Dear Carolina Law Community,
Last night, the Academic Affairs Committee met to consider whether to change the Law School’s grading policy for the spring semester.
The Committee voted unanimously to recommend that we move to a mandatory Pass/Fail grading system. It did so after (1) receiving comments and input from members of the faculty, both those on the Committee and many others who shared their views separately; (2) designing and reviewing the results of a survey to which 88.5% of our students responded; and (3) discussing at length the merits of various possible approaches.
On 20 March, the Office of the University Registrar promulgated an emergency grading policy under the authority of the Provost. That policy states: “Deans of the Graduate and professional schools will have full discretion and oversight of courses in their schools or under their purview to make decisions regarding pass/fail. . . . This discretion is necessary due to the more individualized learning experiences and discipline‐specific nature of graduate education.”
Responsibility for the final decision on this matter therefore rests with me. I have decided to accept the recommendation of the Academic Affairs Committee. Therefore, all Law School courses will be graded on a mandatory Pass/Fail basis for the spring semester of 2020.
This matter has weighed heavily on the minds of many of you over the past two weeks. It has certainly weighed on mine. In all candor, I have changed my mind more than once, as I tried to see all of the issues down to the bottom of the well. As I argued with myself, I was reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s remarks near the end of the Constitutional Convention:
Please indulge me in reading what remains of this letter. I owe you an explanation of my reasoning.
Let’s first consider the facts, as best we can marshal them.
Against the backdrop of a world-historical event that has not yet run its course, a decision must be made now about how to judge our students’ performance in a radically altered environment for which none of us was prepared. In a matter of days, professors who for decades faced lively students in full classrooms have been made to teach empty chairs. Students used to asking, and hearing others ask, spontaneous questions, who three weeks ago approached professors after class for conversation, now face the relative banality of pre-recorded lectures. We are all hoping our internet connections keep working, even as we hear of outages in Chapel Hill itself and wonder what we’ve missed as we struggle with garbled audio feeds and watch video streams freeze up. The problems are compounded for members of our community living in rural areas with inadequate connectivity.
Under these trying circumstances, we are all doing the best we can. We have begun to adapt to this new teaching and learning environment, but have not yet reached firm conclusions on its efficacy. Some in our community can scarcely concentrate, as they face interruptions from small children, homebound teenagers, and adult family members attempting to work from home. Some have quiet rooms in which to study and think, while others miss the law library, the only spot they had to work and learn in peace. Some are comfortably ensconced, while others have lost the jobs that paid their rent and put food on the table. Every day, I learn of the heart-wrenching plight of another student shouldering some unconscionable burden. However situated, we all would acknowledge the emotional toll this upheaval has levied, as it consumed in a flash an ordered world we even now scarcely remember.
This crisis already affects different members of our community differently. Soon it will do so even more.
We cannot now predict the pace or course the pandemic will take. Our best lights suggest that the next few weeks will be a time of greater tumult than we have yet seen. Within the last 24 hours, Governor Cooper announced the first deaths from the COVID-19 virus in North Carolina. With each passing day, hundreds more of our fellow citizens are becoming sick. It seems safe to assume that far more people are now infected than have shown symptoms or shown up in confirmed case numbers. Informed predictions indicate that the worst of the current wave of illness will take place in the second half of April, in the very middle of our examination period, at the time when our students are most intensely engaged in completing the term’s academic work. In deciding the question of grades now, we must assume that this situation will get worse before it gets better.
We must also assume that some, perhaps many, in our community will themselves become sick, find themselves in the position of caring for family members who are suddenly ill, or be forced to contend with unanticipated effects of the spreading virus. Over the next several weeks, students who today can learn with some semblance of normality will lose class preparation, exam study, and paper writing time to exigencies they never anticipated. Professors may have to call on colleagues to complete lectures. Our faculty will face the unfamiliar task of writing and grading examinations that test the learning of a semester, one-third of which took place under entirely different conditions than the previous two-thirds. Our law school playing field has suffered a tectonic shift. None of us, wherever we may be today, can perceive the landscape a month hence.
