Breaking: Reed Will Not Adopt a Universal Pass Grading System

In response to a popular student petition, Dean of the Faculty Nigel Nicholson announced that Reed will continue with an optional Credit/No Credit system

In an email to the Reed College community on Wednesday April 8, Dean of the Faculty Nigel Nicholson announced that the college would not be adopting a “Universal Pass” system, as a popular student petition had called for. While the petition and alternative grading systems were discussed during a faculty Committee on Academic Policy and Planning (CAPP) meeting the previous day, the faculty decided to continue forward with the Credit/No Credit (Cr/NCr) system announced on March 27, with some slight modifications. According to the email, Nicholson and the members of CAPP believe a Universal Pass or Double A grading system “is not in Reed students’ best interests,” because it “would undermine the meaningfulness of Reed grades and Reed GPAs going forward and threaten our ability to maintain [Reed’s] accreditation.” Instead, Reed will continue with the previously announced Cr/NCr system. All students can opt to take any of their spring classes Cr/NCr, excluding thesis and year-long classes. Taking classes Cr/NCr will not affect GPA, and, unlike the normal Cr/NCr policy, “grades of C- and D will qualify for credit.” CAPP extended the initial deadline, April 17, to switch a class to Cr/NCr to May 1, the last day of classes. Nicholson also stated that seniors can now receive an extension on their thesis until August 31 and the normal extension fee ($200) is waived. 

The CAPP meeting on April 7, and the resulting email from Nicholson, were primarily in response to a student petition. Posted on March 31, the student petition articulated many student concerns about the Cr/NCr system. At the time of Nicholson’s email, it had approximately 850 signatures. It argues that “a Cr/NCr system does not adequately address the numerous complicated extenuating circumstances which block students’ access and ability to complete graded work.” They cite many barriers to student success including having to move out of the dorms, the closing of many campus resources, accessibility issues regarding lack of internet and/or technology, time zone changes, and losing student employment. They also argue that, “students, as well as faculty and staff, should have the right and the ability to prioritize their and their community’s essential well-being and survival over their schoolwork and grades, which have already been irreversibly disrupted.” The petition advocates for an “automatic and universal pass for ALL classes in Spring 2020, not just semester-long courses” and proposed two alternatives to the Cr/NCr system: Universal Pass with the ability to opt out and receive grades, or a Double A system where all students receive a grade of either A or A-. Lastly, the petition argues for a universal thesis extension for all seniors. While Nicholson did announce a thesis extension, it must be requested by the student; it is not automatic. 

The decision has been met with a mixed but largely negative response from the student body. An update was added to the student petition following the announcement, arguing that “Reed’s choice to refuse crucial support to students in need in order to maintain a fundamentally inequitable and exclusionary grading system is a shameful failure of leadership.” Referencing Nicholson’s reasons as stated in his email, they ask, “how meaningful can Reed grades be when they are enforced inequitably?” They encourage those upset with the decision to continue supporting the petition and to voice their concerns directly to the administration. 

Many students have already begun expressing their disappointment, anger, and confusion with the decision on social media and in emails to the administration. In addition to complaints about the actual decision, students have criticized the reasoning and messaging. Nicholson’s reference to Reed’s accreditation was confusing and surprising for many students. In response to a request for comment, Nicholson provided the Quest with additional information about accreditation: “Reed exists within the larger structure of higher education; we have to show that we ensure standards or learning outcomes to receive accreditation (which is a requirement for any respectable academic institution) and we have to maintain credibility for those who consider as qualifications the degrees our students get, whether that is businesses, graduate schools or professional schools. To do either of these we cannot certify that students have passed a class they have not passed or achieved competencies and levels of knowledge that they have not achieved.” He understood that this was a “harsh fact” and believes “it is why a Cr/NCr plan is an appropriate solution – and a solution that many schools have adopted, in contrast to universal pass or a universal A/A-.” 

Additionally, he addressed student complaints saying, “I know that many feel that I and the CAPP, the college curriculum committee, are unfeeling and blinkered, but it would be irresponsible of me, even if easier, to put the value of the degrees everyone is working towards under threat. There are many students out there who are concerned that the work they do this term and indeed longer-term would be discounted, and they are right to be concerned.” President Audrey Bilger emphasized this in a short written response provided to the Quest: “Reed’s faculty and staff care deeply about every student’s well-being and are committed to supporting student success during these challenging circumstances.”

In that response, Bilger explicitly voiced her support for CAPP’s decision: “The expanded grading options were instituted by the Academic Policy and Planning (CAPP) committee following robust discussions where all options were carefully considered. CAPP arrived at a decision that allows students to make informed choices based on their individual circumstances. I support the expanded grading options CAPP arrived at and respect the care and time they put into considering the options. Their decision meets their goal of balancing meaningful grades with the need for compassion and flexibility.”

Members of the Student Committee on Academic Policy and Planning (SCAPP) were present at the faculty CAPP meeting as non-voting contributors. In response to students’ confusion, they are hosting a Zoom Q&A on Friday, April 10 from 1-1:40 p.m. PST. Tabia Schmidt, Aditya Gadkari, and Mayaki Kimba will address students’ concerns and questions. 

The Quest has reached out to multiple sources for comment and will update this article if needed. For more information, Reed’s Coronavirus FAQs can be found here, Nicholson’s email is here, and the student petition is here.

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