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Faculty approve proposal to expand S/U grading in Trinity for spring semester

The Arts and Sciences Council, Trinity’s faculty governance body, approved on Thursday a proposal to expand voluntary S/U grading for the spring 2021 semester. 

The proposal, introduced during the council’s previous meeting, allows students to request multiple courses to be S/U without having them count toward the current limit of one voluntary S/U course per semester and four voluntary S/U courses during an undergraduate’s time at Duke. 

Under the proposal, students would have until the end of the third week of classes to opt for S/U, and they would be able to return to a letter grade until four weeks from the last day of classes. S/U courses would carry all curriculum codes.

Faculty will have the power to approve or deny a student’s request for S/U grading, and departments would decide whether these courses count toward major, minor and certificate requirements and associated prerequisites.

José María Rodríguez García, associate professor of romance studies and chair of the council, wrote in an email that Trinity deans—working with the vice provost for undergraduate education, Gary Bennett—will be responsible for the new policy’s implementation.

“The approved proposal was the outcome of a consensus among multiple campus constituencies,” Rodríguez García wrote. 

Two senior associate deans from Trinity were present on the Arts and Sciences faculty committee that drafted the proposal, Rodríguez García wrote. Sophomore Effie Mehbod, a Duke Student Government senator for academic affairs, and junior Shrey Majmudar, DSG vice president for academic affairs, provided input in the process of creating the proposal. 

“The expectation is that the temporary spring 2021 grading policy approved today will reach each and every undergraduate student at Duke and will have a positive impact on our students’ wellbeing and academic progress during these challenging times,” Rodríguez García wrote. 

The Council considered an amendment, introduced by Frances Hasso, associate professor of gender, sexuality and feminist studies, that would make letter grades the default. It would then provide a window of time for students to apply to switch a letter grade to S/U grading: from the point a faculty member submits their final grades to the registrar to a week after course grades are absolutely due to the registrar. 

The amended proposal would have let students see their final grades when deciding between S/U or a letter grade. 

“For next semester, it makes sense for us to just step back a little bit and do our work and just let students have this flexibility,” Hasso said. 

Faculty raised concerns at Thursday’s meeting that the amended deadline would decrease motivation among students or would present logistical problems for seniors opting to take a course S/U but failing to meet certain graduation requirements.  

Professor of Physics Chris Walter added that the amendment might have a detrimental effect on the way graduate schools would interpret the S/U on a transcript. 

“Because everybody knows that these students were able to look at their grades at the end and they were able to switch them, it’s going to come across to everyone else as if they just barely passed, because otherwise why would they have done that?” Walter said. 

Assistant Professor of History Nicole Barnes backed the amendment. 

“It does seem to me to be unethical to pretend that our students are in a normal year,” she said. 

Discussions of students gaming the S/U grading system are like discussions of voter fraud in the U.S. election, Barnes said.

“I don’t see any grade fraud in my students, including the students I’ve had, throughout the pandemic last spring and this fall,” she said. “I see them always rising to the occasion even above what I ask of them. I see them responding with so much gratitude when I just openly say that I am here to support them. I see them really striving to do their best under extraordinary challenging circumstances. I see them wanting to live up to the Duke name.” 

Despite support from some faculty, the amendment did not pass, so the proposal was approved in its unamended form. 

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