In May, I sketched what a typical university day would look like in the COVID-19 Era. I wrote that “students who want to be on campus may find the experience very, very different than they expected.” Since then, I’ve heard from professors and administrators across the country how this post has affected their thinking. It will probably the most consequential thing I’ll write this year after my NYT op-ed on impeachment.
Now, we have some new developments in this debate. Law school deans and recent law school graduates are demanding that state bars eliminate in-person bar exams. The argument is simple: during the epidemic, it is not safe to cram thousands of people inside for a two-day exam. I am very sympathetic to this argument. As a result, the deans and students argue, state bars should allow applicants to take the exam online, or alternatively, grant a “diploma privilege.” The Texas Supreme Court recently chose the former option, though over a divided vote.
This steadfast opposition to an in-person examination creates, in my mind at least, a disconnect: Former 3Ls refuse to take the bar in person, but current 3Ls demand to take classes in person. The tension is palpable: the risks of spending an entire 14-week in person are far greater than sitting for a two-day exam. Moreover, it is much easier to maintain social distancing in a cavernous convention hall than in cramped classrooms. Why are students so desirous to assume, the latter, greater risk, but refuse to accept the former, smaller risk?
Maybe there is a cynical response: students will always favor the path of least resistance. Eliminating the bar exam is something all students would prefer. But I reject this cynicism. Many students have come forward, quite candidly, with legitimate personal reasons why an in-person bar exam is a bad idea. But if we reject the cynical answer, perhaps the conventional wisdom on in-person classes is also wrong.
Maybe students really do not want to learn on campus–or to state it more precisely, students are willing to make unrealistic demands of universities, and even threaten class-action lawsuits over high tuition bills. But when conditions prove too difficult, they’ll prefer to stay home. Sure, some students make bold demands of deans that they want to be on campus. And students explain in polls that they prefer to learn in campus. But when push come to shove, they will realize that in-person instruction is too risky; or in the alternative, not what they expected.
In short, I fear administrations nationwide are taking bold steps to force professors into the classroom, so they can accommodate students on campus, when students are not really interested in learning on campus under current conditions.