A revamped grading system, smaller classes and more professors may
be the University's responses to a Harvard Law School (HLS) study conducted last year by the McKinsey consulting firm.
The results of the survey were far from flattering, as students and graduates criticized the school for its lack of focus on core educational issues--class size, faculty interaction and fair grading.
But while Law School administrators are listening to its student's complaints, its level of response is still unclear.
Dean of Faculty at the Law School Robert C. Clark says the McKinsey report, despite its negative tone, was no surprise to the HLS administration. He and his colleagues have had plans for reform in the works for several years, he says.
"Harvard Law School is the Queen Elizabeth--no one thing is going to change its direction," says Gottlieb Professor of Law Elizabeth Warren, who chairs the Institutional Life Committee (ILC), which deals with student life issues.
But even an ocean liner can change course, and in fall 1998, HLS launched the Strategic Planning Initiative (SPI) to chart the school's course in the coming years--a strategy Clark says incorporated improvement in student quality-of-life issues. The SPI is divided into five subcommittees, composed of professors, students and members of the administration.
But any significant changes will require more fundraising, administrators say, and the results of the McKinsey study should provide a persuasive argument for donors to reach once again into their pockets.
Making the Grade
HLS's grading system emerged as the major student concern in the study. While Yale Law School uses an expanded pass/fail system, HLS has always chosen to give students letter grades ranging from A+ to F.
"The McKinsey [report] persuaded more people to be interested in this issue," Warren says. "I think my committee is enthusiastic about making significant changes in the grading system."
ILC is considering a proposal that would eliminate letter grades and move to pass/fail in the first semester of law school and then fail/low pass/pass/high pass for the following semesters, according to a source close to the law school.
The grade system would operate on a fixed curve, with about 10 to 20 percent of students receiving a high pass, the same percentage a low pass and the majority a pass, the source says.
The system at Yale is slightly different. Students receive honors/pass/low pass/ failing grade, but all first year students are graded solely on a pass/fail scale.
Second-year HLS student Justin S. Cooper, who is a member of ILC, says there are several reasons for not considering extending the simple pass/fail grading to the entire first year.
"If students don't know how to take a law school exam, [a pass-fail system] can take a lot of pressure off," Cooper says. But, he says, an entire year of pass/fail grades could put students at a disadvantage when they begin interviewing for jobs in the fall of their second year.
Cooper says students have little faith in the grading process as it stands now.
"Most students don't have confidence in grades, anyway," he says. Many students feel that a single exam grade is not enough of a feedback for a semester's worth of work, according to Cooper.
"Too many grades that are given rely on one exam, where there are no TFs. It's absurd to ask one professor to grade 140 exams," he says.
More Professors Please
While the pass/fail system in the first semester would make the transition to law school smoother, students say more attention from their professors is equally essential--a sentiment strongly expressed in the survey.
And while the administration is seriously considering the grading issue, a proposal to increase the number of professors is not being drafted.
Third-year law student Manoj S. Mate, who is the president of the Law School Council and a member of the SPI steering committee, says class size is one of the most important changes HLS will need to make in the coming years.
"Students have problems in large classes," Mate says, pointing out the lack of student-faculty interaction is magnified in the academically intense environment of the law school.
Many students are unhappy about a lack of feedback from their professors and often feel lost in classes with over 140 people, Cooper says.
But Clark points out that HLS's large size provides students with resources they would not have access to at smaller institutions.
"It's wrong to keep focusing on the ratio," Clark says. "The real strength of Harvard is that it is an academic metropolis with many magnificent neighborhoods."
Nevertheless, the student-faculty ratio at Harvard is several times higher than at other top-ranked schools such as Yale, Stanford, New York University, Cornell, University of Chicago and University of Virginia, according to the 1999 U.S. News and World Report law school rankings.
Harvard's 20-1 student-faculty ratio is the highest of the top 25 law schools in the nation, according to the magazine.
"The appalling thing is how out of whack our student-faculty ratio is compared to other law schools," Cooper says.
Smaller is Better
Class size reduction is a multi-faceted issue, Clark says, that may involve shifting resources or hiring new faculty or a combination of both.
HLS has been trying to attract more professors since 1989, according to Clark, not just in response to students' needs but to add "more intellectual horsepower in various academic fields," including intellectual and cyberspace law.
Story Professor of Law Daniel J. Meltzer, who chairs the SPI steering committee, says that the school needs to recruit more faculty to some of its departments.
"My own view is that for many reasons, the school would be strengthened by an increase in faculty," Meltzer writes in an e-mail message. "That would reduce the student-faculty ratio and permit smaller classes."
"[Hiring new faculty] would also permit us to expand our teaching program; though we offer a broader set of course offerings than any other law school, there remain areas where we would like to do better still," Meltzer writes.
A source close to the committee says the ILC is considering a proposal to add a second smaller section to a first-year's course load of one elective, four large courses and a small section. Clark says establishing the second small section can be accomplished without a large change to the overall student-faculty ratio at HLS.
The large courses have about 140 people, while smaller sections are 45 people at most, according to Cooper. Cooper says most students like the increased interaction and personal attention offered by the smaller sections.
Shifting resources from other courses, hiring several new faculty and encouraging professors who teach higher level courses to teach in smaller sections can all be part of the solution, according to Clark.
While both administrators and students promote an increase in faculty, both sides recognize the difficulties of significantly increasing the number of professors.
Clark says at his appointment as dean, he set as a goal to increase the faculty by 12 members before 2000. That goal, he notes, has been met in full--and even surpassed by three more. But five of those professors, according to Clark, were current faculty who were not forced to retire.
Mate points out that retiring faculty members make it necessary to hire new ones at a faster rate.
"The law school is going to have no choice but to hire new professors--a lot of professors are retiring," says Mate. "Hiring new professors just covers the turnover rate."
Clark says that an increase in faculty is nevertheless underway, but that it will not be evident for several years.
"It takes time, but it's certainly possible to get an increase of two or three faculty members a year," Clark says. "But it's not realistic to think one can [increase faculty significantly] in two or three years."
None of these new initiatives come without costs, and Clark says a large fundraising drive is on the horizon.
"There will be a major concerted effort to raise significant new money," Clark says. "I think it's fair to say that in the next few years we will have a large-scale fundraising initiative. Whether or not we will call it a campaign remains to be seen."
Reforming financial aid, improving student facilities and expanding research at HLS are all proposals that will require significant funds to fulfill, according to Mate.
The law school finished its most recent capital campaign in June of 1995, and many of the funds raised went towards enhancing physical facilities at HLS such as Langdell Library.
Clark says that current proposals focus increasingly on student need, such as improvement to student housing, student office spaces and athletic facilities that were highlighted in the McKinsey report.
But administrators say the money and change are worth it because the report and its results prompted students and faculty to talk openly with each other.
"The very fact that we're out there asking questions has changed the environment already," Warren says.
Cooper says although there is not a widespread awareness of STI and its plans among students on campus, there are signs that the law school is engaging in a dynamic discourse.
"I think that people who are involved on campus recognize that there is a moment of reflection and possible change on campus," he says.