Law Professors, Reader Polls, Screw-Ups

Visiting Professor at NYU Makes a Mess of 1L Contracts Exam

New York University Law School NYU Law School Above the Law.JPGSometimes I find myself recycling my own material. I’ll make a joke in front of one group of friends, they’ll laugh, and I’ll use the same joke in front of a different group of friends. The second audience can’t know that I’ve already used the joke with a different audience, lest I be exposed as uninteresting and comedically lazy. One time I told the same joke at the same person’s birthday party two years in a row. Not good.
But I learned an important lesson, one I’m sure that an NYU visiting professor is also about to learn. While at Northwestern, this professor gave out practice contracts questions to his class there. This year at NYU, the professor decided to use some of the exact same practice questions, but this time on the actual exam.
Obviously, the students who had seen the practice questions had a huge advantage over the students who did not. That’s probably why the NYU administration got involved.
The email from Vice Dean Liam Murphy, after the jump.

Dean Murphy sent out this message to students in the contracts class of Professor Jide Nzelibe:

Dear Members of 1L Section 2,

I am writing to you about a serious issue that has emerged with respect to Professor Nzelibe’s contracts exam, which was held yesterday. After the exam we were contacted by some students to tell us that the exam consisted of two questions that had both been distributed by Professor Nzelibe to his contracts class at Northwestern last year as practice questions. This is a clear violation of explicit NYU School of Law policy. We know that some students in your class had seen and worked through both questions, and some other students had seen one of the questions. I am very grateful to all the students who came forward to volunteer this information. It would be very useful for the determination of the best response, if any, if any students who saw the questions before taking the exam, and who have not yet contacted Academic Services, could contact me. Needless to say, anonymity will be preserved in the grading process.

Obviously what happened raises a serious problem about the integrity of the exam and the application of our mandatory curve. In consultation with other senior administrators, I am currently considering our options. There is no perfect solution. We are striving for a response that does as well as possible in terms of fairness without unduly burdening the students of Section 2.

What should NYU do in this situation? The Vice Dean has some options, but none of them are pretty.
Earlier this week, I reported that Oregon Law professor John Bonine accidentally sent a copy of his exam out on the class list-serve. I criticized Professor Bonine for putting extra requirements on the backs of his students for something that was his (or his office’s) error.
At NYU Law, it once again appears that the students may be punished for the professor’s mistake. Vice Dean Murphy’s email contains his preliminary suggestions on how to handle the situation:

Here are some possibilities:

1. We do nothing. Professor Nzelibe simply grades your exam answers as written.
2. The entire class is graded CR/F (credit or fail).
3. The entire class sits a new contracts exam in the first days of the spring semester.

And there are other, more complex possibilities as well. As I’ve said, there are obvious objections that could be made to each of them.

Of those three options, which strikes you as most fair to all of the students in the class?

To my mind, the pass/fail option is a non-starter. Not in this job market. But grading the exam “as is” seems really unfair to the students who didn’t sleuth into the professor’s Northwestern past. So I guess that means I think they should all take a new exam. That is extremely easy for me to say, seeing as I don’t have to take even one exam, much less a special extra one right at the beginning of the spring.
We understand that Vice Dean Murphy met with the affected students earlier today:

I would like to invite anyone who is able to make it to meet with me later today, at 3 pm in VH214. I would be very grateful to hear the point of view of you, the students in this class. Please understand that my aim is not to take a poll and act on the results, which would in any case likely be inconclusive. Ultimately a decision must be made by the administration of NYU School of Law about what, if anything, it is fair and proper for us to do about this situation. But I would very much like our decision to be informed by feedback from the members of the class.

Let me end by extending an apology to you all. This should not have happened. We very much regret that it did, and the evidently unsatisfactory nature of even our best possible response.

I do look forward to meeting as many of you as possible later today.

Best wishes,


Whatever happens, 1Ls in section 2 should feel free to print out this post. You’re going to want some kind of public record when you start trying to explain why your grade in contracts is a smiley face.
Professor Nzelibe confirmed the events in question but did not comment beyond that. We’ll let you know what NYU Law decides.
Earlier: Leaked Exam a ‘Teachable Moment’ on Ethical Consequences for Oregon Law Students

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