Reflections on the Plan


By now, the news has settled in. Harvard Law will be a different place next year. The Strategic Plan has reformed the first year classroom experience, it will provide more money for financial aid, it will lead to the hiring of several new faculty members. Criticism of the finalized plan has been muted – after all, who could argue against radical reforms like seven law colleges? Well, I could for one. Not that the Strategic Plan is riddled with flaws, because it isn’t. Yet a study of the planning process reveals the following facts: student input was never a driving force; the pursuit of money dictated the ultimate structure of the plan; and the final goal of the plan may never be known, since secrecy dominated every level of its creation.

Strategic Planning. It sounds like an annual Pentagon exercise, a computer simulation that determines America’s readiness to wage a two-front war. Of course, it’s not. Strategic Planning is the recently concluded effort by faculty, students and administrators to fashion a kinder, gentler Harvard Law School. Officially begun in the fall of 1998, the Strategic Planning process included a student body survey by McKinsey, numerous focus groups, the formation of faculty-student committees and, ultimately, a Plan to address the Law School’s ills.

When I arrived at HLS, late in the summer of 1998, Strategic Planning was in its infancy. The idea existed, but there was little meat on the bones. During the autumn of my first year, five issue-oriented committees were formed, the most prominent of which were the Institutional Life Committee, chaired by Prof. Elizabeth Warren, and the Academic Development Committee, chaired by Prof. Todd Rakoff ’75. Floating above these five committees was the all-knowing, ever-present Steering Committee, chaired by Prof. Dan Meltzer ’75.

Cut to the spring of 1999. The Harvard Law campus is revelling in the annual blooming of minds and bodies that accompanies Earth’s vernal shift. Those were heady days – Clinton had survived a Senate trial, Serbia had yet to feel the laser-guided wrath of NATO, and Gropius dwellers stared at each other’s bodies through translucent shower walls. Hemenway was a joke – there were no lines, but no treadmills, either. In short, there was much to be done.

Then, along came a perfect vehicle for the expression of the collective frustration and dissatisfaction of the student body. Surprise – it wasn’t the RECORD. No, it was a tidy little survey of student satisfaction distributed by the fine folks at McKinsey & Co. The consultants had been hired, at a discount, and had soon collected results from the far-flung corners of HLS.

The findings were not surprising, nor should they have been to anyone who had been paying attention. Students expressed their highest level of dissatisfaction and registered their highest demand for change, with the Law School’s grading system. (An interesting note: the survey results were scaled both in terms of satisfaction and “priority to change.”)

In the deliberations that followed, the various Strategic Planning committees often cited student dissatisfaction with Harvard classrooms – especially class size – as fueling the need for smaller sections. More on this later, but here it is important to point out that students were actually relatively neutral, according to the survey, in their views on classroom size (roughly equating it in satisfaction terms to career services). Oddly, they ranked it second on a list of “priorities to change.” Weird, I know.

One more pause, for those of you keeping score at home. Student participation in the survey, buoyed by the prospect of winning a Palm Pilot, was hardly staggering. Only 43 percent of the student body handed over a survey. Let’s assume that we’re to take the Strategic Planning process at face value. If the McKinsey survey results have truly governed the course of reform, then the HLS of 2010 will be the product of accumulated vitriol from less than one-half of the student body who just happened to be here in the spring of 1999. Revolutions have been based on less, I suppose, but something smells funny.

What happened next? The floods arrived. A deluge of reform proposals dominated RECORD headlines throughout my second year. Students and faculty were positively bubbling over with enthusiasm, as if the McKinsey results had popped the cork on a bottle of optimism and poured each committee member a half-full flute of opportunity. At the end of last year, the final touches were being added to the Strategic Planning’s panoply of proposed reforms – possible changes to the grading system, financial aid, class size … even a call to move the law school to Allston (ahem, the RECORD got scooped on that one, but by the Boston Globe). When I left campus last spring, there was a feeling that some manner of grade reform would pass. Of that, I personally had little doubt.

Then came the fall of my third year. The faculty shot down the Institutional Life Committee’s three-tiered grading system by a vote of 30 to 19 (note that there are at least 75 active faculty members, but that most attend faculty meetings infrequently at best). The five-tiered plan, which was less heralded by students but still relatively innovative, also met death by quorum.

