What it will take for a satisfactory/no-credit spring to succeed

March 27, 2020, 4:31 p.m.

Yesterday, the Faculty Senate voted 36-15 to make all spring quarter classes Satisfactory/No Credit (S/NC) outside of the business, law and medical schools. We aim not to criticize the decision but instead to highlight additional measures that must be taken so that a spring quarter that is entirely S/NC will be fair and successful. 

We make two points. One has already been defended by the editorial board, and the other heavily echoes points made in a piece published yesterday by The Daily’s opinions editors (who are also on the editorial board). First, the administration must continue to vigorously address the underlying issues of educational inequity, which the coronavirus has exacerbated. The Universal S/NC grading basis is not an end-all be-all, and should not prevent more substantive reforms. Second, the passage of Universal S/NC underscores the urgency of reconsidering tuition and financial aid policy for spring quarter. Educational inequity does not stop at notation on a transcript. In light of both a discounted spring quarter and dramatic changes in students’ financial situations due to the economic fallout from coronavirus, we believe the changes we suggest are crucial.

Our first point is that there must be further support for students who are facing disproportionate hardships from the consequences of the pandemic. Yesterday’s vote for Universal S/NC was in part an acknowledgement by the Faculty Senate that whatever the University does, it cannot completely relieve the different burdens that students face both from the coronavirus and from living away from campus. But now the University must acknowledge, conversely, that changing the grading basis is only a small step in accommodating these burdens, and should not take the place of taking further steps to support students. In order to achieve greater educational equity, it is not enough to change the notation on students’ transcripts. The University should do as much as it can to help students succeed academically despite these difficult circumstances. 

On Wednesday, The Daily’s opinions editors wrote independently that, before resorting to a change in grading across the board, the University should work to provide further financial assistance for food; reliable internet access; assistance in finding and renting stable housing; work replacement stipends for students who normally work on campus; guaranteed extensions and other accommodations for standard contingencies like sickness of a student or relative; abolishment of timed tests; and arrangements to ensure that international students in other timezones are not unduly disadvantaged. 

Now that the Faculty Senate has changed the grading basis, the University must not forget that these more direct ways of supporting students can still enormously benefit undergraduate and graduate health, well-being and success in the coming months. All of these moves will be more difficult and more costly to implement than the change of grading basis. But they will also be more effective. 

Our second point is about tuition and financial aid. The Daily’s editorial board previously called on the administration to lower tuition, increase course load flexibility and change financial aid policy given a significant decrease in access to resources and quality face-to-face learning. The editorial board argued that tuition needed to be reduced, and that academic policies needed to afford more flexibility for students to plan their academic careers and lower the stakes for enrolling in spring quarter. At the time, the beginning of spring quarter had been moved online, but there was still the possibility of an in-person end of spring quarter and commencement, and courses were still letter graded. 

Now, not only is the entirety of spring quarter online, but students will no longer have the opportunity to earn letter grades. We reiterate our previous points. Lack of a campus restricts student access to physical resources including physical libraries, technology centers, labs and gyms. For classes in which in-person interaction is critical, the quality of instruction, despite the best effort of professors and teaching assistants, will be diminished. BIO 51: “Anatomy for Bioengineers” will conduct cadaver dissections over Zoom for students to observe, when normally they would have the opportunity to participate. Structured Liberal Education (SLE) has cancelled its capstone essay, a research paper requiring the physical libraries that has traditionally acted as the culmination of the three-quarter program. This does not even account for the classes that have been cancelled as a result of insurmountable obstacles posed by online learning. 

In addition to the now completely online spring quarter, the recent elimination of letter grades adds further uncertainty to how the spring quarter will fit into students’ academic careers. Grades, whether we like it or not, are often a crucial part of a student’s education. They are a key source of motivation and feedback for students and are used for entrance to graduate and scholarship programs. Students who need grades for scholarships, jobs and graduate programs now must scramble to ensure they will not be disadvantaged by the new grading scheme. The Faculty Senate was unable to mandate that all departments accept S/NC classes to fulfill major requirements, leaving students to wonder what they can and cannot fulfill with this spring’s courses. 

In mandating S/NC grades, the school is acknowledging that this is a time of profound, unprecedented uncertainty, and that the stakes on spring quarter must be lowered accordingly. It is only right that we now see similar acknowledgements on the financial side. On top of a quarter that will be inevitably devalued despite instructors’ best efforts, many students and families will face unpredictable financial burdens. Both points speak strongly in favor of the editorial board’s suggestions: reducing tuition across the board, offering additional quarters of financial assistance and allowing all students to take reduced course loads or to pay per unit. 

The logic of adopting the final suggestion of universalizing reduced course loads or devising a pay-per-unit system especially complements the justification behind mandating an S/NC grading basis. Students who must fulfill requirements should be able to do so; but at the same time, the University should not pressure students to take non-essential coursework through exacting full tuition in what will be an educationally compromised quarter. We ask that at the very least students be allowed to file appeals for additional spring quarter financial aid if they or their families have been financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

We are now committed to ensuring that, no matter the grading scheme, all students are able to have as safe and successful a quarter as possible under the circumstances. Whatever steps S/NC grading takes in the direction of equity, it will take a much more concerted effort to reach this goal. 

The Vol. 257 Editorial Board consists of Claire Dinshaw ’21, Malavika Kannan ’23, Layo Laniyan ’22, Adrian Liu ’20, Jasmine Liu ’20 and Willoughby Winograd ’22.

Contact the Vol. 257 Editorial Board at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to [email protected] and op-ed submissions to [email protected].

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