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Dear Stanford Community,
 
We hope that all of you are taking time during this break to care for yourselves after the stresses of the past few weeks. We’re writing to inform you about a policy conversation that will be occurring in the Faculty Senate tomorrow, and we’re hoping to get your input so that we can voice student perspectives to faculty. Due to the sensitive nature of this debate, we ask that you read on carefully before filling out the feedback form at the end of this email.
 
The main issue on the table is a proposal to change the default grading basis for Spring Quarter to Satisfactory/No Credit instead of letter grades (to clarify: S/NC differs from C/NC in that you must earn at least a C-, not a D, in order to pass. For more detailed information, you can check out this link from the Registrar’s Office). This proposed policy option would mandate S/NC for all University courses, both undergraduate and graduate, with the exception of courses in the Graduate School of Business, the School of Law, and the School of Medicine MD program (unless these schools decide to opt in). This proposal also includes provisions so that departments would be urged to count courses taken for S/NC toward undergraduate major requirements and for WAYS/THINK/PWR credit; they also would not count toward the 36-unit C/NC limit for undergraduates. Regardless of the grading policy chosen moving forward, the University will include explanatory language on all students’ transcripts explaining the different academic rules in place for the Spring 2020 quarter. 
 
In this email, we will explain pros and cons of the main proposal (#1) as well as variations that the Faculty Senate will be considering. We know this email is lengthy, but we want to make sure you can be as informed as possible!
 

Proposal #1: Universal S/NC

The Universal S/NC proposal has several key motivations, including:
 
  • Ensuring education equity. Online learning exacerbates the inequities that students experience away from campus, and those who are most affected by the COVID-19 crisis may face serious barriers to academic success during Spring Quarter. Many students lack a quiet place to work in their place of residence, do not have adequate internet access, are experiencing homelessness, don’t feel safe in their current situation, serve as caretakers for family members, and/or live in time zones that make it difficult to call into synchronous lectures or discussions. In addition, online learning technology is not always accessible to students with disabilities.
    • Even if instructors offer flexibility to students during Spring Quarter, this still places the burden on FLI students, international students, and other affected populations to disclose their personal circumstances, and it forces instructors to make complex grade calculations based on these individual circumstances.
    • Even if this policy were to be opt-in instead of mandatory, it still raises equity concerns. Students who feel that they can improve their GPA by taking classes for a letter grade would likely choose to do so, while students who are facing challenges may be more likely to opt for the S/NC option. This could create a situation in which students with stable situations get a GPA boost, while more disadvantaged students do not have that same opportunity. A universal, mandatory policy would prevent this inequity.
 
  • Providing a buffer against the uncertainties of the next several months. If the COVID-19 pandemic continues according to projections, many instructors, TAs, and students are likely to get sick, which could disrupt classes. Moreover, Spring Quarter is a giant online experiment of sorts. Technological issues, the inability to provide traditional assessments bound by the honor code, and other challenges may make it difficult to provide traditional grades, and students might stress about how their grades will be assessed in this new environment. Universal S/NC would lower the stakes of this experiment.
 
This proposal also has several counter-arguments, including:
 
  • Depriving students of choice and prejudging their resiliency. Mandating universal S/NC could be interpreted as a lack of trust in students’ judgment and their ability to succeed in spite of trying times. In this view, students should be allowed to make individual choices about what is best for them.
  • Impacting students’ future success. Students may worry that they could be penalized by employers and/or graduate school programs for having S/NC courses on their transcripts. While mandatory S/NC has been enacted by a number of Stanford’s peer institutions in the U.S., employers or graduate schools overseas might not understand why students’ grades were S/NC for a quarter.
  • Students lose the opportunity to improve their GPA. Some students may feel disadvantaged because they cannot improve their GPA using Spring Quarter 2019-20 classes. This might be of particular concern to undergraduates who are applying to professional schools, such as law school or medical school. Faculty also lose the ability to reward outstanding work with a high grade.
  • Students might not take classes seriously. If classes are online and not for a letter grade, some students might slack off and not put in effort toward assignments, discussions, and group projects.
 
We understand that this proposal raises some initial questions about major requirements and accreditation standards. If this policy were implemented, every major and minor would be highly encouraged to accept courses taken as S/NC instead of for a letter grade without penalizing the student. In other words, Proposal #1 would likely not affect undergraduates’ progress within their major or minor. Additionally, in response to these proposals at schools nationwide, many nationally accredited programs have said that they will not penalize students for enrolling in coursework under a Universal S/NC system. For example, medical schools across the nation have explained to University administrators that there will not be any negative consequences for Stanford students enrolled in S/NC coursework if this policy were implemented. 

