BY MATT HUTCHINS
The recent announcement that the incoming Class of 2012 would be graded according to a Pass/Fail system sent shockwaves through Harvard Law School last week as current students debated whether the same system should apply to their own classes. Dean Kagan addressed these concerns at a town hall meeting on Thursday, October 2nd, providing some details about the proposed system and opening the floor to students to voice their opinions regarding its application to current students.
Dean Kagan explained that the new system, which was unanimously approved by the faculty, would contain only four grading levels: High Pass, Pass, Low Pass, and Fail. According to Kagan, similar proposals have been under consideration for a long time, and that about eighty percent of the faculty had already agreed that it was time for a change as recently as this past spring. The professors, Kagan admitted, believe that the old grading system forced them to “slice the bologna a little too thinly” and often led to arbitrary distinctions between students whose work was not significantly different. The faculty hopes the new grading system will reduce the students’ concern over grades and allow them to concentrate on intellectual engagement with the law rather than test preparation. Above all, Kagan emphasized that the change is aimed at fostering a more open and collaborative academic community among the student body as well as pedagogical innovation and excellence.
The Dean assured students that although the new system will be no more transparent than the old system, it will be administered by a set of shared norms. She rebuffed the concern that the new system would be a “no grade system” and expressed the sentiment that students will still be able to distinguish themselves. In addition, she explained that professors will be allowed to offer prizes to exceptional exam papers, but such prizes would not be required and would be limited to only two per course.
With regard to the application of a new system to current students, the Dean stated that she is predisposed toward having it apply to 1L’s, given that they have no existing transcript, and that it should not apply to 3L’s, due to the potential confusion which could result from two systems being present on transcripts. The students present seemed to mirror Kagan’s opinions, with the overwhelming majority of 1L’s supporting the change and the 3L’s predominantly expressing opposition. Kagan expressed uncertainty regarding the application of a new grading system to 2L’s, recognizing that although the first year of grades is less than half the full academic record, there could be serious concerns about a change in mid-course. She expressed agreement with students who were concerned that poor grades in the first year would be difficult to offset with grades under a new system in the second and third years, as well as with the argument that any change for currently enrolled students could upset their choices in course selection which were made with the expectation of being evaluated under the current grading system.
Several students pointed to the grading system as a point of distinction which had informed their decision to attend HLS, and also expressed concern that the new system would interfere with students’ ability to demonstrate their talents to employers. Dean Kagan reassured those present that many law firms and judges who hire clerks from Harvard were consulted during the course of the faculty’s deliberations, and that there was a consensus that a change in grading would not impede the ability of Harvard students to distinguish themselves. Other students expressed concern that without a broad spectrum of grades to differentiate students, extracurricular activities would become a more important criteria in the hiring process, and that by extension there could be greater competition for positions on student run journals and organizations. Dean Kagan agreed that extracurriculars may play a more important role in the hiring process, but she expressed doubt that anyone who joined more organizations just to pad their resume could rise to a position of authority without being genuinely interested in participating.
Dean Kagan encouraged 2L’s to submit their comments on the new system, and indicated that a final decision regarding its application to current students would be made in adequate time to allow for the registrar to implement the change for this term. If the ultimate result is that there is a mixture of students using each grading system in the same courses, there should be no difficulty for professors in grading the two sets of exams separately and administering the appropriate set of norms for the two systems.