Hey, Northwestern students, choose your own grade point average!

A new pandemic-era policy on class grades puts the bow on Northwestern University’s gifting of degrees, not education.

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Northwestern has announced that students can choose “Credit” instead of a letter grade — after those letter grades have been awarded and seen by the students — for up to one third of their courses in the current school year.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

The hullabaloo about a retired Northwestern University lecturer denouncing Jill Biden’s use of the honorific “doctor” occurs amid a larger debate over the value of the university and its degrees.

As faculty members at Northwestern, and as officers in the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors, we worry that a surprise grade change policy announced earlier this fall shamelessly eviscerates Northwestern’s educational mission. In doing so, we believe, it bolsters the claim by the retired lecturer, Joseph Epstein, that the university lacks standards.

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This fall, Northwestern University Provost Kathleen Hagerty announced that students now can choose “Credit” instead of a letter grade — after those letter grades have been awarded and seen by the students — for up to one third of their courses in the current school year. This is true even for courses currently not eligible for “Pass/No Pass” options.

An official from the registrar’s office explained to us in an e-mail:

“If a student were applying to med school, neither a ‘P’ or ‘CR’ would probably count for any specific courses needed for pre-requisites. However, if I were student just trying to get a Chemistry Minor, I could use ‘CR’ toward my minor requirements and it wouldn’t disrupt my GPA. A ‘P’ grade would not count toward the minor.”

On its surface, Hagerty’s “maximum optionality” scheme, which is temporary, seems compassionate toward the vulnerable, and an effort to make the university a kinder place. After all, many of our students, with the rest of the world, have suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In reality, the policy puts the bow on Northwestern’s gifting of degrees, not education. Promising credit for a hidden “D” assures tuition payments from the wealthy students and is a cheap way to increase the likelihood that students receiving financial aid will graduate, a key metric for the university’s improvement in the national rankings.

The new concierge grading policy means that students dissatisfied with the grade point averages they earn can swap them out for new ones they create at their leisure, sometime this summer. They can do this, if they like — drop their lowest grades to artificially pump up their overall GPAs — in consultation with an advisor.

“Making a choice after Spring Quarter gives students flexibility during an uncertain time and the perspective to employ this option strategically,” Hagerty explained.

It’s sort of like the Choose Your Own Stir Fry station at the Northwestern dining halls that guides show off to prospective students, or used to show off before the pandemic: students need to see the full panoply of proteins, veggies, and starches before they order. Thus, Choose Your Own GPA.

The “B-” in Microeconomics earned this fall because the course is graded on a curve? Gone! The “D” in the winter because you didn’t submit the final paper for your Anthro class after the car got a flat tire on your way back from visiting your girlfriend in her parent’s mansion in Key West? Voila, gone, too! But not the course credit.

And it’s good to know about this in advance, so you can plan strategically to not do that much work in the Engineering class you’re registering for this spring, a way to avoid a bad grade in a course you previously could not take Pass/Fail. (Should we be planning strategically to avoid the bridges these students will be designing?)

Obviously these are not the student hardships Hagerty has in mind. However, the examples, though extreme, are entirely consistent with her policy.

What’s not consistent with this policy are the heartfelt conversations that faculty, us included, have been having with students who truly are suffering due to direct encounters with the pandemic and police violence. We are not giving them unearned grades. We are giving them concrete strategies for resilience in their personal lives and education.

To be clear, we do not demand universities use letter grades; we do insist that universities that publish grade point averages provide bona fide assessments. (The provost and the dean of the Weinberg College for Arts and Sciences have disregarded faculty requests for data on GPAs at Northwestern, as noted in a recent NU-AAUP report.)

Other universities have responded meaningfully to legitimate concerns about impediments to learning created by the pandemic, but have not abandoned their primary mission of education. An email from Brown University’s provost to faculty sent on Oct. 30, the same day as Hagerty’s, stated: “Given the uncertainty and turbulence we have all faced this year, students may approach you or instructors in your department to share particular challenges that they are facing during this moment. We encourage as much flexibility as is feasible in these instances.”

The policies in place at Northwestern prior to Hagerty’s announcement provide faculty large discretion in assigning grades and are sufficient to meet legitimate student needs.

We call on NU’s leadership to stop viewing students as valued customers. Our mission as faculty is to provide the students in our classes with an education, not to churn out increasingly meaningless degrees.

Northwestern understandably wants to repudiate Epstein’s screed for its misogyny. To be convincing, our leaders need to stop the “relaxation of standards” Epstein notes and that, troubling as it is, legitimates part of Epstein’s rant.

Jackie Stevens is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University and secretary of the Northwestern chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Jorge Coronado is a professor of Spanish and Portuguese and president of the Northwestern Chapter of AAUP.

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