What was eventually adopted was a watered down version of a proposal that originated in the Academic Development Committee – a nonmandatory curve to be aspirationally enforced across courses. This was a disappointment on several levels. First, at a school where faculty members famously flout school rules such as grading deadlines, non-mandatory action of any sort is likely to be meaningless. Second, the faculty failed, or refused, to recognize what students knew and expressed at several town meetings – that the problem was not grading imbalances between classes, but rather arbitrary grading within individual classes. The whole idea of a curve was therefore misguided, whether mandatory or not. Many students were left feeling that nothing at all had been done.

The final Strategic Plan did reduce first year class size. While it won’t impact second-year basic courses (still five bundles, no change there), first year sections will witness a dramatic downsizing. In reducing first year sections from 140 students to 79 (as Dean of Admissions Joyce Curll insists, 79 sounds better than 80), the faculty almost halved the size of first year classes.

Thus, the final Strategic Plan culminated in one glaring omission – grade reform – and one sensational flourish – class size reductions. Oh, yeah, and a $338.5 million price tag – over half of it endowed funding to address the hiring and housing of additional faculty members.

Not one to dwell in the mythical world of happy endings, let me just take a second to deconstruct this multi-million dollar behemoth. My own personal attitudes toward the Strategic Plan have wavered over time, from initial skepticism as a 1L to irrational exuberance as a 2L to cynical frustration as a 3L. Like a fine wine, my opinions have matured with time … let me pour out the dregs.

Depending on which side of the grading debate one supports, the faculty’s failure to pass reform is either shamefully inexcusable or eminently applaudable. Rakoff’s proposal was the butt of many a joke – remember John Fagan’s stand up act about future students receiving grades such as “Way to Go” in Criminal Law – and deservedly so. Any plan that acted in the name of reform while apparently changing nothing of substantive value was doomed. Warren’s plan, on the other hand, diagnosed student disaffection with grading and attempted to precisely excise this tumor of the law school experience. Finding such a treatment too radical, the faculty elected instead for a time-tested remedy – nothing at all.

Thus, the one nearly universal student concern remained unmet. Two costless methods to improve the Harvard Law School world failed to evoke enough faculty sympathy, and silence was the answer instead.

Yet witness the positive faculty response to a change in class size, which
brought with it the need to hire 15 new faculty members over the next decade (that’s net, so we’re talking additional profs to replace ones who retire, die, etc.) What was the faculty motive for such support? At first blush, such a move is very expensive. The Strategic Plan allocates $75 million in endowed funding for the hiring of professors, and another $100 million to house them. Moreover, each new professor dilutes not only the power of each faculty member’s vote, but also the exclusiveness of being a “Harvard Law Professor.” Such a subtitle isn’t bestowed upon just anyone, you know.

Why, then, did the faculty take such a bold step? Student concerns can hardly be the reason, or grade reform would have carried the day. A true cynic might suggest that grade reform doesn’t impact the school’s U.S. News & World Report ranking, but student/faculty ratio sure does. So, for that matter, does financial aid (which got a $20 million boost in the Strategic Plan) and overall per student spending. With Columbia nipping at fair Harvard’s heels in the law rankings, maybe this fact resonated in the hearts and minds of the faculty reformers.

Yet the U.S. News rankings don’t address the whole story. The faculty did, after all, reject an attempt to cut the entering class size by 100 students. Perhaps that was too overt, perhaps it was simply a revolutionary move that hadn’t sufficient time to percolate in the faculty.

Nonetheless, a glaring fact pervades all of the Strategic Plan. What won out in the end was the institution – more money (and a chance for Dean Clark to shake loose another chunk of alumni change), more faculty, more buildings. Smaller classes, but the same grades. HLS scored a bunch of touchdowns, millions of them in fact, but the students had to settle for a few measly field goals.

The great ship of Harvard Law will steam on for another century. With money to burn, and a crew to steer it, that fact is not in dispute. The course has been plotted. Only one thing changes on the Law Boat, however. A set of passengers purchased the ticket, another set of passengers boarded the ship, and still yet another will arrive at the destination. Whether it will be what they want, though, is anyone’s guess.

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