Dean's Desk: Notre Dame dean provides perspective on ‘grading the graders’

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

dean-newton-notre-dameThe university has set aside a small pool of money to provide merit increases to faculty and staff. Allocating this fund is a difficult task because it requires making distinctions among valued colleagues. On the one hand it is important to reward the year’s most productive faculty and staff and those who have taken on additional duties. On the other hand it is necessary to take into account that very few can have a stellar record every year.

The process is not unlike grading a course. As with grading the students in the contracts course I taught last year, I try to review all of our faculty in a concentrated period of time in order to keep the entire cohort in mind during the process. But instead of grading students’ answers to my exam hypotheticals, I review information on faculty scholarship, teaching, and service.

I have a system. First, I read each faculty member’s annual self-evaluation. As you would expect, our professors are asked to report on the number and quality of their publications, the titles of their courses, and the number of credits and students they have taught. But we also ask them to respond to numerous other questions ranging from “how have you helped students in their job searches” to “have you collaborated with foreign institutions on teaching or scholarship in the past year?” And I pay particular attention to their responses to the self-evaluations’ last question, which asks them to reflect on the past year and their goals for the future. The reflective statements this question prompts are often very inspiring. A professor may set forth the challenges she faced planning a new course or the steps he is taking to improve the clarity or rigor of a new course. One professor might set forth an ambitious research agenda; another might report that last year’s plans have been refined in light of a path of inquiry only recently identified; another might report with excitement that teaching a new course has caused her to develop a strong interest in writing in a completely new field.

Next, I review each person’s service to the law school, the university, and the legal profession. These service reports are often long, filled with activities from coaching high school moot court teams to briefing a special rapporteur at the UN.

Teaching is next on the list of major items to review. To do this, I look at the faculty’s course loads and carefully study their student evaluations. Mentoring students, judging moot court competitions, serving as faculty advisor to student organizations, and advising students on papers and law journal notes are all an important part of teaching and duly noted. But the student course evaluations are especially informative on the quality of instruction in the classroom. We have an excellent instrument for this at Notre Dame that breaks down student responses into a number of categories and subcategories, such as “fairness and impartiality,” “helps students develop mastery,” “intellectual challenge,” “clarity of communication,” “amount of time spent on the course out of class” – just to name a few. The instrument presents both means and medians and breaks down four large categories into deciles. You can learn a lot from reading these carefully. For example, the professor who says that her low overall score reflects only that she is a very hard teacher might be asked why the students graded her course’s levels of intellectual challenge so low or why the students do not report spending much time on the class. Or a teacher who opines that he is one of the best teachers in the school because he achieved a score of 4 out of a possible 5 might be gently reminded that at the law school the mean score is 4.1.

I then review the faculty member’s publications over the last year. There are a number of venues for faculty scholarship and so I need to carefully consider the type and quality of the professor’s law review or other journal articles and note whether a given publication is a university or legal press book, a book chapter, an edited volume, a contribution to a legal encyclopedia, or a practitioner’s handbook. Some faculty members also list blog posts or op-eds on legal matters. I then make a judgment about the quantity and quality of all these publications, the latter measured by the quality of the publication venue and the impact of the scholarship on courts and the law as measured by various citation counts, etc. It is not always easy to figure this out, given the number of subfields within law and the increasing development of interdisciplinary scholarship, but over time most of us develop an understanding of the strength of various publications. Having written and taught for many years, I strongly believe that my scholarship has informed my teaching and vice versa, so I give equal weight to scholarship and teaching in my yearly determinations and I suspect most deans do the same.

Much of the popular press would have us believe that law professors only write impenetrable and useless articles on arcane subjects. In truth most faculty do hope to influence their fellow scholars, but they also write to shape the development of the law, whether it be regarding the appropriate use of precedent, the taxation of nonprofits, fiduciary duties, restricting testamentary freedom, the proper resolution of cases before the Supreme Court, the role of confusion in trademark doctrine, an empirical perspective on antitrust law, or the impact of closing parochial schools on the quality of life in neighborhoods – just to name some of the scholarship published last year by Notre Dame law professors.

Each spring as I undertake this faculty review I am humbled by the amount of work undertaken by my colleagues to mentor our students, contribute to the development of the law, increase the academic reputation of the law school, and build a great community. It is a privilege to be a member of such a community.•


Nell Jessup Newton is the Joseph A. Matson Dean and Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School. She has served as dean since 2009. The opinions expressed are those of the author.


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  2. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  3. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.

  4. rensselaer imdiana is doing same thing to children from the judge to attorney and dfs staff they need to be investigated as well

  5. Sex offenders are victims twice, once when they are molested as kids, and again when they repeat the behavior, you never see money spent on helping them do you. That's why this circle continues