A Unique Opportunity to Learn Administrative Law

May 29, 2020
Students pivot in innovative project tracking agencies' responses to pandemic
professor joel eisen.

Professor Joel Eisen is the first to admit that administrative law – the law of how federal agencies make regulations and take other actions – is a fairly dense subject. So when his course started to meet virtually after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, he was eager to make it as engaging as possible. “I realized right away that public discourse was going to be dominated by how federal agencies would develop policies to respond to the pandemic,” said Eisen. There were many questions about COVID-19’s impacts on our workplaces, schools, and home life. How would the Food and Drug Administration approve new possible treatments? How would the Department of Labor decide how to protect workplaces from spreading COVID-19? Those and many other agency actions, some of which would modify or relax existing laws, became a jumping-off point for a new direction for the remainder of his course. 

“Agencies are addressing complex legal questions in real time, quickly,” explained Eisen. The goal, for students, would be to simplify some complexities for the general public. Eisen tasked each team of two students to identify a COVID-related policy issue, and to analyze how an agency planned to address that issue in real-life situations. Students chose policies from various federal agencies – from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to the Federal Drug Administration – and answered four questions: (1) What is the subject and impact of the new policy? (2) How does the policy change existing law? (3) What actions are required to be taken to comply with the new policy? (4) What recourse would any member of the public have who was dissatisfied by the new policy?

3L students Lauren Earley and Robin Nagel examined the Department of Education’s COVID-19 provisions for how schools going online could continue to meet federal law requirements for assisting students with disabilities. After identifying several core legal issues, the students also explained potential legal challenges that citizens might encounter in the policy. They also incorporated news articles and teacher interviews in their report.

“We were very much still applying what we had been learning in the course,” said Nagel. “It’s [about] real impacts on a society, as opposed to a final exam.” In fact, the briefing document that the students created was a partial replacement for the final exam. Through this project, explained Eisen, “It was possible to make online instruction a different experience by promoting student engagement during one of the most challenging times their legal education has ever seen.”

The end results, for students, was “a terrific opportunity to give them some real-world exposure to what agencies actually do, at the same time that agencies themselves were grappling with how to respond to the pandemic,” said Eisen.

Access the students’ full briefing document here.