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To: Wellesley College Students
From: Andy Shennan, Provost and Lia Gelin Poorvu ’56 Dean of the College; Ann Velenchik, Dean of Academic Affairs; Megan Núñez, Dean of Faculty Affairs
Re: Response to Student Petition for A/A- Grading for Spring 2020
Date: March 27, 2020

At the beginning of this week, the president, provost, deans, and department chairs received a petition signed by many of you, requesting that the College move to a grading plan this semester that would allow for only two possible grades: A and A-. We are writing to convey the College’s response to the petition and to clarify the processes for grading and awarding honors that will be in place this semester.

We have concluded that the steps recommended in the petition are not the right ones for the College to adopt, but that there are other steps we can take to address your legitimate concerns about the impact of the COVID-19 emergency on students’ academic careers.

To state the obvious, this pandemic has hit us all in the middle of our semester. Our faculty members, supported by the College’s outstanding LTS team, have responded to this unanticipated challenge with dedication, resourcefulness, and creativity, and they are committed to offering a virtual academic experience that is marked by the intellectual rigor and individual attention for which Wellesley is known. At the same time, we recognize that the impact of this emergency on our students is—and is bound to remain—uncertain and extremely variable, depending on where one lives, how badly one’s family and community are affected by coronavirus outbreaks, and what one’s home and personal circumstances are.

These realities—of extreme disruption, inequity, and anxiety—guided the policy that we announced to students and faculty last week in which we addressed the unique challenge the second half of this semester poses by shifting the grading system to MCR/MCRD/MNCR. We stated our reasons for doing so in our announcement. Our highest priority is to do everything in our power to enable all Wellesley students to continue to benefit from excellent instruction and to finish this semester’s coursework and earn academic credit. In the present emergency, we believe there will be such disruption and inequity in the circumstances under which individual students will be doing their work that we simply cannot apply the fine distinctions in performance that are expressed by letter grading. Students’ level of performance will reflect not just their own hard work, preparation, and talents but many uncertain factors beyond their control: for example, the residential conditions in which they are being asked to do the work, the reliability of the technology they are using, and above all the unforeseeable impact of the pandemic itself on their own wellness and that of others close to them.

The petition we received on Monday asked us to modify the MCR/MCRD/MNCR as follows: to assure all students that they would pass every course, whatever their performance in the first half of the semester or the second half; to convert grades of MCRD into grades of A; and to convert MCR grades into grades of A- (all of which grades would be factored into GPAs).

Because it is the responsibility of the faculty to assign grades, we sent the petition to the entire faculty and asked for their opinion of the proposed changes. As of this moment, we have heard back from 158 faculty members. The overwhelming majority (thus far, 82%) have indicated that they would be strongly opposed to implementing the proposal. We share in this consensus. Reducing available grades to A and A- this semester would take away all meaning from those grades. The College would be obligated to note on every transcript that we had suspended our normal grading in favor of A/A-. With that language in place, other institutions, and certainly most graduate programs, would not take our A- seriously, as it would subsume all grades between A- and F. This policy would undermine the credibility of this semester’s grades and we would be concerned that it might have a negative impact on the way grades from preceding or succeeding semesters would be interpreted in the outside world. For these reasons, the College cannot adopt the policy that the petition proposed.

Although we will not be adopting the proposed change in grading, we do plan to address some of the valid concerns that students have raised about the implications of our move to mandatory credit/non grading.

  • To acknowledge the work that students completed during the first part of the semester, we are providing the option of including mid-semester letter grades on academic records, allowing students to demonstrate success in those courses to graduate and professional programs, prospective employers, and fellowship committees.
  • To address the impact of this semester’s grading policy on the awarding of Latin honors to the senior class, we have decided to adjust the method we use for awarding Latin honors to ensure that any seniors who could have graduated with a particular level of Latin honors if they had received the highest possible grades for the courses they were taking for a letter grade this semester will receive those honors. At the appropriate moment, when this emergency has run its course, we will also consider if similar adjustments are reasonable for students in other classes.
  • To acknowledge the challenge that students who entered the College in fall 2019 face in having no letter grades by the end of their first year, we will extend the time frame during which students can petition to have their fall 2019 grades revealed and expand the range of reasons for which they can make that request.
  • Finally, we are working with our colleagues in the Office of the Registrar, in Career Education, and across the faculty to ensure that the College’s grading policy this semester is thoroughly communicated to graduate schools and employers. Many faculty have reminded students of the importance of letters of recommendation and have made clear their willingness to provide, in those letters, more detail than usual about students’ performance this spring. In the past few days, other institutions have announced undergraduate grading policies similar to Wellesley’s, and graduate institutions have begun to address how they will take into account the exceptional circumstances of spring 2020. For example, the admissions office at Harvard Medical School recently announced that it would accept pass/fail grades for spring 2020 if it was the policy of the institution to only have pass/fail grading. It seems quite likely that other medical, law, and graduate programs will follow suit.

While we do not agree with the recommendations in the petition, we agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed in the accompanying message: “[T]he Wellesley community has come together as a resource of support and comfort, making these unnerving times more bearable.” That is our sense, too: From many quarters, we hear the message that we are all in this together. Our concern for equity and fairness, our sense of solidarity, our resilience, and our love of learning are being tested like never before, and this community of students, faculty, staff, and alumnae is rising to the challenge.

We wish all of you the very best in the remaining weeks of the semester, and we are here to support you.