Eliminating Letter Grades for Spring 2020: How It Happened

Yes (Eliminate shadow grades) 107 No (Maintain optional CR/NC policy) 89 Abstain 7
Faculty vote on motion to change grading policy. Chart by Bayliss Wagner.

Skip to: Student Response | The Deliberation Process | After the Vote

On Apr. 16, roughly one month after the college evacuated its students and transitioned to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 crisis, a faculty vote changed the temporary grading policy for a second and final time, instituting a mandatory Credit/No-Credit grading system. The decision came after a lengthy period of deliberation that left faculty and students divided on the best policy. Universal Pass, favored among 60% of students in an early poll, was not an option for the final vote.

The decision overturned a previous policy change from March 20, with which students could opt to reveal grades or take CR/NC marks for each class. Over 85 percent of faculty participated, with 107 voting for the change, 89 voting against the measure and seven participants filing abstentions. That’s 53% voting yes and 44% voting no: a clear majority but certainly not a consensus.

In her explanation of the policy change to students, Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton cited inequity related to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic among students as a primary reason for eliminating shadow grades.

The College commits a tremendous amount of time, energy, and financial resources toward mitigating those factors and, to the greatest extent possible, toward putting all of our students on equal footing. COVID-19 has significantly limited our ability to do that,” she wrote in the Apr. 16 campus-wide email. “As the faculty began to fully appreciate that reality, we realized that it was all but impossible to equitably assign grades while you are being affected by this unprecedented crisis in such vastly different ways.”

With this announcement, the college joins several other undergraduate programs that have decided to scrap letter grades for undergraduates this semester. Harvard University was among the first to adopt a mandatory pass/fail policy on March 24, with top universities and liberal arts schools including Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Dartmouth, Bowdoin, Wellesley following suit with two-option or three-option grading policies.

In contrast, fellow Tri-Co members Haverford, Bryn Mawr and the University of Pennsylvania have retained shadow grades along with an extended deadline for their pass/fail option, as well as larger schools such the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan. Some schools have also chosen not to amend their grading policies significantly, like the University of Arizona and Georgia Tech. As of the publication of this article, no peer institutions have opted for Universal Pass.

Students have also looked for the responses of graduate and professional programs. Some have made announcements stating they will accept pass/fail grades without bias, including Harvard Medical School, while others such as Georgetown University will not.

Students Respond

Students’ reactions and opinions were as varied as those of the faculty.  In an early student poll run by officers of the senior class that received 76 percent participation, 60.2 percent of respondents had voted for a universal pass policy, by which all students would receive credit for their courses this semester, and 29.7 percent had voted to keep the previous policy of optional CR/NC.  

Swarthmore Students for Universal Pass, which had advocated for a UP policy since March 20, released a public statement in response to the decision on April 17. Olivia Robbins ’21, one of several student leaders of the movement, was generally satisfied with the policy despite not receiving the results she had campaigned for.

“I’m pretty happy about [the new policy]. I’m pretty proud of the work that Students for Universal Pass did, because I think that without that advocacy, the policy wouldn’t have changed at all,” Robbins said. “That being said, I do know that there are students who are worried about failing, especially students who are taking care of sick family members or dealing with the death of close family members … so I’m saddened by that, and the fact that for some reason, the college really, really wants to maintain the ability to fail people.”

As debates resurged in the student Facebook group over the weekend, one group of students privately circulated a petition to change the policy’s conditions that garnered over 100 signatures between April 18 and the morning of April 20. 

 Based on the argument that the loss of a semester’s grades makes students less competitive than students from other schools for post-graduate opportunities, petitioners asked for exceptions for four groups of students: students applying to pre-law and pre-med programs, students applying to graduate programs, students with limited grades applying to early internships, and low-income students:

“With no option to uncover grades, Swarthmore may be ‘evening the playing field’ to the best of its abilities for Swarthmore students, but in turn, this rule effectively places some groups of Swarthmore students at a disadvantage relative to students from other colleges, and those who graduated in years past,” the letter said. 

