College amends opt-in CR/NC policy to allow C-, D+, D grades to count for credit, creates committee to review all F or NC grades

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Johnson Hall at Occidental College. Sarah Hofmann/The Occidental

In response to a public letter signed by more than 1,000 students petitioning for a revised Spring 2020 grading policy, the college has announced two new academic policy updates via email from Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg April 28. The college will now allow students to convert a grade of D or higher to earn “Credit” in a Credit/No Credit (CR/NC) grading system. The college’s original post-coronavirus policy only allowed for grades of C or higher to be converted to CR, omitting C-, D+ and D grades. The policy would have allowed a student to pass a course but required them to declare the letter grade on their transcript and factor it into their GPA.

Additionally, Sternberg announced that any F or NC grades received by a student will be automatically reviewed — without the student having to petition for consideration — by a specially-appointed panel composed of faculty, Student Progress Committee members and Student Success Team members. The panel will have the authority to change an F/NC to CR, allow for the removal of the course from a transcript without any record of enrollment or assign a retroactive “Incomplete” so that a student may receive CR following the development and completion of a work plan. According to Sternberg, this panel will focus on determining if a student’s grade suffered due to extenuating circumstances not already considered by their professor.

The student-authored letter — which called for a universal policy applied across all classes in which only assignments with a positive grade impact counted toward students’ final grades and requested that final exams, papers and lab reports be made optional — has been signed by more than 1,206 students, 70 alumni and 169 parents as of April 30.*

Sternberg said although institutional academic policy, in general, is the dean of the college’s responsibility, she said in her April 28 email that it is not within her purview to require professors to adopt a specific grading practice for their courses. According to Sternberg, preserving faculty autonomy — or the faculty’s expectation that they are able to conduct their classes and their research without interference from the administration — was a motivating factor in the college’s decision to not implement the letter’s proposed grading policy.

“I don’t know of other institutions in which the administration is telling faculty which letter grades they may assign, or how they must evaluate student work, or the weight they attach to particular assignments, which is what Oxy’s students were requesting,” Sternberg said to The Occidental via email. “The student letter made reference to Pitzer’s faculty, who will be voting on a motion for a ‘universal A’ grading system. Notably, that is a faculty vote, brought forth by faculty, and was not an administrative policy decision.”

Pitzer faculty ultimately voted April 29 to implement a universal “pass”/”no record” system, in which each passed class counts as an A toward a student’s GPA and each failed class is removed from the student’s transcript.

In her earlier April 24 email, Sternberg said a college-wide policy would remove faculty authority over classroom operations and endanger a critical component of academic freedom. She also said she has made repeated appeals throughout the semester urging faculty to grade students with empathy, compassion, flexibility and consideration of extenuating circumstances.

As of April 30, the Critical Theory & Social Justice (CTSJ) department has been the only one to publicly endorse the letter’s proposed policy and implement its changes across all courses. According to a spreadsheet maintained by students who are conducting one-on-one outreach to professors advocating for the letter’s proposal, individual faculty members across all departments are implementing a variety of amended grading policies within their courses. These range from giving all students As, to allowing students to take their mid-semester grades as final grades, to making final projects or exams optional, to implementing the letter’s proposal in full.

In her April 28 email, Sternberg said she cannot compel faculty members to adopt the letter’s proposed grading policies.

“For those faculty members for whom the students’ proposed remedy makes sense in the context of their courses, and who have decided to adopt the grading practices articulated in the letter, I fully support their decisions,” Sternberg said in her April 28 email. “Other faculty have expressed concerns that the proposed grading practices undermine the integrity of their courses, and they have chosen not to adopt them. I respect these faculty members’ decisions as well, and I cannot compel them to act otherwise.”

In explaining why the college did not institute a blanket CR/NC grading system for all classes, in which no letter grades would be marked on transcripts, Sternberg said such a policy would not allow students to retain agency in how their grades are recorded. The college’s decision to not adopt a universal CR/NC grading system was not driven by faculty autonomy, but by concern for students who want or need a letter grade this semester, Sternberg said. This includes those who are close to the 2.0 GPA threshold for graduation and need to raise their GPA and those who need to register a GPA for financial aid.

“When institutions do have a universal Pass/Fail (or similar) system, it does not infringe on how faculty conduct their courses or how they grade or weight assignments,” Sternberg said to The Occidental via email. “Faculty members evaluate students’ work as they normally would, but at the end of the semester, they would have limited options for which grades they could file.”

In a campus-wide email sent April 29, then-Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) president Nina Srdić Hadži-Nešić, Dafna Erana (junior), McKenna Sims (junior) and Jillian Kuo (junior) issued a statement to students reacting to the college’s April 28 announcement and policy revision and acknowledging students’ role in advocating for the change.

“We know today’s announcement by the College was more than disappointing, and it is disheartening to see that despite 1202 signatures from the student body, the College did not change its stance,” the April 29 email said. “This has shed light on the stark contrast between the institution’s rhetorical employment of the word ‘equity’ and its refusal to adopt actual, tangible mechanisms that would alleviate student burdens and inequities.”

Sims said while the revised policy certainly alleviates pressure for some students, one of the primary reasons the student authors backed the policy proposed in the letter was to meet the needs of students who are not necessarily in danger of failing, but rather taking a GPA hit that would make them less competitive for future endeavors.

“This policy does not serve the students who feel as though they could have performed better in a class, but have been inhibited by their circumstances,” Sims said. “While there are recommendations from the college, we have also seen inequities in grading flexibility from professors and this policy does not address that.”

According to Kuo, those specific students’ struggles are not addressed in the new policy, and the burden is still placed on students to plead for accommodations.

“We should not have to validate our experiences and suffering to our professors or the administration for them to provide the leniency and support that we need,” Kuo said.

Srdić Hadži-Nešić said that, for her, the policy update confirmed that institutional change is both incremental and obtained slowly — but that change can be enacted through multiple channels, and the students, faculty and departments who supported the letter made a difference.

“It has been incredibly time-consuming but necessary and I don’t regret a minute of it because it was about something much larger than ourselves,” Srdić Hadži-Nešić said. “It’s interesting how organizing and movements always take a lot of time, even little ones like this one.”

*Signatures as of 6:00 p.m.