Listen to the Experts

Last fall, responding to abnormally high levels of student dissatisfaction, Harvard Law School (HLS) commissioned McKinsey & Co. to survey disgruntled law students. The results confirm what many of us knew all along: HLS needs to focus more attention on its basic educational issues, such as decreasing class sizes, hiring more faculty and revamping its grading system. HLS has already formed exploratory committees to address some of these issues, but the true test of responsiveness will be whether the administration institutes some, if not all, of these reforms by next fall.

Both HLS students and faculty members have clamored for smaller class sizes, which would require a smaller student-faculty ratio. If HLS were to reduce the size of its classes, the administration would have to shift resources and commit itself to recruiting and hiring more professors. Currently, the 1999 U.S. World News and World Report ranks Harvard's 20-1 student-faculty ratio the highest of the nations' top 25 law schools. Large classes, according to many responses to the McKinsey survey, contribute to a palpable sense of disconnect between the students and the school. Expectedly, students at law schools with higher student-faculty ratios--such as Yale and Stanford--attribute their higher satisfaction level partly to a more intimate classroom environment.

An equally important reform is revamping HLS' arbitrary grading system. HLS students are graded on a letter grade scale ranging from A+ to F, and sometimes these grades are contingent solely on the results of one exam. The school is considering a pass/fail grading system for students' first semester--which is similar to Yale's grading system for the first two semesters--and then a fail/low pass/pass/high pass system for the remianing semesters. The administration has expressed legitimate concerns that a pass/fail system for the entire first year might disadvantage students who interview for second-year jobs. Nevertheless, if there exists anything that could jeopardize the employment prospects of HLS students, it certainly won't be a few common sense reforms intended to make a 1L's life a little less brutish.


What, of course, could possibly be preventing the HLS administration from making the changes that students and faculty have encouraged for years and that have now been validated by a fancy Manhattan consulting firm? Like most things at the University, change always requires an impressive amount of money. HLS will need more funds to hire new professors, expand their student financial aid packages and research for the school. But according to HLS administrators, the results of the McKinsey study should be able to provide a persuasive argument for donors and alumni to dig a little bit deeper into their pockets. So, if for nothing else, although the McKinsey study might have only confirmed what students and faculty members have known all along, at least the consulting firm's name might be able to actually put these proposals into action.

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