Divided Devotion

In fall 2002, a year after the School of Law opened, I joined its faculty to teach the required federal income tax course and some electives. I was drawn to its faith-based mission and its emphasis on promoting social justice. As a non-Catholic, I understood that I would be in an environment where Catholic social…

In fall 2002, a year after the School of Law opened, I joined its faculty to teach the required federal income tax course and some electives. I was drawn to its faith-based mission and its emphasis on promoting social justice. As a non-Catholic, I understood that I would be in an environment where Catholic social teaching and the Catholic intellectual tradition would be two important threads in the fabric of my classes and in the broader intellectual life of the law school. I looked forward to connecting with students in such an environment because of my successful experiences in encouraging law students and staff to rely on their spiritual identities to help them through difficult and stressful times. In those individual instances, I discovered that a person’s faith could be a source of strength and comfort. This was my personal context at the time after having taught law for 20 years at the University of New Mexico.

The School of Law remains serious about faith and its Catholic identity. Faith, especially with a connotation focusing on God and on Catholicism, has a lot to do with the University of St. Thomas School of Law, and this importance of faith is reflected in the official mission statement:

The University of St. Thomas School of Law, as a Catholic law school, is dedicated to integrating faith and reason in the search for truth through a focus on morality and social justice.

Given this context of a seriously faith-based Catholic law school, I decided to study the connection, if any, between faith and academic performance. My hypothesis was quite simple: Students who have a strong faith identity should do better than expected at a faith-based law school when compared to students with a weaker faith identity. I based my hypothesis on research showing a connection between learning and a student’s positive motivation and emotion. I assumed that an individual student with a strong faith identity would do better than expected at a law school that integrates faith into its curriculum. Much to my surprise, the data from my study showed a negative correlation between a strong spirituality index and expected academic performance.

Connecting faith to academic performance in higher education has been the subject of only two studies, neither involving legal education. One study found that attendance at religious services had a significant positive impact on college grades. In other words, college students who attended religious services more often were likely to have higher grades. The positive effect on satisfaction with college was even stronger. The other study found in general that spirituality-enhancing activities did not adversely affect positive educational activities such as studying and deep learning. But when looking specifically at faith-based colleges to the ex­clusion of secular or primarily secular institutions, students tended to experience less learning of long-term value but still engaged in educationally purposeful activities and achieved the desired outcomes of college.

With my empirical study, I started with the hypothesis that a student with a strong faith identity at a faith-based law school should do better than expected on measures of academic performance. By academic performance, I mean grades in law school courses. I assumed that the faith-based environment would produce positive emotions and motivations that, in turn, would enhance learning. This enhanced learning would enable the affected students to achieve higher than expected grades on their exams and papers. In addition, students who were connected to each other through faith in a faith-based community would help and encourage each other to learn. This mutual support, I hypothesized, would enhance learning and improve grades. In contrast, a student with a weak faith identity might feel isolated or out of place and experience the kind of disaffection that seems to typify many law schools.

The study was quite simple. I used a survey to measure each subject’s spirituality and then correlated this with academic performance reflected in first-year grades. The sample was drawn from the two classes that I taught in fall 2007. I ended up with 97 usable surveys. The surveys were anonymous. The total population of all students entering the law school in 2004, 2005 and 2006 was 427. My sample of 97 had characteristics that were very similar to the classes of 2004, 2005 and 2006. Accordingly, my sample was a good representation of the larger population and provided a basis for making generalizations that apply to the entire population. I constructed a “spirituality index” based on the responses to four questions dealing with 1) frequency of worship, 2) frequency of discussions with those from different faith traditions, 3) the importance of faith in the student’s moral standard, and 4) the view by the student that the legal profession was a divine calling for that student.

I was interested in seeing how each subject actually performed academically in the first-year compared to the predicted first-year average (PFYA). This comparison showed if a student, based on the combined predictors of the LSAT and the UGPA, performed better or worse than expected. I could measure this variance by comparing the PFYA with the actual first-year average (FYA). From this, I constructed a variance index to measure each student’s actual performance compared to predicted performance.

I then compared each subject’s spirituality with his or her variance index. Under my hypothesis, I expected to find a positive correlation. Much to my surprise, I found a negative correlation between strong spirituality and the variance index. The negative correlation was statistically significant, but not terribly robust; however, when the 30 students with the lowest scores on the variance index were selected, then the negative correlation between the variance index and their spirituality was much stronger. This correlation was -0.465, which is even stronger than the positive correlation of the LSAT or the UGPA. When I compared the variance index for high, medium and low spirituality groups, I found that the high spirituality group performed about 0.3 below expectation while the other two groups performed at expectation. To put it in the context of a law student’s first-year grade point average, a 0.3 difference might translate into a 2.7 instead of a 3.0. In terms of class standing, this is about a 20 percent difference, which means ending up in the bottom 30 percent versus the top half.

What explains these results? This could be just a statistical fluke, which is possible given the size of the study; however, the overall statistics show a good sample, and the numbers within the subgroups are fairly large for a study such as this. Perhaps students of strong faith, having placed God at the center of their identity, can see their place in the communities of worship, love, friendship, family, service and education in a balanced way. They see themselves as pursuing multiple vocations. Maybe they have integrated their multiple vocations into their identities and have sought an integrated balance among competing interests. They are prepared to succeed in law school, but they are not prepared to subordinate other important parts of their lives.

My experience in teaching law leads me to conclude that students with a strong religious identity and an ongoing connection to their faith communities are quite resilient and survive law school in such a way that their motivation to succeed remains strong through all three years of law school. Although these students are unwilling to make law school the only concern in their lives, they continue to give their legal studies a balanced place of importance among other important and competing vocations. In contrast, the subset of students who seem overly concerned with law school grades in an unhealthy way work the system to maintain and protect their grade point averages without much regard for learning.

Note: To read the entire study, with footnotes, visit: https://ssrn.com/author=390336. The full article will be published in the fall 2008 edition of the law review at California Western Law School.

Author: Scott Taylor has been a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law since 2002. Previously, he served as a law professor at the University of New Mexico for 20 years. Taylor teaches federal income tax, nonprofit organizations and Native American law. He spends much of his spare time helping tribes develop and maintain tribal tax systems.

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