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Harvard College Adopts Universal Satisfactory-Unsatisfactory Grading for Spring 2020 Due to Coronavirus​​​​​​​

University Hall, an administrative building, is located in Harvard Yard.
University Hall, an administrative building, is located in Harvard Yard. By Jenny M. Lu
By Kevin R. Chen and Juliet E. Isselbacher, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard College will adopt a universal satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading system this semester as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay and Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda J. Claybaugh announced in respective emails to faculty and students Friday afternoon.

All undergraduates will receive grades of either “Emergency Satisfactory” or “Emergency Unsatisfactory” in their spring classes. Faculty may supplement this terminology with a “qualitative assessment of student learning” in my.harvard.

The decision comes several weeks after University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced in a March 10 email that all classes would move online and that Harvard would require students not to return to campus after spring break.

The Committee on Undergraduate Educational Policy, an FAS standing committee that oversees undergraduate education, made the recommendation for a universal grading system after conducting a review comissioned by Gay. In its survey, the EPC solicited input from directors of undergraduate studies, the Undergraduate Council, and the Honor Council, as well as from graduate, fellowship, and internship programs, according to Gay’s email.

Gay added that the Faculty Council discussed the proposal “at length,” ultimately granting it a “unanimous endorsement.”

“We of course remain committed to academic continuity, but we cannot proceed as if nothing has changed. Everything has changed,” Gay wrote. “This new terminology is purposefully chosen to indicate the unique nature of this semester in the archival record and to distinguish this semester’s grades from Harvard College’s standard grading system.”

Gay wrote that she feels it is “important” to adopt a universal grade policy, rather than an opt-in approach, for reasons beyond “the apparent equity concerns.”

“As colleges and universities have begun to impose similar temporary grading policies for this semester, graduate and fellowship programs have signaled that they will accept these grades if they were instituted for all students. Their flexibility is less certain in any grading system that retains the option for a letter grade,” she wrote.

Last week, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar Michael P. Burke announced extensions to the deadlines to drop courses and change grading statuses between letter-graded and pass-fail options. Several academic departments also said they would accept pass-fail courses for concentration credit.

In her email to students, Claybaugh emphasized the crucial role student voices played in the decision.

“Our thinking was informed by The Harvard Crimson editorials, by Undergraduate Council proposals, by consultation with the Honor Council, but it was informed just as much by the individual emails sent by so many of you,” she wrote. “We have tried, in this new policy, to address the needs of all of our students, while also responding to the enormity of the situation we find ourselves in.”

Gay conceded that not all students would be pleased with the new system. For the past several weeks, undergraduates have engaged in fierce debates over their preferred grading systems. Some argued they need to raise their grade point averages; others highlighted the unprecedented circumstances in which they will now study.

“Not everyone will agree with this policy, and I have heard reasonable arguments on all sides of the issue. That said, we are facing something that imperils the health of every human on the planet,” she wrote. “I can’t help but be moved by how present our students want to be. But we must in this moment adjust our expectations of them.”

“This grading policy better meets the needs of today, and I hope prepares us to face challenges to come as this situation continues to evolve,” she added.

— Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

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