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As Harvard College students debated grading policies for remote classes in Facebook groups and Zoom calls, so too did administrators in closed-door committee meetings, according to Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda J. Claybaugh.
In an interview Thursday, Claybaugh laid out administrators’ shifting thinking on grading policy over time. She said that in response to student and faculty fervor, the Committee on Undergraduate Educational Policy moved up its timeline for deciding how Harvard would change grading.
Last Friday, Claybaugh relayed to students the decision to adopt a College-wide satisfactory-unsatisfactory system. Under this system, all undergraduates will now receive grades of either “Emergency Satisfactory” or “Emergency Unsatisfactory” for their spring classes.
Claybaugh said concerns over grading amid the COVID-19 crisis began “bubbling up” during spring break, almost immediately after students left Cambridge.
“My own view at the time was, we're not in a position to make a decision, we have to see how it goes, we can't become panicked about how online teaching will go,” she said. “Maybe it will be better than we think; maybe it will be worse. We'll know more after a week.”
However, Claybaugh said the first week of online classes after spring break made it clear that the College needed to act promptly.
“I was getting so many questions and concerns from faculty that I felt like we need to move up the decision making process now,” she said.
The policy represented the outgrowth of feedback from students and faculty, Claybaugh said.
She wrote to directors of undergraduate studies in all departments to gauge their opinion on grading during the health crisis. Many departments had already independently granted their concentrators permission to take departmental requirements pass-fail.
Claybaugh said directors debated the issue “vigorously” for a week over their email list. Faculty first floated the idea of a new grading system after MIT decided to impose a universal pail-fail grading policy.
Initially, professors were divided over the issue — half supported a new universal grading system, and half found an opt-in pass-fail system sufficient, Claybaugh said.
“But over the week, as the impacts of the virus became more and more clear, more and more DUS's were saying, 'We can't do this,” she said.
“I was getting dozens and then scores of emails from students and from instructors, both students saying, ‘My Internet's not working, I'm going to fail a test,’ and really more though hearing from faculty saying, ‘I can't do this. I can't meaningfully compare students to one another’,” she added.
At the same time, Claybaugh said other undergraduates emailed her requesting the grading policy remain the same. Claybaugh and her colleagues presented these dueling positions to the Undergraduate Educational Policy Committee, a Faculty of Arts and Sciences standing committee that oversees undergraduate education.
The committee discussed the issue and ultimately recommended the universal emergency satisfactory-unsatisfactory system. The recommendation then arrived before the Faculty Council, which comprises representatives from each of the FAS's four divisions, for final approval.
“In both groups, there was a consensus that this was what had to happen,” Claybaugh said.
The student body, however, has yet to reach a happy consensus on the matter. In recent weeks, students have clashed over which grading systems would best serve students struggling during the coronavirus pandemic. These heated disputes have flared up across house email lists, Undergraduate Council meetings, petitions, and counter-petitions.
Claybaugh said she was initially uncompelled by arguments for a universal system.
“If I were to take off my dean hat and put on my faculty hat, I would say I was initially opposed,” she said. “I initially thought that opt-in pass-fail was enough.”
However, one week later, she said her views changed as she learned more about students’ difficult circumstances during the pandemic.
What swayed her, in part, was the realization that the opt-in system only gave students the illusion of choice.
“Students who have good access to internet, who do not have a sick family member quarantined with them, who are not in a timezone 12 hours away, who do not have a mother working as a doctor and are worried about that — those students can be described as free to make a choice about whether they want a grade or a pass,” she added. “Other students don't have that choice.”
She also said she worried that, if certain students’ circumstances compelled them to opt into receiving grades pass-fail, they might be penalized in graduate school and fellowship applications.
When Harvard Medical School announced it would only accept non-letter grades for a student’s required courses if their school had imposed a universal system, Claybaugh said the announcement cemented her new stance.
“Where Harvard Medical School goes, other schools will follow,” she said.
Claybaugh also said the committee weighed alternative grading paths proposed by undergraduates, finding them lacking for various reasons. Undergraduate contingents suggested universal pass-fail, universal pass, and “Double A” systems.
While Claybaugh said the committee understood the impulse behind the latter two proposals, they ultimately nixed them because accreditation bodies often do not recognize grades if there is no possibility a student could receive a fail.
“They don't find it meaningful if the worst you can do is an A-minus. Then your grades provide no information,” she said. “The whole semesters' worth of grades coming out of Harvard would not be taken seriously by fellowships. There has to be a possibility to not do well.”
Since the committee’s announcement, some students have questioned why the College decided on a universal satisfactory-unsatisfactory system in lieu of a universal pass fail system.
Under a pass-fail system, a pass grade includes letter grades of D-minus or higher whereas under a satisfactory-unsatisfactory system, a satisfactory grade is the equivalent of a C-minus letter grade or higher.
Claybaugh said the College said the committee decided to implement the latter option because they believed maintaining certain academic standards was important.
“We need a Satisfactory at Harvard to mean something acceptable,” she said. “So we felt that it was important to preserve SAT as a grade you could be proud of.”
Claybaugh said that after she announced the universal policy, her inbox flooded with emails from students despondent over being deprived of letter grades.
“I understand why they're upset, absolutely. They made plans for their semester that have gotten upended. They feel that the plans they are making for their lives are being called into question right now,” she said.
Still, she said the tenor of student emails has changed in recent days.
“I've started to get emails from students saying, ‘Thank you, I've just fallen ill. I don't know how I could keep up with my classes.’ ‘Thank you, my mother's just fallen ill,’” she said. “As the medical reality of this starts to hit students, they're going to see that we couldn't carry on as if things had not changed.”
Claybaugh said faculty members have expressed concern over the new grading system would complicate calculating Latin honors, evaluating senior theses, and judging for undergraduate academic prizes.
“Then a faculty member, usually someone in the biological sciences, would say, ‘What are we talking about? We're in the middle of a global pandemic, and millions of people are going to die,’” she said.
While Claybaugh said she recognizes student frustration with the new change in grading, she similarly hoped for a “perspectival shift” about the significance of grades.
“A number of students wrote to me to say, ‘Well, there's no point in my courses anymore now that I'm not getting grades,’” she said. “But I hope that they will continue to engage in their courses because their instructors are making great efforts under quite difficult circumstances to try to keep teaching. And I think there's a lot to still be learned. And I hope that students will realize that grades are not the beginning and the end of their learning.”
—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.
—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.
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