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Campus & Community

College adopts grading policy changes for spring term

4 min read

Temporary shift maintains educational mission while adapting to pandemic challenges

Harvard College will adopt an Emergency Satisfactory/Emergency Unsatisfactory (SEM/UEM) grading policy for the spring semester, a shift announced Friday by Claudine Gay, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We of course remain committed to academic continuity, but we cannot proceed as if nothing has changed. Everything has changed,” said Gay in a letter to the FAS community, recognizing unanimous endorsement from Faculty Council.

Peer institutions, such as Dartmouth, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology , have moved to similar grading policies for their spring terms. Factoring equity as a prime motivator, Gay said: “[F]or some students the challenges have been more severe. Some have seen parent job losses, or have had to take over child care and other household responsibilities, as health care and other essential workers in their families continue to provide critical support or have become ill themselves. Those who relied on the public library for internet access are struggling to find other ways to join their classmates online, as public buildings are ordered closed. Students in a time zone 12 hours away from us are feeling remote and closed off by time, and by closed borders.”

Gay acknowledged “not everyone will agree with this policy, and I have heard reasonable arguments on all sides.” She charged the Committee on Undergraduate Educational Policy (EPC), a standing committee of the Faculty, to develop a proposal to address the situation. EPC consulted widely with directors of undergraduate studies, received input from the Undergraduate Council (UC) and the Honor Council, consulted with peers and with graduate fellowship, and internship programs.

In a follow-on message to all undergraduates, Amanda Claybaugh, dean of undergraduate education and Zemurray Stone Radcliffe Professor of English, said: “I’d like to thank all of you who spoke out — so passionately and so thoughtfully — about this issue. 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. 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.”

“We of course remain committed to academic continuity, but we cannot proceed as if nothing has changed. Everything has changed.”

Claudine Gay

James Mathew, president of the Undergraduate Council, was “pleased that the policy is universal,” but expressed concern that SEM/UEM might not do enough for issues of equity. The UC had polled students March 22-23 about three models of grading: Universal Pass/Fail, Opt-In Pass/Fail, and Double A (A/A-), which was created by the student group Harvard For All.

“There are concerns — the primary one being that UEM still puts students at risk of receiving a grade of Unsatisfactory. In a SEM C-minus versus Pass D-minus, the threshold is slightly more restrictive, and we have to think about how our most disadvantaged student will be affected. We’re counting on administration and faculty to look out for the students who are especially challenged during these already difficult times.”

Cassandra Extavour, professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and of Molecular and Cellular Biology, calls the policy “absolutely the right decision.”

“Worry about specific grades during a global pandemic should be the least of anyone’s concerns,” she said. “And when students aren’t on our campus they have even greater disparity in access to learning resources than they do on campus.”

Informally polling the students in her own two courses, Extavour said at least 25 percent knew or feared that being removed from campus would negatively impact their learning.

“Pretending this is a normal situation is not facing reality. This is not a normal situation. The changes in the world because of the pandemic are going to be felt for a long, long time to come.”

The College updated its list of FAQs for students with answers to questions about how the temporary policy would affect applications to fellowship programs, graduate and medical school, and promised support from advisers willing to reach out to schools unwilling to accept a SEM grade.

Harvard Medical School, for example, has noted to applicants: “So that no applicants are disadvantaged by policy decisions made by their colleges/universities as a result of this unprecedented event, HMS will accept pass/fail grading for spring 2020 coursework provided it is the policy of the college/university to only award pass/fail grades.”

Said Gay: “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.”