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Pass/fail to count for grad requirements

Published: March 11, 2011
Section: Front Page


pass Dean of Arts and Sciences Adam Jaffe mediates a debate the pass/fail proposal.
Photo by Ingrid Schulte/The Hoot

Faculty members voted Thursday to change the university’s pass/fail system to allow students to count a class in which they received a “P” for a graduation requirement.

Students could begin taking courses pass/fail for a requirement this fall if the proposal brought by the University Curriculum Committee (UCC) is passed on a second reading at the next faculty meeting, scheduled for April 14.

Dean of Arts and Sciences Adam Jaffe explained that two perspectives, what he called “predominately the students’ view, and the faculty view,” competed with one another in the long history of the committee’s work to get the issue before the faculty.

Currently, students may take up to four courses pass/fail during the duration of their Brandeis careers with only one pass/fail course allowed per semester. At the end of the term, students can either claim their P, “covering” their grade, or keep the original letter grade. Failing grades cannot be covered.

“Students are positive about pass/failing requirements, while faculty worry that student will not take [those] courses seriously” and “fine-tune their GPAs,” Jaffe said.

To reconcile these two opinions, Jaffe said the proposal came with an explicit “package deal:” along with the ability to count a course for science or non-western requirements will come the need to get a C- or higher to cover a grade with a P. Current guidelines had allowed students to cover any passing grade, from D- up.

Registrar Mark Hewitt said the change would have little practical effect because “most grades are not covered at all and most grades that are covered are B’s.”

With these statistics, the motion passed the assembled faculty by an overwhelming margin, and no exact tally was taken.

Some professors said they did not even need the “deal” to accept the proposal, saying they sympathized with students who wanted to take classes they were interested in even if they ended up with a D.

“Pass/failing a requirement is consistent with what the point of pass/fail is anyway,” Jaffe said, namely “helping students challenge themselves outside their ordinary paths.”

Jaffe noted that Brandeis’ pass/fail option would remain “distinctive” in another way, namely that as in current practice, students are not bound by electing the pass/fail option and may simply keep the grade. Jaffe said the new move is keeping with that spirit of letting students branch out: “the purpose is to encourage students to explore.”

After the vote, Jaffe introduced a possible change the UCC could look into going forward involving faculty awareness of students who are electing their classes pass/fail. The dean called it a question of “transparency versus confidentiality”—some professors, tongue-in-cheek, whispered “don’t ask don’t tell,” to general amusement.

Jaffe said most students were against the idea. Though some faculty members wanted to be able to hear so they could budget academic advising to students truly worried about grades, most faculty who spoke defended the notion that students would worry about “bias” if a teacher knew a student could escape with a P.

The UCC will not be looking into the idea of changing the faculty notification policy, resolving that faculty can just ask students if they are concerned.