BY CLINTON DICK
Dean-designate Elena Kagan held a town hall meeting on Thursday with over fifty Harvard Law School students. While the crowd only half filled the Austin East classroom, it was clear these students were not just passive listeners, but came with specific concerns about curriculum, student accommodations, exams and grading. After a dean selection process that left many students feeling disengaged, Kagan’s remarks that she would like to continue to host town hall meetings at least once a semester is a welcome opportunity for students to at least voice their concerns directly to the dean.
One student took the open forum opportunity to challenge Kagan about curriculum change. “Should law school continue to be three years? Should we teach property in the first year,” he asked
“That is something that is absolutely right,” Kagan said about the need to reexamine the curriculum. “Law Schools are structured in the same way they were in 1870 and little has changed since. Christopher Columbus Langdell was a hell of a smart guy but what he thought in 1870 does not hold up completely today,” referring to the nineteenth century dean of HLS who introduced the case method in the study of law.
Another student was concerned about the one exam approach to law courses, saying, “There are certain classes where they do give you multiple tests and homework assignments” and it seems plausible that other professors could do the same.
“The reason why we only have one exam is because we don’t have a middle strata” of teacher’s assistants who can do a lot of the grading, Kagan said. “Because we have a rule that all professors have to do their own grading, no professor in his or her right mind is going to do more than one exam.” Kagan explained that first year professors were told that since class sizes had been reduced they have to do more than give just one exam. She admitted, however, that some professors probably do not take that requirement too seriously.
One question that may not have been on Kagan’s radar had to do with students mocking other students who frequently speak in class (a.k.a. gunners). “I do have a sense that people who talk in class are mocked, and sometimes these people do deserve a little bit,” Kagan commented, drawing knowing laughter from the audience. “But I think that type of mocking far outstrips what is deserved.”
The soon-to-be dean also wondered why students at HLS were embarrassed to admit they were engrossed in the law or found it intellectually challenging. “I do think that we have to find a way of creating a stronger intellectual community and a stronger intellectual sub-community at this school.”
Other students raised concerns about inadequate facilities for mothers, S.J.D. students who felt partially disengaged from the Law School community and the need to bring more international law and environmental law to the classroom.
At one point Kagan proved she valued a democratic approach to criticism when she took a vote of how many in the room thought First Year Lawyering was excellent, decent or a disaster. About half the students voted for decent, while a slight majority of the remaining voters chose disaster. Six students chose excellent. From other student comments Kagan said she was confident that FYL itself was not a disaster, only that needed changes should be considered.
The room was also split as to whether the winter term was a disaster. Kagan admitted that “calendar reform is not top priority” on her list of things to do, however.
Editor’s Note: This article did not originally appear in the printed edition of the paper, but was posted on April 25, 2003.