Faculty reject universal credit/no credit grading model, vote ‘yes’ on opt-in system

Final decision in long-winded grading debate ends with optional credit/no credit system that bears similarities to current choices

By RAIN JI

BENJY RENTON
The new system was approved in a vote with 309 members of the faculty, even though initial decisions were made by a smaller ad hoc academic continuity group.

Faculty voted down the motion that would change Middlebury’s current grading policy to a universal credit/no credit system, with 35% voting in favor (94 faculty) and 65% voting against (175) during Friday morning’s meeting.

Immediately after, Professor of Mathematics Peter Schumer submitted a proposal suggesting an opt-in credit/no credit grading policy for spring 2020. This proposal was passed by the faculty, 95% in favor (295) and 5% against (14). Since faculty has final jurisdiction over academic policies, the 2020 grading policy will be opt-in credit/no credit, which bears some similarities with the current opt-in Pass/D/Fail system. 

The difference between this proposal and the system proposed by the ad hoc academic continuity group is that a “no credit” mark does not factor into one’s GPA, and that any grade of D or higher will convert to a “credit.” Further, this proposal gives students until May 19 to revoke credit/no credit. By then, students would have finished all their exams and final assignments. 

Schumer disapproved of Bremser’s proposal, citing that faculty should have complete control over their classes and evaluations of students. He also argued that students will lose their motivation to continue working on their courses if they do not have the option to receive grades. He worries students would demand a partial refund for their tuition if letter grades are canceled “since they will have nothing to show for what they have learned and accomplished,” Schumer said in an email to The Campus.

Both votes were conducted anonymously over Zoom using the app’s polling function.

Friday’s faculty meeting began in an executive session while faculty had a conversation with a lawyer on an unspecified issue. According to the college handbook, the faculty may at any point in its proceedings declare itself in executive session, thereby limiting the meeting to voting members only. Campus reporters were let into the meeting following that discussion.

A lengthy discussion

After Professor of Mathematics Priscilla Bremser introduced the mandatory credit/no credit proposal last Friday, a series of discussions ensued. The Student Government Association (SGA) and The Campus’s editorial board both endorsed the universal credit/no credit system in a resolution and an editorial, respectively. Further, students emailed their professors asking them to support one system or the other. One such email, written by Quinn Boyle ’21.5, Jack Brown ’22 and Rati Saini ’22 against the proposal, was published in The Campus as an op-ed and as of Friday morning had garnered almost 20 comments on The Campus website.

On Tuesday, Professor of Film & Media Culture Jason Mittell, among other proponents of the motion, organized an open meeting for faculty. The meeting was closed to all non-faculty members. 

Professor of German Florence Feiereisen, who signed Bremser’s proposal and spoke in favor of that proposal at the initial meeting, said that a mandatory credit/no credit policy would allow more equity for both students and untenured faculty. Feiereisen argued that junior faculty face more stress because they are expected to be continuously productive scholars and exceptional professors while taking care of young children or family members. 

“‘Flexibility’ and ‘choice’ sound good at first, but if you think about it, there are many stakeholders out there who do not have the luxury of choice,” Feiereisen wrote in an email to The Campus.

Professor of Religion Ata Anzali opposed Bremser’s proposal because it takes away all agency, he argued, and that an opt-in system allows faculty and students more choices.

Professor of Religion Justin Doran signed the proposal. He explained that his commitment to the proposal was deepened after reading the email sent to all faculty. “Covid-19 might have broken our grading tools for normal use, but with Professor Bremser’s proposal they can help us with one more lesson: you are not your letter grades,” he said. “And don’t let the world tell you otherwise.” 

“Grades — as imperfect as they are — are less rife with privilege-based biases than other metrics by which college students compete for jobs, scholarships, and graduate school spots,” Professor of Political Science Gary Winslett wrote in an email to The Campus, expressing his support for the opt-in system. 

Senior Lecturer in Japanese Kyoko Davis voted in favor of Bremser’s proposal, arguing that the purpose of this semester should not be proving that faculty can teach well enough for students to get high grades. 

“I strongly believe that the ultimate goal of learning will be attained throughout this unconventional semester with [a mandatory] credit/no credit grading system,” she wrote in an email to The Campus.

Other items

In addition to proposals regarding grading policies, faculty also voted overwhelmingly in favor of another motion submitted by the ad hoc academic continuity group. According to this motion, the college will waive the requirement that transfer credits must be taken in person on college campuses, and that those courses must be letter-graded.   

Professor of Mathematics Frank Swenton briefly presented his proposal on letting go of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS) toward the end of the meeting. Faculty agreed to table the proposal after voting down the calling the question motion (which brings the proposal to an immediate vote). 

Editor’s note: Professor Jason Mittell is The Campus’s faculty adviser. Any questions may be directed to [email protected].

Update: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the faculty votes were anonymous, conducted via a Zoom poll.

We also added the entire passed motion in full, below: 

“For Spring 2020 only, students will have the option to take as many of their current courses as they wish on a credit/no-credit basis. Faculty will still report letter grades for all students, and if a student requests credit/no-credit for a course, the grade for that course will automatically be converted to a credit for grades of D or higher and will be recorded as no-credit if the grade is an F. Students will be allowed to invoke credit/no-credit grading for any course—including courses that count toward all college requirements—and will have until May 8 to do so.

The Registrar’s Office will make available an electronic form that students can use to invoke credit/no-credit for one or more courses if they wish. Students will have a window of time from May 9 to 19 in which they can revoke credit/no-credit for one or more courses if they choose to. There will be a notation on the Spring 2020 section of all transcripts that will convey to outside audiences that a “credit” should be interpreted as a reasonable response to these extraordinary circumstances, and not as indicating diminished rigor.”