep you anonymous — could find its way into an update to this story.

Read the full email from the dean on the next page.

headshotKathryn 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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