The petition and its content would later surface and receive sharp criticism from students in the college Facebook group. 

“I would like to point out that students who are pre-med, pre-laws, or applying for graduate programs are extremely diverse and face different situations,” wrote Wang Runze ’20 in a long post explaining his concerns about the petition. “If we allow the exception to uncover, then it will put those students who are pre-meds, pre-laws, preparing for graduate schools but do not have the luxury to maintain a grade without too much stress at a great risk.”

Another student who commented expressed a more personal response to seeing the petition.

“Honestly, this whole situation has left me really disheartened. As someone who would suffer greatly and who knows many others who would suffer more without mandatory CR/NC, it really sucks to see fellow students prioritizing irrelevant letter grades,” wrote Martin Tomlinson ’23.

The petition also claimed that the policy change suggested “administration’s disproportionate focus on a small group of vocal students.” The decision, however, hung on many different factors, including input that the school received in an online survey about remote learning and professors’ interactions with their students. Writers of the petition effort declined interview requests. Provost Willie-LeBreton later clarified that the policy would not be changed further and that no exceptions would occur. 

For Ayleah Johnson ’22, who signed this April 18 student petition, the gap between the two policy changes altered her initial position.

“The fact that the admin did this two weeks before classes ended was just so frustrating,” said Johnson, who preferred the previous optional CR/NC policy. “I would have definitely prioritized my time and my wellbeing had I known this months ago … I would have been all down for covering had this been the day one, but waiting so long definitely messed things up.”

Olivia Robbins ’21, a leader of Swarthmore Students for Universal Pass, also felt frustrated with the late change.

“I think that it was a really irresponsible decision by the administration to wait that long to make an announcement about a policy change,” Robbins said. “We were definitely continuously talking with faculty and emailing admin trying to push for a faster decision, but we just kept being told that it takes time … which I think is something that student movements have been told often.” 

However, it seems that this period of time was critical in shifting professors’ perspectives. An internal survey of 220 faculty members conducted on April 9-13 found that a bare majority 112 out of 220, or 50.9 percent   ranked the optional CR/NC policy as their first choice policy at the time. Seventy-two ranked UP as their first or second choice policy, about half of the first or second choice rankings that both other policies received. Three days later, after a second hour-long discussion over Zoom with 203 participants, UP was off the ballot and non-optional CR/NC won the majority.

The Deliberation Process

The  Council on Educational Policy, whose eight members include President Valerie Smith and Provost Willie-LeBreton, had implemented the March 20 policy recommendation of the Curriculum Committee and the CEP. Both the Curriculum Committee and the CEP are standing faculty committees whose members are elected and thus are largely well-respected by the faculty; however, the implementation of the motion did not sit well with all members of the faculty.

“There was no faculty vote,” Economics professor Mark Kuperberg said. “I felt that was wrong.” 

After this initial policy change, 183 faculty members — over 85 percent — joined an online meeting to discuss grading policies further on April 3. 

The faculty’s interaction with students’ opinion about grading policy was seemingly limited during this period.

Both Kuperberg and Professor Cohen stated that the results of the student survey on grading policies was not distributed widely in any e-mail communications and neither professor was aware of the results. 

Swarthmore Students for Universal Pass compiled a Q & A explaining their proposal, over 25 testimonies from students, and a petition that garnered over 1,500 signatures (though this petition was not limited to students);  yet faculty did not receive any of these materials either.

On April 9, the first day of the survey, 26 professors signed and sent out an open letter urging all faculty to support a universal pass policy. Two of these professors, Edwin Mayorga and Gwynn Kessler, were working with Swarthmore Students for Universal Pass; others found out about the proposal for UP from students or colleagues and felt it was the best choice. Several faculty members said that they received the open letter from their colleagues, but no material created by the group.

After several requests to speak with administrators yielded no response, Swarthmore Students for Universal Pass met with Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Art History Tomoko Sakomura on April 10. According to Robbins, Dean Sakomura listened to their concerns and notified the group that the Curriculum Committee had read the email that Students for UP had sent members, which included the FAQ, testimonies, and grading policy proposal. 

