HLS Adopts Pass/Fail System

Four-tiered grade system puts Harvard closer to law schools at Yale, Stanford

Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan announced Friday that the current letter grading scale would be replaced by a simpler pass-fail system, beginning with students who matriculate in 2009.

The current system encompasses nine categories at half-letter intervals from A+ to B- and also includes C, D, and F. In contrast, the new grading scheme—similar to those at Yale and Stanford—will categorize student performances as “Honors” (A+ to A-), “Pass” (B+ to B), “Low Pass” (B- to D), and “Fail.”

“What we most wanted to do was decrease the number of categories we were using,” Kagan said in an e-mail to the student body. Kagan said that she hopes the change will “promote pedagogical excellence and innovation and further strengthen the intellectual community” at the Law School.

The decision came out of a faculty meeting devoted to the issue in the spring and the work of a special committee formed over the summer.

The faculty also authorized Kagan to devise a possible plan for implementing the new grading scheme for current students. The Law School will hold a town hall meeting on Thursday for students to express their views on a transition phase.

According to Richard H. Fallon, a professor at the Law School, the faculty raised concerns over the extent to which the new system will blur academic distinctions among students. Since Harvard is more than twice the size of both Stanford and Yale, many more students will graduate with similar-looking academic records.

That perspective was echoed by Stanford Law School Dean Larry D. Kramer, who said in an e-mail that he worries “whether this will work as well at Harvard.”

“We are a smaller school than Harvard, and that will make it a little easier for employers to distinguish among students,” Kramer said.

Apart from the job search, grades can also be a factor in admission to the Harvard Law Review, a student-run publication that is considered prestigious to edit.

“There won’t be as much variation [in grades], so it’ll be harder to pick out the best people,” said Robert W. Allen, the current president of the Law Review.

Law School students expressed mixed views on the new grading scheme. Several said they felt it was unlikely to change their peers’ study habits or employment prospects.

“When you come here, you’re told you’ll get a job, that you’ll be fine,” said Faina Shalts, a first-year law student. “But it does take some pressure off people who would otherwise be freaked out over a B+ versus an A-, and lets them think about joining a journal or a clinic.”

But first-year law student Elizabeth P. Benton said that some students felt the simplified grading system could disadvantage women or minorities in the job hunt—both those applying for jobs at law firms and those who are seeking clerkships for judges—since objective comparisons of job candidates will become more difficult.

“It’s going to depend more on your ability to network and your connections,” she said.

While this move was seen by many to re-align Harvard with the policies at two other top law schools, Jacob Eisler, a second-year student, said he was concerned at Harvard’s willingness to conform.

“I’m a little worried that we’re trying too hard to imitate Yale,” Eisler said.

—Staff writer Athena Y. Jiang can be reached at ajiang@fas.harvard.edu.