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Undergraduate Council Endorses 'Student-Friendly' Opt-In Pass-Fail Grading System

The Undergraduate Council met in the Smith Center before most Harvard operations moved online in March to quell the spread of COVID-19.
The Undergraduate Council met in the Smith Center before most Harvard operations moved online in March to quell the spread of COVID-19. By Aiyana G. White
By Hannah J. Martinez, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard’s Undergraduate Council passed legislation calling for “student-friendly” grading policies that would extend the drop and pass-fail deadline and allow courses taken as pass-fail to count for concentration and general education credit in a meeting Sunday.

Quincy House representative Michael Y. Cheng ’22, Leverett House representative John E. “Jake” Leary III ’22, Lowell House representative Samyra C. Miller ’21, Currier House representative Jack M. Swanson ’22, and Currier representative Fernando Urbina ’22 sponsored the act, which resolved that the UC would publish a statement on Monday calling on the Educational Policy Committee to make these changes in light of the pandemic and an unusual semester.

The legislation cited similar changes made by peer institutions this fall such as Yale University and Princeton University to accommodate students affected by the pandemic.

“This is not a normal semester, and it is morally irresponsible to maintain a normal grading policy. Harvard can do better,” the legislation reads.

Cheng said the legislation prompts administrators to reconsider the current grading policies.

“Considering that a lot of peer colleges like Stanford and Penn have provided significant pandemic related flexibility to students, this was just a statement that was asking administration to look at what other schools were doing,” Cheng said.

Cheng emphasized that the changes — which would extend the deadlines to drop classes and change to pass-fail grading to Nov. 30 and allow courses taken as pass-fail to count for concentration and general education credit — would accommodate students who find themselves in difficult situations.

“This will give students more flexibility, if they need it to just switch classes to pass-fail or drop,” he said.

Cheng also stressed the timing of the legislation. The Educational Policy Committee, which determines grading models for the College will meet Tuesday, according to Cheng, and will not meet again until Nov. 17.

Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda J. Claybaugh wrote in an email to The Crimson that the Educational Policy Committee was “committed to ensuring that students have a good academic experience this year.”

“I'm sure that they'll consider this proposal with great care,” she wrote.

The legislation passed unanimously.

When the College moved to online learning in the spring, students hotly debated the grading system that the College should adopt.

Council President James Mathew ’21 and Vice President Ifeoma E. White-Thorpe ’21 endorsed the “Double A” grading model, calling it “the most equitable academic solution.” The UC, however, voted for a universal pass grading model after a spirited three-hour-long Zoom call shortly afterward. A UC survey indicated that 19.3 percent of respondents were in favor of a universal pass-fail system, with 56.7 percent calling for the “Double A” model and 24.5 percent selecting the optional pass-fail model.

The College eventually implemented emergency satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading, with the option for faculty to leave a qualitative assessment of a student’s performance.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay said in March that the policy “better meets the needs of the day.”

The College announced over the summer that grading would return to normal in the fall.

Cheng said the legislation would put the College in step with peer institutions on grading policies.

“We’ve seen that these other schools have made accommodations,” he said. “We’re asking them to look at it the same way.”

Correction: October 6, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the UC endorsed extending the add-drop deadline. In fact, the legislation proposed extending only the drop deadline.

Correction: October 6, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Michael Y. Cheng ’22 as citing "tier" schools. In fact, he said "peer" schools.

—Staff Writer Hannah J. Martinez can be reached at hannah.martinez@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinezhj.

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