Getting accurate information about professors is a problem for law students across the nation. Until pedagogical initiatives result in every student getting a certificate of participation, grades will still be very important to law students.
At Boston University School of Law, every semester students submit reviews of their professors, and those reviews are published so that other students can make better decisions. BU Law has the best professors, according to Princeton Review.
But not every class is a winner. Last year, a 1L property professor received scathing reviews from many of the students. We don’t know all the details about what happened in that class, but we’ve heard some negative things about the professor’s teaching style, grading system, and personality.
Apparently, the reviews were so bad that BU Law Dean Maureen O’Rourke took the extraordinary step of addressing the entire class. According to one tipster:
The students who showed up to the meeting were given no apologies. They were told that the administration read the reviews and did not think that they were indicative of Prof. McClain’s teaching. The students were informed that McClain would get tenure regardless, so that they should leave the issue alone.
When the dean was pressed on whether the reviews would nevertheless be published, she said that they would not be published, not even the 1-5 bubble fill-ins ranging from poor to excellent on overall teaching evaluation.
What is the point of having a student review system when bad reviews are expunged from the record? (Former ATL Law School Dean Hottie) Dean O’Rourke responds after the jump.
ATL interviewed Dean O’Rourke about this controversy. She said that the professor in question no longer teaches 1Ls. She had hoped that move would ameliorate the students’ immediate issues. But she acknowledged that the larger problem was her handling of the student review process:
We most certainly did read the reviews – every word – and what we noted was that clearly something went wrong in this particular class but we did not think the reviews indicative of what the professor’s teaching had been over the years at other institutions. And that was why I didn’t publish the numbers.
The professor in question was tenured at a different university before coming over to BU Law. But according to Dean O’Rourke, her decision not to publish the student reviews wasn’t taken to save face for the administration:
It may have been an error in judgment on my part and I should have explained my reasoning to the students, but I didn’t fail to publish the reviews because I thought they were mistaken about that particular class but to give a faculty colleague with a long history of teaching a fresh start at her new home.
One BU Law student (who was not in the problem property class) told us:
I think that this behavior is irresponsible and borders on fraudulent. I understand the embarrassment that the administration must feel, but covering it up is not a viable option.
From her own statements, it seems clear that Dean O’Rourke made a mistake and regrets it. Dean O’Rourke suggested that in light of this situation, she would be open to reforming the way BU Law conducts and publishes student reviews.
But those 1L property students had a valid issue with Dean O’Rourke’s actions. They were given a system for feedback, but when things went sour the Dean changed the rules.
Dean O’Rourke has (at least) two constituencies, she has to protect the reputation of the faculty to be sure, but she also has to make the students feel like their concerns are being addressed. It’s not always possible to do both at the same time.