Monday, December 15, 2014

No Comment?

There has been surprisingly little comment (maybe because we are at the end of the fall quarter) concerning a controversy that developed at the UCLA Law School over an exam question.  A professor gave an exam question related to the Ferguson-related protests and there were some student complaints.  The professor then apologized and came up with a grading approach he thought would neutralize the effect of the question on grades.

An account first appeared in the Daily Bruin:

Some students at the UCLA School of Law have expressed concerns after a professor asked an exam question this week relating to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Mo. The exam, given by Professor Robert Goldstein in Constitutional Law II, asked students to write a memo related to the Ferguson shooting. Some students who took the exam said they found it difficult to write about the incident in terms of the first amendment while ignoring issues such as police brutality...

In an email to the class following the exam, Goldstein said that questions in exams for upper-level elective classes are usually based on current legal issues and reports to make education relevant. But in this case, he said he thinks recent events in Ferguson and New York could have made the question difficult to respond to for some students. Goldstein could not be interviewed for this article...

In an email statement, law school Dean Rachel Moran said the question was intended to have students examine the Clear and Present Danger Defense. “In retrospect, however, he understands that the question was ill-timed for the examination and could have been problematic for students given the anguish among many in our community over the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases,” Moran said.

Full story at

There are some issues involved regarding academic freedom, both to ask an exam question and then - on reflection - to remove it from the grading.  The involvement of the dean also raises some concerns.

The only commentary I have seen is by UCLA Law Prof. Eugene Volokh in the blog he does for the Washington Post.  Volokh generally upholds the right of a faculty member to ask a question, not ask a question, or remove it retroactively from grading.  But he finds the question asked in this case to be proper, in part on the grounds that in the real world lawyers often deal with emotional questions or issues about which they have strong views:

...To be sure, some people might be deeply emotionally invested in an issue, and have a hard time viewing it from both sides. But a key part of a law school education is to learn how to do this, even when you are emotionally invested. If you want to work for, say, the NAACP (or the NRA), you will do your clients no favors by being so zealous in your opinions that you fail to grasp the best arguments on the other side... Robert [Goldstein]... tells me that he was not at all pressured by the administration to do this. If the administration was insisting on removing such questions, I would be much more concerned about the justifications for the removal, the precedent it would set, and whether the removal is driven by ideology or by undue pressure from student groups, rather than by sound judgment about how best to evaluate student knowledge. But each teacher should have considerable latitude in making such choices, it seems to me. This having been said, I think the original question was perfectly proper, and I don’t agree with the criticism of the question. The question doesn’t penalize people for having particular personal opinions on the subject. Like most law school exam questions, it just asks them to discuss how the precedents apply to the facts, in the process explaining the arguments on both sides. 

Full commentary at

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