It’s safe to say that the fall 2020 semester was tough for many undergraduate students, but for many University of Michigan Law students, it was downright hellish. In addition to eliminating Fall Break, the Law School also added weekend classes for the fall semester. Unlike the rest of the University, which held classes online after Thanksgiving break, the law school condensed its schedule by holding its last class the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

The compressed schedule — as explained in a Jul. 1 email from the associate dean for academic programming, Gil Seinfeld, to the Law School community — was made in response to moving the school’s Early Interview Week. EIW typically occurs in the summer and is when many second-year law students interview for summer associateships at law firms. Due to the pandemic, EIW was pushed to January 2021. Compressing the Fall 2020 schedule was meant to allow grades to come out before the interviewing process.

Seinfeld acknowledged that the new schedule would be challenging. “All things considered however, this seems the best way to balance the competing needs of our student body,” he wrote.

Third-year Law School student Julia Adams disagreed. She argued that the school year could have started a week earlier — an approach adopted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State. Or professors could have been asked to grade a little bit faster this year. The school should have “put the onus on the people being paid,” Adams said, instead of putting students on the “chopping block.” Certainly, organizing a brutal schedule in an already brutal year seems, well, brutal. 

The organization of the term around EIW also showed Adams, a public interest law student who will not be joining a corporate law firm, that the administration did not care about “non-firm” students. The interviewing process for public interest jobs is less regulated — Adams had eleven interviews in one week.

Third-year Law School student Sean Brennan was incensed by the “lack of clear pathways for student input” before the fall term schedule was announced.

A student-produced survey, garnering nearly 300 responses and representing a wide swath of the Law School student body, found 89% of students agreed with the statement, “I am worried about my mental health.” In addition, 90% agreed that “the law school has not done enough to support students this semester.”

Perhaps the Law School could have eliminated some of the student distress by allowing students facing greater personal or mental health challenges than normal to take a leave of absence. Alas, third-year Law School student Everett Secor tried to do just that and felt led to believe by Lindsey Stetson, the associate dean for student life, that he may risk losing not only his scholarship, but also his enrollment. 

To Secor, it seemed that short of a hospitalization, the school would not allow him to take leave. To him, that decision underscored the school’s commitment to their bottom line over student well-being. Stetson wrote in an email to The Daily that the decision to take leave is “highly personal” and that “we help students to assess their options and make the decision that is right for them.”

The school’s leave of absence policy is vague, but does not outline any circumstances in which a leave would be denied or students would be forced to reapply after a one-year leave period. The policy explicitly states that students must complete their degree within five years — the typical timeline is three years, thus allowing plenty of time for a leave. Simultaneously infantilizing students by removing their ability to make decisions based on their own personal circumstances whilst expecting them to endure an even more arduous semester than usual in the midst of a global pandemic is cruel.

Law school is taxing on student mental health in the best of times — its singular embedded CAPS counselor is not enough. Even after a Law School student died by suicide in 2019, there was no meaningful action taken to address mental health within the Law School student body. To both Adams and Brennan, repeated suggestions from the school about yoga and CAPS felt insulting in the face of more structural issues facing students.

After much student advocacy in October 2020, the Law School did make some small changes. Students were given the option to change one grade of a C or higher in both the fall 2020 and winter 2021 term to a “P.” The exam period was also extended, pushed from ending on Dec. 11 to Dec. 14, with professors encouraged to allow students to take their exams at any time within that period. 

However, Brennan pointed out that the changes only came about after intense student advocacy that seemed to him at times like “trauma porn,” where students felt they had to go into detail about their personal mental health or difficult family circumstances. 

The Law School could have mitigated a lot of the severe distress felt by students this past semester by simply listening. Input should have been widely solicited when redesigning the fall term schedule. Students who recognized that that law school would not be their top priority in the middle of a pandemic should have been supported in taking a leave of absence. 

In many ways, the refusal to listen parallels so many of the University’s mistakes in the past year. How much illness could have been avoided, for example, if the administration had listened to their own graduate students when they went on strike? How many women would have been spared if the University took sexual misconduct allegations seriously? 

When administrators fail to listen to students, it is almost always the students that get hurt. Perhaps that is why they never learn. 

Jessie Mitchell can be reached at jessiemi@umich.edu.

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