The Faculty Senate on Thursday approved several new grading policies for the 2020-21 academic year designed to give students and instructors some flexibility as online teaching and learning continue amidst the uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Provost Persis Drell; Jonathan Lipman, ASSU undergraduate senator; Adam Banks, professor of education; Vianna Vo, acting ASSU president; and President Marc Tessier-Lavigne discuss the results of the survey that led to the ASSU grading proposal. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Under one of the grading policies approved at the July 30 meeting, all university courses offered for a letter grade must also give students the option of taking the course for a credit/no credit grade, except courses offered by the Graduate School of Business, the School of Law and the School of Medicine MD program, unless they opt into the policy.

It was the second time in recent months that Stanford revised its academic policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, Stanford moved spring quarter academic courses online and implemented a Satisfactory/No Credit grade policy, except for some professional school courses. At the time, the senate cited the challenges students might face learning from home, including lack of access to broadband or a robust internet connection, and lack of a space or place to study.

In other matters, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne presented an update on Stanford’s plans for fall quarter, noting that the evolving public health crisis – rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the Bay Area and across California – may affect Stanford’s plans to bring first-year and sophomore students back to campus in the fall.

In addition, Tessier-Lavigne discussed the workforce reductions that took place across the Stanford community earlier this week, an issue he discussed, along with the budget planning process, in a July 29 letter to the community.

In her remarks to the Faculty Senate, Provost Persis Drell reminded senators that on May 6 the U.S. Department of Education released final Title IX regulations that will go into effect on Aug. 14. Stanford, which has been making substantial changes to the university’s Title IX Policy to bring it into compliance with the new regulations, will post a draft of the new policy for community comment next week.

New grading policies for 2020-21

At the start of Thursday’s meeting, Tim Stearns, chair of the Faculty Senate, noted that the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) recently conducted a survey of students about grading policy preferences and wrote a proposal based on the results of that survey. The ASSU proposal was sent to the senate’s Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policies and to the Committee on Graduate Studies, which developed the recommendations that would be considered at the meeting.

Adam Banks, a professor of education in the Graduate School of Education and a co-chair of the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policies, presented the four grading policy proposals for the 2020-21 academic year:

  • All university courses offered for a letter grade must also offer students the option of taking the course for a “credit” or “no credit” grade, with the exception of courses offered by the Graduate School of Business, the School of Law and the School of Medicine MD Program, unless opted in by those schools.
  • Units of credit taken for a “credit” or “satisfactory” grade will not count toward the 36-unit maximum of credits (27 credits for transfer students) not taken for a letter grade that may be applied toward the 180 units required for the bachelor’s degree.
  • The senate urges deans, departments and programs to consider adopting local policies to count courses taken for a “credit” or “satisfactory” grade toward the fulfillment of degree-program requirements and/or alter program requirements as appropriate.
  • Courses taken as “credit” or “no credit” may be eligible to fulfill general education requirements pending review by the Breadth Governance Board (for Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing); the Thinking Matters Governance Board (for Thinking Matters); the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (for PRW1 and PRW2 classes); and the Writing and Rhetoric Review Board for Writing in the Major.

Speaking in support of the measures, Banks said Stanford needs grading policies that can “withstand some turbulence” – if students have to leave campus in the middle of a quarter, or if students cannot come to campus during one or more quarters as a result of the disruptions to daily life caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Banks said the coming academic year would be very disruptive for students, faculty and staff, not just because of the ongoing threat posed by COVID-19, but also because of the general national climate and the upcoming national election season and more.

“We still don’t know what we don’t know about when or how those disruptions will be felt, and it remains impossible for us to know all of the ways this volatility that we expect will be part of the academic year and how it will affect students, student learning, faculty or teaching conditions,” he said.

In the discussion that followed Banks’ presentation, most senators spoke in favor of the new grading policies, which were similar to grading policies proposed by the ASSU.

The senate also discussed a separate ASSU proposal to allow students to change from a letter grade to credit-no credit after week eight of a course, due to circumstances created by the coronavirus. However, when senators learned that there is already a standard for student requests for such exceptions through the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, they said it was important to let students and faculty know that a process is already available.

The four grading policy proposals received the overwhelming approval of the senate.

Student leaders present survey results

At Thursday’s meeting, Jonathan Lipman, ASSU undergraduate senator, and Vianna Vo, acting ASSU president, presented the results of a June survey that led to the ASSU grading proposal.

The survey, Student Perspectives on Grading in an Age of Uncertainty, garnered responses from 3,717 students, 81 percent of whom are returning undergraduates.

In addition to questions about grading preferences, the survey also gathered student opinions and perspectives about how they had fared learning online during spring quarter; what they thought of taking spring quarter classes for satisfactory/no credit grades; and the barriers they encountered studying remotely; and looking ahead to fall quarter.

Their presentation included poignant first-person anecdotes from students describing the challenges they faced during spring quarter, including from one student who wrote of needing to juggle school work with family obligations:

“Managing Stanford online classes while simultaneously trying to manage the online classes for two elementary-aged kids, one of which has a learning disability, was hectic and consumed all of my time. I barely scraped by that quarter. This story, while it is mine, is not unique. These problems are faced by FLI students, international students, etc. The playing field cannot be level when we are displaced across the world in different environments.”

President’s comments

In his remarks to the senate, Tessier-Lavigne said Stanford is preparing contingency plans in case the evolving public health situation, or state or county health restrictions, affect plans for on-campus operations in the fall or the academic year.

“We are staying as flexible as possible through this uncertainty and I want to say I appreciate that all of you are doing the same,” he said. “I know that faculty members are working incredibly hard to ensure that our students have a rich educational experience, whether in person, as we would hope, or online. I really appreciate your commitment to learning new ways to teach in this truly challenging moment.”

Tessier-Lavigne said this has been a difficult time for many reasons, but this week was especially hard because workforce reductions took place across the university community.

He noted that unit leaders had to make difficult choices about their workforces over the next year, under the new budget plan.

Earlier this week, Stanford eliminated 450 open positions; reduced some full-time positions to part-time; laid off 208 people; furloughed 30 people; and ended a number of fixed-term and contingent positions.

“These are extremely painful,” he said. “The individuals who were affected are talented and committed members of our community. It’s a big loss to them. It’s a big loss to our community as a whole.”

He said the university is taking steps to support those who have been laid off, including keeping them on the payroll for 60 days. Furloughed employees will continue to receive medical benefits and individuals who have been permanently laid off are eligible for career transition services, severance pay and continued medical benefits.