“We were really grateful to meet with anyone from administration, considering that no one had really reached out to us at that point. So, at the very least, grateful to be acknowledged and be able to talk face to face,” Robbins said. “I kind of wish that we had been able to have more dialogue with faculty in general, but I’m glad we got to meet with Dean Sakomura.”

Swarthmore Students for Universal Pass was not present at any committee meetings, though they worked closely with Religion professor Gwynn Kessler, member of the CEP, and Education professor Edwin Mayorga. 

Academics After the Vote

Faculty had a range of reactions to the divided vote. Some were relieved, like English Professor Lara Cohen, who said her students were extremely stressed before the policy change. She was one of 26 faculty members who signed an open letter advocating for the adoption of UP. 

“The message [the policy change] sent from the college is not just that they recognize that they’re prioritizing the health and well being of the students, but the recognition that people’s lives are just really different,” she said. “And [that] their responsibilities and the pressures they’re under are really different as well. And that is just going to be  fundamentally incompatible with the usual forms of assessment.”

 Other professors were less satisfied with the decision. Professor Kuperberg was one of the 89 faculty members who opposed the policy change. A few days after the Provost announced the results, he sent his students a roughly two-page hypothetical application of macroeconomics to a mandatory CR/NC policy, called “Grades and Prices.”

His reasoning was simple: “I have always felt that grades are like prices,” he wrote in the document. “Prices do three things: One, they convey information; two, they create incentives; and three, they bring a market into equilibrium.” 

In an interview, he explained the incentive-creating function of grades, and the way in which he feels CR/NC grading turns his role into giving out punishments instead of incentives.

“In normal grading, we’re using a price system, and that’s to motivate people …  It allows you the freedom to decide how hard to work for what grade,” he said. “[After the vote], one of my colleagues said, ‘Should we even have a final? There are no requirements.’ I said, ‘There’s only requirements.’ [With CR/NC] there’s no ‘better XYZ’ or ‘worse XYZ’ unless you do so badly that you fail … I virtually fail nobody and I hate threatening people with it.”

He used his students’ reaction to the policy change as evidence for his argument. His roughly 80-student Intermediate Macroeconomics class included an optional midterm, for which he required all students planning to take the midterm to sign an honor code oath at the beginning of the week. Thirty-nine students signed the oath, effectively indicating their intention to complete the midterm. 

The deadline was at midnight on April 16, the same day the Provost announced the policy change at around 6 p.m. EST. 

“Of the 39 people who signed the oath, six people handed it in before 6 p.m., and only four people handed it in after 6 p.m.,” Kuperberg said. “So I think that’s a pretty strong result.”

A student would later tell him that he was several pages into the midterm when he heard the news about the new grading policy. He abandoned the essay right then and there.  

In contrast, Cohen feels that her students’ response contradicts the assertion she heard repeatedly in the debate that students would slack off without letter grades. In both of her classes, she said, she has not seen any decrease in attendance since the policy was announced. She has also continued to see students turn in assignments, though none need the points in order to pass. 

“Part of me is kind of waiting for them to be like, ‘But we really don’t actually have to do this, do we?’” she said. “But they have just kept doing it, which I think speaks incredibly well of Swarthmore students and also suggests that grades are not, in fact, the only motivation that people have to learn.”

Students’ actions will partially inform the college’s plan of action for an unprecedented, and uncertain, fall. Provost Willie-LeBreton created the ad hoc Academic Continuity Committee, composed of faculty as well as students, to assess student and professor feedback about remote learning this semester. Their recommendation for how to move ahead with the next academic year is expected to come out mid-May.

Jacinta Fernandes-Brough contributed reporting.

Bayliss Wagner

Bayliss '21 is from Vienna, VA. She is majoring in English literature and minoring in computer science and French.


  1. Pretty telling that the econ department opposed it….one of the few majors with any applicability in the real world.

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