Proposal #2: Optional C/NC

The Faculty Senate will also be discussing implementing an optional, opt-in version of the policy outlined above. Instead of mandating a Universal S/NC system, the second policy would only require that every student have the opportunity to take any class for C/NC or for a letter grade, with the option to count C/NC classes toward major requirements (departments are strongly encouraged to enact this policy) and WAYS/THINK/PWR. The major motivations behind this proposal are the following:
 

  • Giving students agency in academic decision-making. Many students may have valid reasons for wanting a graded Spring Quarter. For graduating seniors, Spring Quarter may offer a last opportunity to boost their GPAs for graduate programs, medical school, postgraduate fellowships, and career opportunities. Additionally, some students may have fewer distractions now that they are away from campus and would be able to focus better on their studies.
  • Removing the higher bar for passing a course. Policy #1 changes the requirement for passing a course from a D to a C- or better. That policy makes it more difficult for those students who may have passed the course on a normal C/NC system, but would now be at a disadvantage. With the optional C/NC policy, these students would still be able to apply for regular C/NC status for any course. Instructors will also have the choice to select S/NC for their spring quarter course.
 
While this would give students greater agency in decisions related to their GPA, this proposal has several potential drawbacks:
 
  • Exacerbating educational inequity. As discussed above, under an opt-in policy, students who are most affected by the COVID-19 crisis may disproportionately apply for the C/NC exception, whereas those whose situations permit them to focus on their schoolwork will obtain a letter grade. Thus, this policy might only afford privileged students the chance to improve their GPA.
  • Eliminating the universal policy for major/minor requirements. While the Universal S/NC policy nearly guarantees that there will be no consequences for students’ progress within their academic disciplines, there is no such guarantee with the optional proposal. It would be up to each individual department to decide how they would treat students who chose the C/NC path instead of letter grading. Once again, this could mean that those most affected by COVID-19 might face a greater academic burden. 

 

Proposal #3: Universal A/NC

The ASSU will be proposing a third option for the Faculty Senate to consider--an A/NC system. This proposal responds to the concerns raised by the first two options by simultaneously promoting education equity and allowing for a letter grade on students’ transcripts and a boost for GPA. Essentially, this is the same as Proposal #1, but an S would count as an A for GPA purposes.
 
 Below, we’ve listed key benefits of this proposal:
 

  • Reducing transcript concerns. With this proposal, students will not have to worry about how employers, graduate programs, and accreditation programs will interpret S/NC or C/NC courses on their transcripts. With a letter grade, these programs will be able to verify the completion of courses and will not see a “Satisfactory” or “Credit” on students’ transcripts.
  • Allowing students to still improve their overall GPAs. Some students, particularly seniors, rely on their Spring Quarter grades to help improve their overall GPAs. This is especially true for students who have completed rigorous entrance requirements for professional schools. Through an A/NC system, these students could still obtain the GPA boost that they had expected prior to COVID-19 concerns. 
  • Decreasing the number of students that would feel pressured to take Leaves of Absence. Under a S/NC system, students have raised concerns of what will happen to the arc of their academic success at Stanford. Some may be inclined to simply take a leave of absence instead of having a quarter with inconsistent grading on their transcript, particularly if they are experiencing barriers to academic success. Students should not feel undue pressure to take a leave of absence because of a revised grading system due to COVID-19. An A/NC system would remove this fear and would allow for academic records to be consistent through Spring Quarter 2020.
  • Guaranteeing coursework to count for minor and major requirements. Since this proposal would award a letter grade, departments would have to accept courses for credit towards majors and minors. This eliminates any uncertainty that would exist with any of the other policy proposals.
 
Some of the possible downsides to this proposal are the following:
 
  • Allowing for students to get a higher grade than they would normally. With this proposal, students who earned anywhere from an A- to a C- would still receive an “A” on their transcript. There are concerns that students should not be allowed to earn a 4.0 on their transcript when they didn’t truly earn that grade. Additionally, there are worries that this would only worsen Stanford’s reputation for grade inflation. 
  • Encouraging students to not try as hard as they normally would. There is some fear that students would put in less effort as the bar would be lower to achieve an “A” on their transcript. This could lead to both lower-quality work being submitted and less class participation throughout the quarter. As such, classes that rely on group projects or partner-based assignments may be particularly negatively affected by this change.

 

Share Your Feedback

We wanted to comprehensively present each of the proposals that will be discussed during tomorrow’s Faculty Senate meeting so that students are as informed as possible. Now, we would love to hear your thoughts on the three proposals! If you want to provide any feedback, please fill out this form before 9am PST tomorrow, 3/26. 
 
The Faculty Senate will be meeting via Zoom at 2pm PST on 3/26. Discussion is limited to members of the Senate, but members of the Stanford community may request to attend the meeting by contacting Adrienne Emory (aemory@stanford.edu).


Sincerely,
 
Erica Scott, ASSU President (she/her)
Isaiah Drummond, ASSU Vice President (he/him)
Remy Gordon, ASSU Executive Chief of Staff (he/him)
Jonathan Lipman, ASSU Undergraduate Senator and Rep. to Faculty Senate (he/him)
Jeffrey Rodriguez, ASSU Director of FLI Community Outreach (he/him)
Mac Taylor, ASSU appointed Rep. to the Committee for Undergraduate Standards and Policies (she/her)
 

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