UPDATED: June 17, 2020, 9:11 p.m.
Harvard Law School’s announcement that it will continue online instruction for the 2020 fall semester drew scores of criticism from students who say remote learning will lower the quality of their legal education and disadvantage students facing difficult living situations.
Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 wrote in a June 3 email to students that the school would hold its fall term online, citing ongoing public health concerns and uncertainty about the availability of COVID-19 testing on campus. In response, a group of students drafted a petition for an alternative model and called for changes to the Law School’s proposed policies.
Following the announcement, the school held a series of webinars and posted online responses to frequently asked questions on topics such as tuition, grading, and leave of absence considerations. Several students, however, described the information provided by the school as either vague or insensitive.
“I think finally people are getting fed up with how HLS has been less than transparent in this whole process,” Law School student Paul A. Caintic said. “It's just all been handled really terribly, and it hasn't quelled students’ worries at all.”
Caintic said the webinars included “insulting” comments from administrators, such as advising debt-ridden students to rent an office space if they need a quiet place to study.
Law School spokesperson Jeff Neal wrote in an email that the webinar hosts were responding to a question about studying in disruptive home environments and suggested students could use grants or loans to rent an outside space.
“Ultimately, we indicated that every student must determine which options make the most sense for them, depending on their particular circumstances,” he wrote.
Rising second-year Law student Christopher Hall said Assistant Dean for Career Services Mark Weber suggested in a webinar that students should be grateful to experience an online education since the legal profession is increasingly relying on remote work.
“We just saw a seismic shift in what is going on in the legal environment in the last 10 to 12 weeks," Weber said. "The remote environment is going to be much more prevalent because we are already seeing that people can do it. The people who are here are going to be a little bit more seasoned in that environment because that is what it’s going to look like.”
“That's of course, you know, very difficult to hear and very dismissive of students’ concerns,” Hall said.
Weber wrote in an email that his response was aiming to address student concerns that learning remotely might place them at a disadvantage compared to peers at schools offering in-person instruction.
“Even before COVID-19, the legal profession was becoming increasingly open to remote work,” he wrote. “In my role leading the Office of Career Services, I always want to make sure I share with students how employers are thinking about these questions.”
Hall co-authored a petition to Manning and University President Lawrence S. Bacow calling on the Law School to consider implementing a hybrid semester plan, which would offer classes simultaneously in-person and online. Students would choose individually whether to attend classes in Cambridge or learn remotely, according to Hall.
“The basic outline is classes are offered in a multitude of ways so that they can meet each learner where they currently are,” he said. “It addresses the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all model of learning.”
The petition — signed by more than 400 students and alumni — highlighted concerns with remote learning, including decreased career advising opportunities, difficulty connecting with peers and professors, and the inability of international students to qualify for work visas for the summer of 2021 without two semesters of in-person classes.
It also featured a survey of nearly 400 students, which demonstrated that more than 80 percent of respondents would choose to defer if the Law School does not amend its policies for the fall.
In a statement responding to the petition, Manning defended the decision to hold a fully online semester. He argued a partial campus reopening under the hybrid plan would pose health risks to students and faculty and offer an unequal educational experience to students watching online broadcasts of classes tailored to the in-person instruction of their peers.
“We understand that fully on-campus courses have advantages over an online experience, but we think that hybrid courses may offer the worst of both worlds,” Manning wrote.
Students also criticized the Law School’s decision to not offer grading system accommodations or a tuition discount for the online fall semester.
“We all know that an online education is just not worth as much as an in person one,” Caintic said. “The connections you make, the facilities you get to use, the free lunches — those are all things that are going to be lacking from our education now, and yet a penny was not deducted from tuition.”
The Law School’s website notes that it already canceled its expected tuition increase, but that cutting tuition is a University-level decision.
Third-year Law student Michael E. Hornzell also voiced concerns about the school’s refusal to record fall semester classes. HLS offered recordings in the spring semester, but the school’s website states that students should participate in their fall classes “at the times they are offered.”
“For the school to not just build recording in is a bit ridiculous,” he said. “It just hurts the students whose internet might go out.”
The Law School has pledged to allocate $1 million to help students facing challenges with internet access or technology. Still, Hornzell said his access to a strong internet connection in the spring did not prevent frequent Zoom malfunctions that resulted in missing several minutes of class at a time.
Caintic said he had similar worries, claiming the inability to watch class recordings at students’ convenience would disadvantage those in significantly different time zones or who hold family responsibilities.
“I think it unduly prejudices low-income students, students who find themselves in a difficult home situation, people who have young children who can't afford a nanny, and our international population who again — I cannot stress enough — are being asked to become nocturnal to go to class,” Caintic said.
Hornzell said he agrees partial reopening plans such a hybrid semester might pose too many health risks due to the pandemic but argues the University should implement more measures to accommodate student concerns with online learning.
“I feel like they've really fallen flat in their response here,” he said. “I respect their commitment to the health and safety of the community members, but there's more to that in a total response.”
—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.