Inside a Sea Change on How the Law School Operates
In the span of eight days, the novel coronavirus has changed almost everything about how the University of Virginia School of Law operates. Transitioning to online courses and working remotely was an unprecedented effort involving faculty, staff and students working cooperatively and nonstop since the University first announced March 11 that classes would move online.
“It took everybody working across departments, it took the faculty, it took the students,” said Senior Associate Dean for Administration Stephen T. Parr, who helped lead the effort. “It meant being flexible, being cooperative, working at night and on the weekends, around the clock, to get classes online.”
The Law School moved 139 courses, taught by 159 instructors, online.
On March 17, two days before online classes were set to launch, most staff learned from UVA President Jim Ryan ’92 that they would be working remotely by Monday, and that the Law Library would close. Some employees would continue to run the essential operations of the school on-site. Final plans for graduation are still being determined, though graduation will not proceed on May 17 as planned.
“As difficult as it was to make this major shift in operations, we have to put the health of our community first,” Dean Risa Goluboff said. “It’s not the semester we all envisioned, and my heart goes out to 3Ls who hoped for a typical graduation. But at the same time, I am so proud of how the community has pulled together in a monumental effort to make this work.”
An ‘Unprecedented’ Time
The Law School had been preparing for possible disruptions caused by COVID-19 for days before the University decided to move classes online, but the shape that those disruptions would take evolved rapidly.
“If you run down the list of departments, you can think about all the different things that had to be done to get ready,” Parr said. “The Law School had never offered courses online. To get all of our classes online in the span of about a week was totally unprecedented in the history of the Law School.”
The Admissions Office had been scheduled to hold its annual open house for admitted students March 19-20, an event that attracts more than 300 prospective students. Early in the crisis, it appeared the school might be able to hold the event in smaller groups. Then it became clear that the open house had to be canceled entirely. The department fielded inquiries about the change and pledged to pay for travel reimbursements (as is the usual policy) regardless, while also preparing online alternatives to certain parts of the open house and sending a message from Goluboff.
Other aspects of planning for the transition to online meant meetings and calls with University officials to make sure the Law School had a coordinated response.
“Everyone has stepped up to the plate,” Parr said. “Coordinating with the University has been a big part of it. Some things have to be uniform across Grounds, while other things can vary by school or unit based on local circumstances.”
But planning was difficult because the situation was in flux.
“The hard part at first — which burdened everyone and not just us — was managing the evolving nature of the crisis driving our planning,” said Jason Dugas ’01, assistant dean for academic services and registrar.
Student Records and Law IT staff, led by Chief Technology Officer Gary F. Banks, personally reached out to all teachers to develop their game plan. Some instructors don’t live in Charlottesville, and some live in different time zones or on other continents.
“The instructor response has been exceptional, but as you can imagine, their individual facility with [communications platforms] Canvas, Zoom and Panopto varied widely,” Dugas said. “Student Records and Law IT collaborated closely on working through the entire faculty list to ensure that each instructor reached a comfort level for their teaching approach.”
Dugas and Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick ’06 have also kept a close eye on how any curricular decision impacts the school’s American Bar Association obligations, as well as requirements for specific licensing jurisdictions in major markets such as New York.
“We asked for waivers in those jurisdictions from strict compliance with those requirements,” Dugas said.
Kendrick praised the school’s administrators and staff for “keeping us going so we can keep our students on the way toward their degree and their goals.”
Perhaps the department most taxed by the move online has been Law IT, which has been on the frontlines of working with faculty to offer courses online, while in the past few days helping staff prepare to work remotely.
“Dean Dugas and Gary Banks and their teams worked tirelessly with every single class,” Kendrick said. “The Law IT team showed once again that they are absolute heroes.”
Banks described the experience of the last few days as “bittersweet.”
“We are sad that the virus forced so much change to the Law School community, both personally and professionally, in such a short time frame,” Banks said. “We are glad, however, that we could provide technical support and guidance for our faculty, staff and students as they coped with the challenges they faced individually and collectively.”
Some faculty members are recording their courses from Law School classrooms, and others are recording from home. Early on, each had to decide whether to offer their classes online via Panopto, the Law School’s recording system that captures audio and video off the computer screen, or Zoom, an online meeting tool.
Since online classes launched, Professor Andrew Hayashi has held two classes using both Zoom and Panopto and conducted an S.J.D. dissertation defense.
“It’s not terribly enjoyable to talk to yourself in front of a screen rather than be with our students,” Hayashi said. “At the same time, I’ve discovered that it’s helpful for students to see me scribble notes on my PowerPoint slides in real time so they can follow along as I draw their attention to particular parts of the law or the problem. I plan to do this when I get back to giving lectures in person.”
