Optional finals? Northwestern professors clash with administration over coronavirus grading policy

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, professors and central administration are embroiled in a dispute over who has full autonomy over students’ grades at Northwestern University. Prominent professors at the university are actively opposing provost Jonathan Holloway’s announced directive to faculty to make all final exams optional.

The provost instructed professors by email to allow students the option of a final exam grade based on the coursework they have completed to date. His rationale was“rapidly disintegrating travel options, the confirmed appearance of COVID-19 on campus and the incredible stress that everyone is trying to manage.”

[RELATED: Harvard moves to ‘emergency’ grading during coronavirus pandemic]

In a letter to the editor published in the Daily Northwestern, professors Jorge Coronado, Stephen Eisenman, Jacqueline Stevens, and Alessandra  Visconti argue that the assignment of grades “in the absence of the completed, required course work lacks integrity and is corrosive to the institution of higher education” irrespective of circumstances.

The professors state that the provost’s actions “violate NU’s published policies on assessment found on the Weinberg College website,” which state that “According to long-standing tradition and the values of academic freedom, faculty members have the exclusive responsibility of grading academic work in their classes.’” 

As members of the American Association of University Professors, the professors contend that the Weinberg policy is based on AAUP standards, so any changes to the policy “require faculty approval.”

[RELATED: Concerns mount over consequences of relaxed grading for law students]

Taking the side of central administration, more than 900 students signed a letter sent to the president of the university Morton Schapiro. In this letter, students wrote that they are “worrying about the health of their friends and family,” especially the disproportionate “stress and anxiety” for “first-generation” students, “low-income” students, and students of other “marginalized groups.”

These students conclude that, during this “extremely emotional and tumultuous time,” requiring them “to juggle the resultant stress and anxiety in addition to studying for upcoming final exams is a burden too great to reasonably ask.”

The professors say while they understand the concerns of students and “strongly believe faculty should show flexibility in response to the pandemic,” they stand firmly against the “assignment of a letter grade in the absence of actual work” and do not find it appropriate that such a decision would be “dictated by central administration.” 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @ChrisSchlak