Faculty approve new grading system


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Will HLS’s new grading system be less arbitrary – or more?

In an email to the Harvard Law School community on the afternoon of Friday, September 26, Dean Elena Kagan announced that the faculty had voted to move to an Honors-Pass-Low Pass-Fail grading system similar to those at Yale and Stanford Law Schools. The new system will be implemented for students entering with the Class of 2012 in Fall 2009; it remains undecided whether the changes will apply to any current students.

Prior to Friday’s announcement, HLS’ traditional grading policy had been a frequent mark of distinction in its admissions battles with law school rivals Yale and Stanford, the latter of which adopted the grading policy this past June. At admitted students’ events, Kagan and other members of the Law School administration would emphasize the fact that law firms interviewing at Yale and Stanford would make hiring decisions on the basis of the Honors-Pass distinction rather than the difference between an A or a B. However, in last week’s email, the Dean appeared to have changed her view on the value of grades. “The faculty believes that this decision will promote pedagogical excellence and innovation and further strengthen the intellectual community in which we all live.” Some commentators noted that the attractiveness of other grading systems for prospective law students may have motivated Harvard’s switch.

University of Chicago law professor and blogger Brian Leiter noted on his website that the school “presumably…has evidence that the grading system is a factor when students choose between Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. But Harvard’s move is also going to force Chicago and Columbia, among others, to weigh the question of grading. Harvard, with a much larger class, may need a real curve so that [its] new A, B, C, F system provides employers some pertinent information.”

Others believed that the change was motivated more by its potential effect on the social and intellectual atmosphere of HLS. Paul W. Williams Professor of Criminal Justice Richard Parker, who voted in favor of the change and has been a proponent of grade reform since the since 1970s, stated, “grades have tended to produce counterproductive hierarchies in the social and academic life of the community and in the minds of students.”?Parker referenced the fact that the Harvard Law Review, admission to which was based solely on first -year grades prior to the class of 1970, had its own reserved table in Langdell.

Faculty discussion of Harvard’s grading system began last year and included, according to Dean Kagan, consultations with groups of students, alumni, and other employers, though the extent of student participation in the discussion was far from clear according to Record sources.

The Dean held a Town Hall panel on the grading changes on Thursday, October 2, in Austin Hall North. She offered additional details about the grade change, stating that the faculty’s decision had been anonymous (last year, 80% of the faculty supported the change). The Dean was leaning toward implementing the new system for 1Ls only, and was definitively against extending it to the 3L level. Under the new system, she said, professors would be able to issue discretionary prizes to students who completed truly extraordinary exams, although no more than two could be awarded per class. Shared norms would govern the system, but it would not be any more transparent than the current regime. The Dean declined to make any further comments to the Record until after the event.

For updates throughout the week and to comment on the grade change, visit www.hlrecord.org.

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