He added, “Students have been patient and diligent, and it’s been yet another reminder of why they are the best in the country.”
On Wednesday, Goluboff announced that the faculty had adopted a credit/no credit grading system for the spring semester, acting on a recommendation by the Law School’s Curriculum Committee. Courses in which class sessions ended by March 18, with work due by March 23, will be graded with a letter grade.
The committee, which is led by chair Professor Thomas B. Nachbar and includes student members, considered input from students, faculty, student services offices across the Law School, the Student Bar Association and student organizations.
“The committee was both aware of student preferences and moved by hearing stories of the profound difficulties many of our students are dealing with,” Nachbar said. “But our recommendation was based on the disparity of circumstances our students face and the impact of those disparities on the grading system’s ability to measure comparative academic performance among students.”
Working With Students
Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Sarah Davies ’91, along with Student Bar Association President Katharine Janes ’21 and former President Jasmine Lee ’20, have been addressing issues of student concern. In the past few days, Davies and her team have been working as liaisons between students and IT staff to address connectivity issues for people in more remote locations.
“I expect the technical issues will work themselves out as we get further into online provision of classes,” Davies said.
Student Affairs worked with Building Services to send belongings in lockers to students, and coordinated with the library on the need for online access to textbooks. Though now closed, the library led an effort to scan course materials for students who could not access their books and worked with publishers to get materials to students.
“We have worked online and by phone counseling students regarding academic issues, anxiety, stress, family concerns and other personal issues,” said Davies, who has received more than 2,000 emails since the start of spring break March 9. The office, also responsible for academic accommodations, has ensured that students receiving notes as part of their accommodation continue to receive notes. Psychologist Dr. Kate Gibson, who also works with Student Affairs, is available to counsel students as well.
Director of Student Affairs Kate Duvall ’06 has been arranging calls with both individual students and larger groups like Peer Advisors, and spearheading the effort to move the student organization reimbursement process online, in partnership with the Law School Foundation. The school has promised to cover the organizations’ unexpected expenses, including those due to canceling events or travel.
International students, including LL.M. or S.J.D. students, have their own concerns about next steps.
“Many of them are trying to figure out whether they can go back home or not, and whether they should go back home or not,” Parr said.
Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies Adriana Vito said since UVA shifted to remote work, she has been meeting with LL.M. students individually through Zoom to address their concerns. She is also hosting a group Zoom meeting on Friday afternoons for LL.M. and S.J.D. students “to connect, cheer each other up and maintain our sense of community.”
“Last week we had 35 students attend our Zoom call, including a student who left for Germany and enthusiastically joined us from there,” Vito said. “It is a joy to see students reconnect and support each other through this.”
Goluboff said she is also looking forward to meeting with each class of students via Zoom in the coming days during a series of “coffee breaks.”
Adapting to Online Life
Davies said moving to a remote working environment is tough for everyone.
“We have to make space in our homes that we did not ordinarily have. We have to share our workspaces in ways that we don’t ordinarily,” she said. “I know I get lonely without the in-person interactions that punctuate my normal day.”
The Student Affairs Office is normally a hive of activity, with students often dropping in for a meeting or to say hello and grab a snack.
Now, that hive has moved online to Zoom meetings, emails and phone calls, and Student Affairs is working to build community online in other ways.
“We recently established Facebook groups open to the Law School community that offer some respite from the onslaught of news that we are all getting, and as a way to deal with some of the boredom that comes with social isolation,” Davies said.
So far the groups are devoted to cooking, pets and talent. The posted content is available only to the group, and community members must request to join.
Student Affairs is also working with the SBA to launch an Unsung Heroes Award to recognize community members who help each other, even if that assistance happens remotely. The honorees will receive an Amazon gift card and recognition on the Law School’s social media channels.
“Nominations came pouring in within seconds of our announcement of the initiative, and the stories shared have been incredibly touching,” said Janes, who began her role as SBA president just before classes moved online.
“The Student Bar Association’s biggest priority is gathering student feedback, questions, comments and concerns in order to ensure they are heard by the administration,” Janes said. “This week, that meant collecting over 800 responses to a student survey on grading policies, so that any decision made by the administration was informed by student input. Our goal is that students receive all the physical, emotional and technological support needed to get through this incredibly difficult time, however we can make that happen.”
Janes said her own classes online “have been going great.”
“Many of mine are happening via Zoom, and my professors are adapting quite well to the new technology,” Janes said. “The hand-raising function, in particular, is making class resemble in-person instruction in a way that I didn’t expect.”
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.