When our students come to us as 1Ls, they swear an oath that signals their initiation into the world’s noblest profession. We – you, I, your professors, and many of our staff – are all members of that profession. We are guardians together of the rule of law, the only thing that stands between civilization and barbarism.
In more than 20 years of law practice before I became your dean, I had the privilege of working with lawyers who were my classmates here at Carolina. Several became my partners in the two firms where I worked. Others served with me in the bar and in charitable organizations. My ability to live my life, feed and clothe my family, and have a rewarding professional career depended on them and on the bonds we forged at this law school.
This is where I want to say a word to those frustrated or discouraged by not receiving grades this semester. I have heard you. Your wishes are as natural as they are modest. You have asked only that your immediate future resemble, as closely as may be, your immediate past. You desire only to be judged by rules you did not write, but which you were doing your best to follow. How can it be fair to deny you the confirmations you were laboring for, with their weighty implications for the first steps of your careers, merely because some of your fellow strivers have been forced from the field through circumstances of no one’s making?
I will not attempt to persuade you that it is fair. Indeed, it is not fair, because fairness of the kind you want is now shattered and illusory. When the accustomed tools of common intellectual endeavor are beyond reach; when doors to the workshops of master teachers begin to close; and when these deprivations happen before the time for learning has even expired – then any affirmation of your performance relative to others’ loses its claim to validity.
In hopes of lessening your pain, I ask you to consider how your own future might unfold.
The classmate who is struggling now to complete the spring semester of 2020 because of the pandemic, and who may be relieved by my decision today, could someday be your law partner. That classmate might well be responsible for your family having an income when your own practice is anemic. Someday, that classmate could become the judge who grants you extra time to file a brief when you suddenly lose a parent or welcome a newborn child. Someday, that classmate could take over a client’s case when you or your loved one faces a health crisis. Someday, the professor who struggled to finish a course and write a fair exam in the spring of 2020 will pick up the phone and answer a thorny question that is vexing you and your client. Someday, that professor might even teach your own child, as often happens in our school.
On this matter, we must be as one family. In a time of vast social and economic crisis, a profession dedicated to the betterment of humankind should model solidarity, shared sacrifice, and concern for the common good of its own members. A few years from now, when your law school grades are forgotten (as they will be), nothing will matter more to you than the web of relationships you wove at our Law School. When the whirligig of time brings in its revenges, as it does on us all, you will be thankful for unearned grace bestowed by others.
A life in the law is a very long ball game. Now is the time to value the common endeavor in which we are all engaged. As a student on the Academic Affairs Committee eloquently put it last night: “This is just not an ‘I’ time.”
I accept and own my responsibility for your reactions to my decision. For those of you who approve, I ask you to respect the very real feelings of those who would have had it otherwise. For those of you who are distressed and angry, I can say only that I have done my best, under imperfect conditions, to devise a policy that supports our community as a whole.
Questions about a number of matters subsidiary to the mandatory pass/fail policy will doubtless arise. Dean Papandrea has been anticipating some of these questions, and will issue an FAQ memorandum in the very near future that should lay some of them to rest. To the extent that other questions occur to you, please direct them to Dean Papandrea. The Academic Affairs Committee stands ready to meet and process any of your concerns, should that be necessary.
While my decision will not alleviate all the anxiety you are now experiencing, I hope it will create mental and emotional space, allowing you to devote your attention to mastering our new learning environment and letting you prepare for your examinations and papers with a clearer head.
I would like to offer, with your indulgence and as balm for your souls, a recording I made on my oboe late at night earlier this week. This is the Sarabande from the Partita in g minor, BWV 1013, by Johann Sebastian Bach. May this haunting music bring soothing and solace to your quiet moments. (My apologies for the deficiencies of my home recorder.)
I will continue to find ways of being in touch with you as we move through the next several weeks.
Thank you and warmest regards,
Martin H. Brinkley ’92
Dean and Arch T. Allen Distinguished Professor of Law
UNC School of Law