Contracts, Screw-Ups

Cornell Contracts Exam Should Fail for Ambiguity, Vagueness

With all the students just dying to get into Cornell Law School, I figured I’d give you guys a taste of what exams will be like for the few of you lucky enough to get in. A contracts exam there turned into something so complicated that you need to be an expert in statutory interpretation just to understand the rules for the exam.

In law school, you’re supposed to learn to be careful with words. Really careful. Now, I didn’t really take that lesson to heart, and apparently neither did professor Chantal Thomas. She gave out some pretty mixed messages regarding the word limit for her contracts exam.

Tipsters report that in class, Professor Thomas said that there would be a word limit. But even that in-class directive was vague:

She said, “well, maybe 1000 words.” This in itself is ambiguous. 1000 words per question? 1000 words for the whole exam?

Perhaps you think that the exam itself would make clear this most basic exam parameter? Think again…

Predictably, the exam itself was silent as to the word limit.

And now we have a dilemma. Students who weren’t there or didn’t remember Thomas’s vague, 1,000 word limit were forced to assume that there was no word limit on the exam. Other tipsters report that they asked the exam proctor, who also told them that there was no word limit. Meanwhile, students who heard the professor’s remark were particularly stuck. By analogy to the parol evidence rule (hey, this was a contracts exam), the prior conversation shouldn’t be able to overturn the written document. And the written document didn’t have a word limit.

Of course, the written document didn’t specifically state that there was not a word limit. Ye gods, was Thomas planning on grading people based on their interpretation of the exam instructions?

In the finest traditions of our system of jurisprudence, these young law students interpreted the exam however the hell they wanted to. Some kids wrote within 1,000 words. Others wrote as much as they could. And they left it to a judge (in this case, Stephen P. Garvey, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs) to sort it out.

The decision from the administration was Solomon-esque:

In light of this confusion, Professor Thomas, Dean Lukingbeal and I have thoroughly canvassed and discussed all the imaginable options, and we are all most anxious to ensure that the grading process is fair.

As a result of our discussions, Professor Thomas has decided that the class will be divided for grading purposes into two groups, those who wrote within the word limit and those who exceeded it. Each group will be graded on a separate 3.35 curve. This will allow those who wrote at or under the word limit to avoid any comparative penalty with those who wrote beyond it. At the same time, those who wrote more than the word limit will be neither penalized nor advantaged, as they will be assessed according to a separate curve….

I realize that you may have your own thoughts as to how best to proceed, but experience teaches that little good is likely come from reconsidering the decision. Consequently, please accept in advance our apologies if we do not respond to further communications regarding this matter.

Brilliant. This should make everybody happy, and if it doesn’t, Cornell wants you to STFU.

You know who I feel sorry for? The people who wrote 1,500 words and will now be judged against those who brain-purged 5,000 words, in a spew of contractual regurgitation.

But this does seem like a good opportunity to remind professors to try to give a s**t about their exams. These things aren’t important to you; we know that. But they are really, really important to your students.

Earlier: Is Cornell the Lady Gaga of Law Schools?

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