Faculty choose optional pass/fail over mandatory

A view from the President's Lawn on Nov. 12, 2017. (Asha Iyer / The Tufts Daily) Asha Iyer / The Tufts Daily Archives

Faculty in the Schools of Arts and Sciences and Engineering (AS&E) on March 23 approved temporary changes to Tufts’ academic policies for most undergraduate students, effectively ending the debate raging among students about which alternative grading system would work best for Tufts’ undergraduate student body.

Among the changes approved by the faculty was a temporary new grade called Exceptional Pass (EP), which includes all grades from A+ through D- and allows students to receive credit and still progress toward graduation, according to an email sent to undergraduate AS&E students, faculty and staff on Monday evening. It is available for the spring semester instead of the grade “Pass” under the Pass/Fail (P/F) grading system, the selection deadline for which was extended from April 1 to April 27, the final day of classes.

The EP grading process will work similar to the current process by which undergraduates choose P/F grading, according to Tufts Student Life’s webpage about the decision.

Jim Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, explained that administrators worked alongside faculty members to make the final decision.  

“We hosted a massive on-line meeting of 500 people … it went over two hours. More than a hour was spent discussing and passing the new academic grading policy,” Glaser wrote in an email.

Glaser noted, although this was the first time a faculty meeting was held online, they were still able to productively discuss the current circumstances.

“There were lessons to be learned about procedure and practice. But we were able to have a vigorous debate and to hold a set of votes to get us to an outcome,” Glaser wrote.

He explained that administrators drafted the initial proposal and it was then reviewed by faculty.

Dean [of the School of Engineering Jianmin] Qu and I led our prospective faculty meetings to discuss and vote upon the policy changes.  [Deans of Academic Advising and Undergraduate Studies Carmen] Lowe and [Jennifer] Stephan crafted the original “legislation” that set the parameters of the temporary grading policy,” he wrote. “After they presented it, faculty members asked questions, debated, and voted upon it.”

The School of Arts and Sciences (A&S) debated the optional P/F system and also discussed the possibility of mandatory P/F, according to Glaser. However, the proposal for mandatory P/F failed to achieve enough faculty support.

“In A&S, following that vote, we debated and voted upon a second proposal that came from the “floor” of the faculty to supersede the optional P/F policy that had just passed with a mandatory P/F policy,” he said. “After vigorous debate, we voted on that proposal, and it failed with about 43% percent of the vote.”

Qu wrote in an email that faculty in the School of Engineering also weighed implementing the mandatory P/F system but eventually determined that optional P/F was “the best path forward.”

Glaser also recognized that students’ perspectives and opinions were taken into account during the decision-making process.

 Qu explained that the primary objective of the new grading system is to support students throughout the disruptions caused by COVID-19, because of which Tufts decided to continue classes online after spring break and required most students to leave on-campus residence halls for the remainder of the semester.

“The main goal of making this policy change is to reduce the stress and anxiety that many of our students are facing and provide a system that empowers students to make their own decision for each of their classes based on their own individual circumstances,” Qu wrote.

While Tufts was familiar with the policy changes enacted by peer institutions, the proposal approved by faculty ultimately focused on what was best for the Tufts community and students, according to Qu.

Prior to this announcement by administrators, sophomore Tim Leong, alongside other students, co-authored a Change.org petition, titled “Allow Tufts Students to take Classes Pass/Fail and Still Progress Towards Graduation.” This petition called for a “progressive” P/F system that gave students the option of taking courses P/F, while still being able to use these courses toward graduation requirements.

Leong explained that it did not take very long to outline the petition measures.

“We spent like a day writing up the whole text and editing it,” Leong said. “It didn’t really take too long but we definitely put a lot of thought into what we thought would be the best way to word or frame this really important issue.”

Iyra Chandra, another co-author, explained why the authors sought to organize student support through an online petition.

“I realized how detrimental [the situation] could be and how important it is that we as Tufts students do something about it and we basically saw that other students were doing petitions … [the petition] was something that we could show to the administration,” Chandra, a sophomore, said.

The petition garnered nearly 4,000 signatures.

Senior Olivia Haskin, however, expressed frustration in a post about the policy change on the Class of 2020 Facebook page following the announcement on Monday.

“This ‘EP/F’ thing really has me heated because I’m having trouble understanding how tacking on a letter is in any way different from the norm,” Haskin wrote. “I do like how this lets us choose to take a course pass/fail and have it count for our majors but this strikes me as a fairweather, half-baked, please-everybody type of support for students.”

Haskin had advocated for a mandatory P/F system, referencing a letter written by her sister, a senior at Oberlin College, which has implemented a version of an optional P/F system. Students would be able to approach the job search and graduate school application process without the fear of being considered less competitive with a “P” on their transcript if it came from a mandatory P/F system, according to Haskin.

These changes do not apply to studio coursework taken by Bachelor of Fine Arts and Combined Degree students, whose grade is awarded on a “Credit” or “No Credit” system. According to the deans’ email, students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts will be informed soon about changes to their review board process.

No registration holds will be placed on fall 2020 course registration and the registration period will remain open until late August, according to the deans’ email.

Robert Kaplan contributed reporting to this article.


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