SOM grading amendments cause debate

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Photo by Blair Seideman.

Following controversy around recent grading policy changes at the School of Management, senior faculty and administrators have reached out to dissatisfied community members and made slight alterations to its new policy.

But though SOM faculty and administrators call the new result “close to optimal,” some students and alumni remain less than pleased.

SOM Associate Dean Anjani Jain first notified the SOM student body on Feb. 24 of grading policy changes that included adding a fifth grading category on the scale of “Fail” to “Distinction.” The new policy also mandated the full disclosure of grades on students’ transcripts, as well as the implementation of a fixed grading curve in courses. Previously, SOM students’ transcripts only displayed a course grade if it was a “Distinction” mark — a notable feature that many students and faculty members said set SOM apart from other business schools. Under the original policy, SOM placed less importance on grades than on students’ other accomplishments, making the school unique, they said.

After many students protested the new policy, SOM administrators called for two town hall meetings in April, and SOM Dean Edward Snyder also traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with a group of alumni unhappy with the new policy. On April 7, Snyder notified the SOM community of two amendments to the new policy — one that changes the full transcript grade disclosure to a partial transcript grade disclosure, and another that solicits feedback from students and alumni for the new nomenclature of the grading categories.

Snyder said he is glad to have engaged in constructive dialogue with students over the policy.

“While the initial process was not sequenced correctly and did not have the right broad-based engagement of alumni and students from the outset, I’m very pleased with this [new] outcome,” he said.

But Gitendra Chitty SOM ’02 said the new amendments still do not take many alumni’s issues with the policy change into account.

The new grading system strips SOM of what distinguishes it from other top-tier business schools like Harvard and Wharton, Chitty said, adding that the system brings unnecessary attention to grades. Under the new grading system, SOM students will become more like traditional business students, Chitty said, making them less unique for employers.

“[The amendments and attempts for dialogue] are viewed by us as purely an attempt to pay lip service to our dissatisfaction with no substantial change,” he said. “It was basically to say, ‘This is the best we will do and if you’re not happy, then tough luck.’”

Robert Quartel SOM ’78 said that the vocal group of alumni against the policy are being “demonized” by the administration and painted as a small minority. Quartel said the alumni upset about the changes are not only numerous, but also tend to be those who are very involved in the school’s affairs.

Both Quartel and Chitty said even disclosing partial grades on transcripts is needlessly detrimental to students: When students are graduating from an Ivy League school, it doesn’t matter what scores they obtained, they said. In the new situation, Quartel said, employers will automatically assume students are in the bottom percentage of their class if their transcripts show no grade.

SOM Professor Jim Baron said the purpose of the grading system is to give students feedback on how they are doing. He said it is the duty of the faculty to both challenge students and keep them informed about their progress — and the new grading system was designed with this aim in mind. But Quartel disagreed with Baron’s position.

“Baron said the forced curve allows you to see where you fit relative to your peers, but I say ‘Who cares?’” Quartel said. “What you want is a situation where you can work with and learn from your peers — and they have done as much as they could do to destroy this collegiality at SOM.”

In response to the outpouring of alumni complaints, Snyder said perhaps alumni have not been attentive enough to the reality of SOM’s daily life.

“[Their] concerns are clearly overblown and they probably reflect distance,” he said. “The remedy is for us to bring them closer to the school. Then they will see that the culture and the mission are very much alive and well.”

Meanwhile, though some dissenting voices persist, the storm of student criticism that started nearly two months ago in Evans Hall seems to be dying down.

Jain said the town hall meetings held two weeks ago were productive and well-attended.

He said he was impressed with the willingness of faculty to see eye-to-eye with students and engage with their criticism. He also said he would not describe the new amendments to the policy as a “compromise” or a “concession” — instead, he labeled it a superior outcome that a vast majority of faculty and students agreed upon.

Frances Symes SOM ’14, a member of SOM’s student government, said though the amendments may not address everyone’s concerns, they are still a big step forward.

Most SOM students remain divided on whether the recent discourse around the new policy sufficiently responded to student concerns — though none expressed strong opposition. Seven out of 12 students interviewed expressed support for the amendments, while others said the amendments are not satisfactory.

The administration has students’ best interests at heart and the amendments appeared to be a fair compromise, said Lokesh Todi SOM ’14.

Jancy Langley SOM ’15 FES ’15 said the amendments are a positive step in preserving the collegiality of SOM that the initial policy change undermined. But she added that the new transcript disclosure policy can still harm students with non-traditional or non-financial backgrounds, by not accounting for their differences in learning curves.

But others, unconvinced by the amendments, said they believe SOM administrators are not as receptive to student input as they should be.

“I am not sure how much [of it] is political maneuvering,” Stefano Costanzo SOM ’15 said. “At the end of the day we get the same [result].”

Nick Elisseou SOM ’14 said students have little control over changes to the grading policy, since many will soon graduate and the incoming students will know no other system.

Alison Joseph SOM ’15, who also serves as a tour guide for the school, said she has heard concerns from visiting students about the grading changes.

What has seemed to frustrate current students the most, she said, was that students did not have the chance to provide any input into the original policy changes before they were announced in February. But, Joseph added, she appreciated the willingness of administrators to at least discuss their decision with students afterwards.

SOM’s inaugural class arrived on campus in 1976.

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