Constitutional Law, Law Professors, Law Schools

Behemoth Constitutional Law Class To Have Two Curves

Are there no volunteers on the Columbia Law faculty?

Yesterday, we told you about a sticky situation at Columbia Law School. Professor Christina Duffy Ponsa, a constitutional law scholar, is going through divorce proceedings that have caused her to miss a number of classes. The school responded by dumping all of Professor Ponsa’s students into Professor Trevor Morrison’s Con Law class, creating a huge 200-person Con Law experience that bothered many students.

The Columbia Student Senate formally requested that Columbia replace Ponsa with another qualified professor instead of merging sections.

It seems that no Columbia Law professor was willing to step up and alleviate the overcrowded situation, but after our story went up, the administration did make some concessions to student concerns. And while it seems to me that the administration is fumbling the ball here by not finding one faculty member (or Justice Ginsburg) willing to step in and help out a colleague with some personal issues, students and tipsters have heaped a whole lot of blame on Professor Ponsa’s allegedly wild personal life for putting herself (and her students) in this situation in the first place….

We’ve heard the stories, and rumors, swirling around Ponsa’s divorce. Without getting into details that are not germane to the current story, suffice it to say that tipsters allege that Ponsa’s divorce is her own fault.

Regardless of how, or why, Ponsa’s marriage is breaking up, it’s uncontroverted that Ponsa is going through a divorce that has taken up a lot of her time. Whether or not she should have anticipated this time commitment, or — as some of our tipsters have suggested — just done a better job of not getting divorced, seems irrelevant. What’s happened in her personal life has happened.

The issue really shouldn’t be how Ponsa should have conducted her affairs so as not to interrupt the Constitutional Law studies of 100 Columbia students. The issue should be how the Columbia Law administration is handling this disruption. Last night, the Dean’s Office sent us this statement (Dean David Schizer is traveling, but this is the statement that his office sent to Above the Law):

To provide a seamless and immediate continuation of study to students in one of our Constitutional Law sections, we decided to combine two sections, offered on the same days at the same time, into one class. Although this results in an unusually large class—particularly for our School—we are confident this decision offers the best solution for our students for several reasons.

Professor Morrison is an experienced and beloved member of the faculty, voted best teacher in 2011 by the students. Faculty teach Constitutional Law in different ways and with different emphases, and we focused on the fact that Professor Morrison’s approach is quite similar to that of Professor Ponsa, and this was considered a priority in evaluating what was best pedagogically for our students. In addition, both teach con law from the same book, and collaborated in preparation for their courses. Students will find the most seamless transition in Professor Morrison’s class.

On Wednesday, the Dean of Students and Professor Morrison met with the combined class and discussed student concerns and suggestions. As a result, a number of steps are being taken to provide additional support to students in this class; to alleviate concerns regarding missed course work, exams, and grading; and to ensure the opportunity for personal attention. In addition to Professor Morrison’s office hours, he will conduct a weekly review session for all students. Upperlevel TAs are being added, and notes from the beginning of the semester will be posted to assist transitioning students. To ensure fairness, exams will be graded in two sets, according to the section to which students were originally assigned.

We are confident that these measures will provide a rich academic experience for our students with meaningful feedback on their Constitutional Law course work. The situation will continue to be monitored and we will work to address further concerns from our students should they arise.

The two-curve solution was something that students wanted if they were going to be forced to stay in this class, but I just find it hard to believe that this is the best solution Columbia can come up with. Again, a 200-person class at what is supposed to be one of the best law schools in the country is just ridiculous. It seems like the administration just went for the option that has the least disruptions for the administration: same class, same time, same book, and a professor who was already teaching the thing anyway. Those are all attractive options to the people running the law school.

But the option that would have made most sense for the students, as evidenced by the fact that this is the option the students requested, would have just been to have another professor pick up where Ponsa left off. Yes, this new professor would have to use Ponsa’s book and syllabus, which might be different from what the new professor normally does. But assuming Columbia has at least a few professors who can teach their way out of a paper bag, I don’t see why that would be a non-starter.

Instead of asking one faculty member to do something a little uncomfortable and unexpected, Columbia instead has asked 200 students to get smushed together. I still can’t really believe that there isn’t one faculty member who won’t step up to the plate and say, “Don’t worry, I got this.” Last year, when Yale didn’t have enough sections of Administrative Law to meet student demand, Professor E. Donald Elliott stepped in to teach an additional section. Maybe I’ve been spoiled, but I feel like if this happened at Harvard Law School, a guy like Charles Nesson would be all over the opportunity to just hop in, teach from the hip, and turn this upheaval into a Con Law experience like no other.

Doesn’t Columbia Law have one professor like that? Doesn’t Columbia have any professors who want to teach just because interacting with young people and shaping minds about constitutional theory is kind of fun?

Based on my inbox, I’m the only one who thinks the Columbia Law administration could be handling this better. Tipsters and students who have emailed in to Above the Law have reserved most of their ire for Professor Ponsa. They’re calling her unprofessional and worse. This one tipster seems to sum up the feeling on campus:

[N]obody has any sympathy for Ponsa. Her “family problem” is of her own making and was completely foreseeable. She shouldn’t have been teaching this semester. If her contract includes any personal leave she should have started taking it at least three weeks ago.

If her divorce is half as acrimonious as her separation from her Con Law students, I truly feel sorry for her.

Earlier: Columbia Con Law Debacle Creates 200-Person Class That Angers Students

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