Pomona College adopts universal pass/no record/incomplete grading policy

A large clock tower sits in the middle of a paved plaza
Pomona College will forgo all letter grading for the spring 2020 semester. (Mabel Lui • The Student Life)

Pomona College faculty voted Friday to formally adopt a universal pass/“no record pandemic”/incomplete grading policy for all students’ spring 2020 semester transcripts, becoming the only member of the Claremont Colleges to forgo letter grades in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a professor who attended Friday’s faculty meeting and an email from Dean of the College Robert Gaines.

The motion that passed says professors will have the option to assign students a grade of pass, “no record pandemic” or incomplete. If students fail to complete courses in which they receive an incomplete, though, it will revert to no record and be stricken from the student’s transcript, with no credit awarded. 

A pass will count for all major and minor requirements, including senior exercise. All transcripts will also note “COVID-19: Enrollment & grades reflect disruption of Spring 2020.” 

The move comes after weeks of intense debate and discourse, as students have vied for their preferred policies since Pomona announced it was moving all classes online March 11.

“The process to reach this decision was long, careful, and deliberative, involving unprecedented collaboration between the respective governance structures of both students and faculty,” Gaines said in the email. “I am deeply grateful to ASPC, the Faculty Executive Committee, and all members of our community who have participated in this critical discussion. Moreover, I am proud of the thoughtful leadership and process provided by ASPC and the Faculty Executive Committee.”

A vocal portion of the student body has been advocating in recent days for a universal-A policy or a universal pass policy with no failing option. The faculty’s decision not to implement these proposals is likely to spark further controversy.

In a resolution sent to the chair of the faculty Friday morning, ASPC advocated for a universal pass/incomplete grading system, opposed opt-in letter grading and said that no student should receive a failing or no-credit-equivalent grade for any course this semester. 

In a report using survey data from the Pomona student body and released to students April 5, ASPC explained the policy could address the concerns of marginalized students who have met difficulty participating in online classes. Such students argue that inequities in socioeconomic status could have a dramatic impact on ability to complete coursework and attend class now that students have been sent home.

Despite advocating for a universal pass/incomplete policy, ASPC Senate was excited by Friday’s vote and the collaboration between student government, faculty and administration which led to the decision.

“We hope our collaboration can serve as an example for future cooperation between students and the college,” ASPC President Miguel Delgado-Garcia PO ’20, incoming President Payal Kachru PO ’21, Vice President for Academic Affairs Isaac Cui PO ’20 and incoming VPAA Sean Volke PO ’21 told TSL via message. 

“Student activists … worked hard to represent marginalized students in the days leading up to this decision and this work deserves to be acknowledged. We are pleased that today’s decision was a response to student input and voices,” they said.

The ASPC report was brought in front of the faculty April 8. Faculty reviewed the report and heard from Delgado-Garcia and Cui.

Prior to reviewing the ASPC report, a faculty survey taken by the Faculty Executive Committee found a minority faculty in favor of enacting a universal policy. In a straw poll taken after the ASPC report’s findings were released, a majority of faculty supported a universal grading system.

Before Friday’s meeting — the most recent in a string of meetings where grading policy was discussed — the Faculty Executive Committee asked faculty in an email to keep deliberation to a minimum.

“Any further discussion should meet an extraordinarily high threshold regarding new ideas or points of view that have not been in front of the faculty over the past weeks,” they wrote. “Prolonging our final decision …  does little to help our students in this time of heightened stress and uncertainty.”

The faculty first voted down amendments Friday that proposed an A/no record pandemic/incomplete policy, a pass/no record pandemic/incomplete policy with a letter grade option, a universal pass/incomplete policy and a universal A policy.

They then voted for an amendment converting incompletes to “no record pandemic” on final transcripts and approved the original pass/no record/incomplete motion.

The faculty was originally set to vote on the grading policy Wednesday, but technical difficulties delayed the voting and the meeting recessed with only one amendment struck down — an amendment to implement an A/no record/incomplete policy. But in an email to faculty later Wednesday, Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr announced that faculty would re-vote on the amendment due to technical difficulties.

Electronic voting was tested with a small group in advance of the meeting Tuesday, but failed when over 150 voting faculty members attempted to vote, a professor in attendance said.

In the five weeks since Pomona announced it would be sending students home and moving all classes online, tensions have heightened among Pomona students and faculty awaiting a final decision. 

Some students have discussed an academic strike if the college did not adopt the universal pass/incomplete policy the faculty voted down Friday. 

The policy the faculty passed was initially unpopular among many students, compared to other potential options. In a survey conducted by student group 5C Students for Grade Equity, Pomona students supported a universal pass/fail policy the least out of six options given — the option most similar to the universal pass/no record system proposed in the motion. Forty-one percent of Pomona students responded to the survey.

A B+ grade floor, grade inflation and universal pass or pass/fail proposals with letter grade options were all at least 17 percentage points or more popular, and a universal pass proposal gained 50.1 percent support.

Student discourse online around grading policies had grown increasingly heated in recent days, which prompted Starr to close the Wednesday faculty meeting to students and reporters, Starr said in an email to students Thursday night. Faculty meetings are normally open to Pomona students, though the meeting chair — Starr, in this case — has the power to close the meeting to students, according to the Pomona College Faculty Handbook. 

“I wanted to give faculty space to speak with one another … given that some of the discourse online about the grading policy has included invective against individual faculty and individual students, as well as groups of individuals,” Starr wrote in the email.

The passed motion was written by the Faculty Executive Committee and released to the faculty Monday. It asked faculty to “exercise the highest degree of flexibility and compassion regarding student learning and expectations.” 

Harvey Mudd College and Scripps College are allowing students to opt in to take individual classes pass/no credit or pass/fail, respectively, while Pitzer College made “Satisfactory Pandemic”/”No Record Pandemic” the default and allows students to opt out. Claremont McKenna College also announced its updated grading policy Friday — its students can elect to take any class on a credit/no credit basis.

Though the faculty’s decision strays from those of the other four Claremont Colleges, it follows in the footsteps of many peer institutions across the nation. Harvard University, Columbia University, Barnard College, Williams College and other schools have chosen similar universal grading policies since moving classes online mid-March.   

Grading in the consortium will follow students’ home institutions’ policies, Scripps and HMC officials said when announcing their updated grading policies. That means that Pomona students taking courses at other 5Cs won’t have the option to receive letter grades, even if those colleges allow them.

This article was last updated April 19, 2020 at 5:43 p.m.

This article was updated April 17, 2020 at 10:00 p.m.

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