Parker's LEC Agenda

When Richard Parker ’70 became head of the Legal Education Committee nearly three years ago, the LEC shifted its focus from administrative matters to what Parker calls the "core enterprise" of the School: teaching and learning. Six other faculty members and three students served with Parker in 1997–98, a year in which the committee continued its brisk progress putting forth proposals—not without some controversy.

Bulletin: What has LEC accomplished during your tenure? Richard Parker: Our first accomplishment—and one that was noticed by the national press—had to do with calculating honors at HLS. It had gotten to the point that we were awarding honors to nearly three-quarters of the class, which meant singling out one-quarter for non-honors. The committee’s main concern was to make honors more meaningful and to avoid stigmatizing a minority. Starting with the Class of 1999, honors distribution will be revised so that the top 10 percent receive their degrees magna cum laude, the next 30 percent cum laude, and summas will be awarded according to the old formula.

Your committee also took a look at HLS grading practices. What has the outcome been? All we’ve really done is to see that all grades for all courses, papers, and clinical work are annually reported to the faculty. Now, at least the faculty will know what our grading practices are.

Alumni will remember the long controversy over proposals for pass-fail grading or a reduction in the number of grade categories. Last year LEC studied these alternatives once again, but decided not to propose a change. Other schools, we’ve found, seem to be moving toward our grading system.

How did current students weigh in on grading? There was significant student concern that moving away from our current system might put them at a competitive disadvantage.

Per LEC recommendations and faculty vote, the Registrar’s Office instituted a new practice of "bundling" basic 2L courses into groups, with students choosing the "bundle" that best suits them. How is that working out? That was last year’s major achievement. Rising 2L and 3L students were so dissatisfied with the traditional course selection process that we decided to change it. With bundling, students have more effective freedom of choice. So far it’s working very well.

Why did students find choosing courses such a hassle? Over the past 20 years there’s been a vast expansion in the number of courses, which is wonderful. However, with expanded choice has come an increase in opportunities for disappointment, and an increase in scheduling conflicts. Bundling addresses both problems. The School’s practice of including at least one especially sought-after professor in each bundle eases the common student anxiety that "I have to get Professor So-and-So for Tax, So-and-So for Con Law."

Do any of your colleagues mind this popularity factor? No. Faculty don’t feel insulted by it. We all understand that popularity waxes and wanes.

Any other actions to report?

Everyone knows a long-standing concern here at the Law School has been the student-teacher ratio, particularly in core courses. In the past, 2Ls regularly had to put up with 140-person classes, just as in most of their
first-year courses. Last year we recommended, and the faculty voted, to cut the size of the basic 2L classes by adding a fifth offering of each. This is an expensive proposition and a lot to ask for, but Dean Clark, to his great credit, was able to work it out for next year’s students.

You know, it would be good to involve alumni in this issue of the student-teacher ratio. A gulf exists among top law schools in this regard. Some faculty and others would consider expanding HLS student numbers; I am strongly opposed to that.

Let’s turn to this year’s most hotly debated issue, the committee’s revision of the class attendance policy.In February the faculty voted 28 to 8 in support of our proposal to regularize and make more effective the present process of dropping a student from a course for missing 25–30 percent of its class meetings. The reform goes into effect this fall.

Some students reacted angrily to the change, even dubbing the three student members of your committee the "LEC Three." Were you surprised by the negative response?Yes. I’ve kept the Law School Council fully informed about everything the LEC has considered at every step along the way. I even included an LSC rep on the committee in addition to the three regular student members. For some reason, the LSC didn’t get other students involved in the discussion until very late. A student poll then indicated overwhelming opposition to the change, but I doubt most had read our proposal. As a matter of fact, we surveyed other law schools and found that most do require attendance but differ in enforcement, with some stricter, some more lax than we will be.

Incidentally, the student members of LEC have been wonderful, very hardworking; they took a lot of heat from their peers on the attendance issue.

Why do you favor an attendance enforcement? My view is that this proposal, like others we’ve made, is a step toward addressing the problem of disengagement, or alienation, in our educational culture. Students who are disengaged should be encouraged to re-engage, not just be given a nod as they exercise the exit option. The same goes for faculty.

Students don’t hesitate to express their views on required attendance, class participation, access to their professors, and so forth. Did you and classmates do likewise during your student days? I was here at the beginning of the era of criticism. I’m all for it—though I admit that students now seem more inclined toward a consumerist style of complaint than we were. Today’s students, however, are right in thinking that more should be asked of faculty in some respects.

How so? Given specialization trends in academia and in practice—and given the consumerist attitude of many students just mentioned—faculty members have come to focus more of their energy outside the School. We put more into our teaching than our counterparts, say, at Yale. Despite that, the sense of disengagement from the common intellectual life of the School is significant—among faculty as well as students. It’s obviously a vicious circle.

Is this widely acknowledged? Everyone who has been here knows it. What’s most important now is that we are facing it and taking steps to do something about it. The faculty is working together on this. With all the talk of globalization, etc., we are at the same time focusing on our core endeavor as well.

You’re stepping down from the committee soon. Is there unfinished LEC business? Sure. The only question is what the LEC wants to make its business. But we’ve completed what we set out to do. In April, the committee issued a final report and a last set of recommendations. We proposed ways to tighten certain obligations of faculty members to students, to give students a somewhat greater role in our joint enterprise, and to enhance faculty-student engagement in and outside the classroom.

And the specific recommendations?

There were 12, altogether. I won’t go into detail, but they include soliciting broader student input in faculty appointments, strengthening the writing component of the J.D. curriculum, making faculty more accountable for fulfilling responsibilities such as submitting grades on time, allocating time in the HLS calendar for daytime scheduling of public events so that more students and faculty can attend, and establishing a student-faculty "lunchtable" discussion series.

Where do things stand now? On May 15, the faculty voted—with only three dissents—to adopt all our proposals, with one amendment. Although I’m leaving the LEC, I’ll be interested
in seeing these new policies put into action. Most of them are open-ended. It may take time. But we’ve taken first steps on a road toward improvement of the educational culture for all of us.

Interview conducted by Julia Collins

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