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College scraps letter grades for spring semester, despite objections

March 27, 2020

Despite some opposition from students and faculty, the College adopted a mandatory credit/no-credit grading system this week for all spring classes, sparking a debate among students and faculty about the merits and mechanics of online learning.

Senior Vice President and Dean for Academic Affairs Elizabeth McCormack originally announced the policy in an email to students on March 20. McCormack’s email included a memo outlining the recommendation from the Faculty Committee on Governance and Faculty Affairs (GFA), which was responsible for crafting the policy.

On Monday, President Clayton Rose sent a follow-up email reaffirming McCormack’s statement after students and faculty submitted a petition asking the College to allow students to opt in to receiving a letter grade.

Drafted and circulated by Aaliyah Biondo ’22 and Aneka Kazlyna ’20, the petition stated that the current policy would “fail to account for the full scope of student needs” and would cause “many students to treat their courses without the due diligence they deserve.”

In his email, Rose acknowledged the petition, calling it “well-reasoned and legitimate.” But after reviewing the policy again, he continued to believe that a blanket policy would serve the student body best. He cited the GFA’s recommendation for credit/no-credit grading as well as further discussions with McCormack as the basis for the decision.

McCormack said the decision was two-pronged.

“The two key points [in our decision] were, one, the integrity of the grading process in a new format, and, two, the large uncertainties of how this situation might unfold,” she said in a phone interview with the Orient. “There is going to be a variety of circumstances students will be dealing with for the rest of the semester. Some students may have work obligations, family responsibilities or different situations in [their] ability to access technology.”

The student petition was forwarded to all faculty, and many replied to the message, weighing in on the decision. At the time of publication, 336 people have signed the petition.

Professor of Education Doris Santoro, who advocated against the option for letter grades in an email response to the petition, explained her rationale in simple terms: having grades during this crisis makes students’ lives more difficult.

“Students and faculty are all facing different sorts of hardships, and I think it’s reasonable to expect that some of those may increase as the weeks go on,” Santoro wrote in an email to the Orient. “If we could move to giving students feedback on their work that focuses on if they have met or not met the course standards to receive credit, then everyone’s stress level decreases. We can continue to offer quality courses without adding anxiety to the world.”

Santoro also said that, as someone who has extensively researched different models of educational practices and forms of assessment, she thought awarding grades under the current circumstances would be nonsensical.

“Any grades that are given [in this situation], will be suspect. Any transcript that doesn’t have grades due to unilateral institutional decisions won’t be suspect,” she wrote.

The decision, however, was not supported by all members of the faculty, including Professor of Economics Zorina Khan.

“Bowdoin primarily exists for our students,” she wrote in an email to the Orient. “Many of our peer colleges have correctly chosen the more student-oriented policy. As such, administrators need to listen to our students, and respect their democratic right and ability to make the choices that are best for themselves.”

Khan also echoed Biondo’s petition, suggesting that the rigor of classes would decrease without the opportunity to earn letter grades.

“A unilateral decision to take away the ability to earn grades is a tax on students who strive to overcome obstacles. Individuals rationally respond to such incentives, so overall quality at Bowdoin is likely to fall,” she wrote.

Other colleges are also grappling with whether or not to allow letter grades during their semesters of remote learning. Some colleges, including Williams and Harvard, have instituted mandatory credit/no credit systems like Bowdoin, while other peer institutions like Middlebury and Bates have announced that they will offer students the option to receive letter grades.

Biondo is disappointed that the school did not respond to the petition as she’d hoped.

“We live in a democratic society.” Biondo said in a phone interview with the Orient. “We’re putting Bowdoin at a national disadvantage when all these peer institutions are giving people the option. And we’re [the] students, we should have our own agency.”

Associate Professor of English Emma Maggie Solberg, who is a member of GFA, said she was saddened that students were petitioning for grades amidst a pandemic. Solberg added that the petition meant that faculty and administrators were not effectively de-emphasizing grades as an accurate metric of success.

“[The petition] is a sign of how grades are misunderstood,” she said in a phone interview with the Orient. “We say all the time that grades are not important, and nobody believes us. And this scenario has shown me how badly that communication is being put across. Students are not getting it.”

In his email to the student body, Rose reassured students who plan to apply to competitive post-graduate programs that may consider grades and grade point averages as admission criteria, emphasizing that these are extraordinary times.

“Given that all schools … are contending with similar circumstances around the crisis, [employers and graduate schools] will appreciate the unique nature of this semester,” he wrote.

Director of Health Professions Advising Seth Ramus has been in frequent contact with pre-med students and has paid close attention to medical school statements. In an email to the Orient, he explained that most schools have said they will accept a student having credit/no credit marks instead of letter grades in their transcript only if it was mandatory. If the student was given the option to have a letter grade and refused it, the school would not accept that class for credit.

“The short of it is that if the faculty had given students a choice for a grade, that would have been no choice at all. Students would need to take their classes for a grade, or need to repeat those courses for a grade at a later time,” he wrote.

As a student on the pre-med track, Maria Camila Riaño ’22 said that she understands the frustration with the policy but urges her fellow students to think about the bigger picture.

“[The] bottom line is that it’s a bummer because a lot of people were counting on this semester as a chance to show improvement in certain classes,” Riaño said in a phone interview with the Orient. “But the [reasoning] for credit/no credit definitely takes priority … I think that as future health care workers we can practice empathy and expect that medical schools will do the same when they see that we had no choice about this.”

McCormack encouraged students to practice empathy, too, and think collectively during this time of uncertainty.

“We don’t know how bad this is going to get for some people. … We wanted to adopt a policy that benefited all students,” she said.

Alyce McFadden contributed to this report.

Editor’s Note, 3/27/20, 5:59 p.m.: The characterization of Professor Santoro’s opinions was changed to better reflect the subsequent quote.

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