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College announces letter grading policy with expanded Pass/D/Fail options for remote fall semester

July 17, 2020

Despite concerns from some students about equity and remote learning in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Clayton Rose announced that the College would return to a letter grade model in a campus-wide email on Thursday, July 2. The decision came out of a meeting the Committee on Governance and Faculty Affairs (GFA) convened with the faculty Committee on Educational Policy (CEP), during which they considered student feedback and recommendations from groups such as the Continuity in Teaching and Learning Group and student affairs staff.

“Even though the college experience has not returned to normal, CEP concluded that a return to standard grading is necessary for the 2020-2021 academic year. The dean [for academic affairs] and I agree with this conclusion,” Rose wrote in the email. “Recognizing that students may encounter COVID-19 challenges, CEP recommends, and the dean and I will implement, several temporary grade-related policy changes for the fall semester.”

Rose outlined the modifications to account for the remote model and accommodate the variety of circumstances students will face during the fall semester. The new policies include extending the period during which students carrying a full load of four courses can opt for one Credit/D/Fail course to November 24 and providing an option to convert a second course to Credit/D/Fail between the seventh and eleventh weeks of the semester. Neither course will count against the total quota of four Credit/D/Fail courses a student may take during their Bowdoin career.

In line with existing limitations, the Credit/D/Fail grading mode cannot be applied towards first-year seminars, distribution and division requirements or most major and minor requirements. However, Rose wrote that the CEP will ask individual faculty members and departments to convene later this summer to discuss potential exceptions to these policies.

The announcement that the College would be returning to a letter grade model came as a shock to some who have been advocating for the reinstatement of the mandatory Credit/No-Credit policy that was implemented this past spring at the suggestion of the GFA and the dean for academic affairs. In his email, Rose described the previous decision as a “temporary, one-semester policy [that] expired at the end of the spring semester.”

Mitchel Jurasek ’21, who started a petition for universal pass/fail for the fall semester that has garnered over 400 signatures, feels that Rose’s announcement neither offered adequate reasoning for the decision nor addressed any of the specific concerns voiced by students. He also cited frustrations with the lack of communication and transparency from the administration regarding the decision.

“I didn’t understand their reasoning for going back to letter grades, given that the situation of COVID has not changed that much since last semester,” said Jurasek in a phone interview with the Orient. “Students will still have mental health [and] physical health problems due to COVID, and many people’s living situations will not have changed. If anything, they will have gotten worse.”

Rose stated that student petitions, both for and against standard letter grades—including Jurasek’s—were taken into account, and he also indicated that the GFA and the CEP had conversations about general concerns regarding equity and the College’s grading model during the decision-making process.

“CEP’s subsequent deliberations included … some of the concerns faculty and students alike have about our practices of and reliance on grading, and the relationship between these concerns and issues of equity … [and] the necessity of significant faculty engagement in substantial changes to our grading system,” Rose wrote.

Ultimately, though, the CEP concluded that “the recommendations of the Continuity in Teaching and Learning Group’s Report for inclusive online teaching for the next academic year,” “additional ways the College will support students in the fall” and differences between “a planned online fall semester and last spring’s ‘emergency’ semester” would allow for a successful transition back to letter grading.

The CEP justified the necessity of letter grades by pointing out that, given that students will “have different residential and course-related experiences in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021,” they feel that a uniform grading policy will need to be applied for the entire academic year. Thus, the implementation of a universal Credit/No-Credit system would result in returning students having three—or in some cases up to four—semesters without grades.

The College’s announcement was met with considerable pushback. Some feel that this plan focused heavily on academics while largely ignoring the real-life strains still being placed on students and their families.

Yordana Gerdzhikova ’23 said that international students and those with home environments not conducive to effective learning are still largely left to fend for themselves.

“It makes me useless in daily life at home. I essentially have to be a burden to the family because I cannot eat, cook and sleep at the same time, so I only have to use the resources my parents provide without contributing,” she said in a message to the Orient.

In an Orient survey gauging student reaction to the College’s decisions regarding the fall semester, many commented on the debate about returning to letter grades versus extending the universal Credit/No-Credit system.

“The College’s decision to return to a normal letter grade system will only compound the struggles for students with less access to resources,” wrote a member of the class of 2023. “It’s a mind-blowing decision, especially considering the fact that the College made the decision to adopt a credit-fail system for the spring semester for equity reasons, and it seems ridiculous to assume that any of the conditions that made that decision necessary will be different in the fall.”

While many other comments echoed this student’s concerns, others acknowledged the same issues but took the opposite position.

“Please make … solid grades,” wrote another member of the class of 2023. “I am first-gen and low-income but have adjusted to the circumstances and really need grades for recruiting and graduate school. Not having grades and applying to internships with just my first semester freshman GPA will be more detrimental to my career than if you make every class Credit Fail again.”

Some students made a connection between the cost of tuition and the debate about grading, arguing that they did not feel it was fair to ask students and their families to pay full tuition for the 2020-21 academic year without having the option to earn letter grades. Others were more in favor of a compromise.

“I think that letter grades SHOULD be an option for the semester,” wrote a member of the class of 2022. “But there should also be a pass/fail option.”

Rebecca Norden-Bright contributed to this report.

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