TSL exclusive: Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr talks grading specifics, consortium coordination and fall contingencies

A smiling female in a black shirt in from of a stone wall.
In an exclusive interview with TSL, Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr answered questions ranging from Pomona’s grading policy to plans for fall 2020. (Courtesy: Pomona College)

In an exclusive interview with TSL, Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr spoke about the specifics of Pomona’s grading policy, consortium coordination and fall contingency plans amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Most questions were asked over the phone, but some follow-up questions were answered over email. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Q: Under Pomona’s new grading policy, does each professor get to determine what the standard or grade floor is for what constitutes a “pass”?

Yes, this will be at the professor’s discretion. Some will certainly elect to keep the typical practice. 

Q: Does that mean professors will be able to pass all their students — or “NRP” all their students — as they see fit? Will the college regulate that?

Students can petition as normal if they feel their grade is unfair and that can go through normal academic channels. There is definitely a sentiment among faculty that we want to be generous towards our students and treat everybody as human beings in difficult circumstances, and we believe all of our students will be trying hard.

Every student at Pomona got here because they are smart and work hard … The expectation is, everyone please continue to do your work … It’s important for your next class and letters of recommendation as you graduate, but this is not a situation in which faculty are seeking to be punitive.

Q: Does each professor have full discretion over how their class is being run right now? For example, some professors have decided to call off class almost entirely — what do you think about this?

Under our policies, each faculty member always has full discretion over how to run their classes. However, we do have some expectations. [Attached] is a text sent to the faculty by the Dean of the College, Bob Gaines, regarding expectations for teaching online.  

Q: How did each of the 5Cs end up announcing separate grading policies? Was there discussion about adopting a universal policy? Why did or didn’t this happen? 

A universal policy was adopted in early March by the Academic Deans Council, after significant work on this by the registrars of the 5Cs. As the situation continued to evolve, students and faculty on each of the campuses began to take up this issue and some, like Pomona, have passed motions that supersede the decision (opt-in P/NC extended to the end of the term) made by the Academic Deans Council. The adoption of separate policies on separate campuses provides significant additional complications that remain to be worked out by the Academic Deans, however, we are all committed to the premise that the grading policy for a student is determined by their home campus, and follows that student when enrolled in courses at other campuses.

Q: When did Pomona specifically begin to discuss options for enacting its own individual policy?

Pomona started to discuss enacting its own policy after ASPC came to the Executive Committee with its own report about students and concerns. We invited Miguel [Delgado-Garcia PO ’20] as president and Isaac [Cui PO ’20] as head of academic affairs to present to the faculty about the findings the ASPC survey produced.

That really was the point that faculty considered changing from the unified policy of all the undergraduate colleges to hearing as best we could what the concerns of students at Pomona were regarding grading. 

Clarification: The April 8 Faculty meeting at which Delgado-Garcia and Cui presented the results of the ASPC report to the faculty was not the first time the faculty considered enacting a Pomona-specific policy. ASPC approached the Executive Committee March 26 to begin the process of developing a Pomona-specific policy, Starr said in a follow-up email. A survey was released from the Executive Committee to faculty April 2 to gauge faculty opinion on the topic. Delgado-Garcia and Cui presented the ASPC report to faculty April 8. 

Q: What was the conversation like among college presidents and deans when deciding to each enact separate policies?

We like to walk together, but each of us has a different culture and the different faculty bodies began to deliberate. The presidents acknowledged that this is a faculty decision faculty decide grades. The Pomona process was strongly led by the FEC, who worked with ASPC to come up with a proposal, given that it was clear that there were concerns about the mutual policy.

Q: When administrators started to see an uptick in student activism and calls for policies that went further than the universal 5C policy, was there thought given to enacting a revised policy together, or was it pretty clear that each school would go its own way?

The presidents left that with the academic deans. I’d say that it became clear there were very different views on the different campuses, and the academic deans did really try to keep as much harmony as possible. But grading is one of those things that is up to the faculty and the faculty of each college is independent.

Q: In what capacity or how frequently are you and the academic deans meeting with those of other schools?

The presidents are meeting weekly and the academic deans and deans of students are meeting weekly as well.

Q: I have a follow-up regarding how the grading policy rollout will work across the 5cs, given that so many students take courses at other colleges. You refer to “significant additional complications” that different policies across the 5Cs will cause. Can you go into any more detail about what you foresee these challenges being, and how we will address them?

There will definitely be some discrepancies because of the way the schools have laid it out. The first thing that is important to know is that Pomona faculty members write individual recommendation letters to each student. This pandemic didn’t just happen in Claremont. I talked to [presidents of peer institutions] today who have adopted similar policies as Pomona to understand their understanding of what grading this semester means, and to get a sense of how their graduate schools and medical schools are approaching grading in admissions. Both of those presidents have adopted similar positions, and the deans of all our colleges are talking together about making a statement to help contextualize that this decision is far beyond what any single college is dealing with.

Q: I know you must be thinking about the fall, and I’m wondering if there’s been talk of contingency plans and what the discussions around that have looked like. 

Our preference would be for everyone to be on campus in the fall. The public health guidance is going to guide everything we’re going to do. We have a lot of things on the table: a late start, a blended start where we have the first unit of the semester online and welcoming students back later. We’re a residential liberal arts college, and that’s one of the things we value most. 

The level of sadness I saw in our faculty when we announced we were going online is really deep. There were faculty crying because we want to be with our students that is the most important thing for us, save everyone being healthy.

So, my magic 8 ball still says ‘ask again later,’ but all the planning is so that when we get to various inflections points, like announcements from the governor or public health authorities, we can do the responsible thing that jives with what is most important — supporting the education of incredible kids.

Q: Do you anticipate difficulties providing the same level of aid to students given the financial disruptions of COVID-19?

No. We will only be increasing aid.

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