Harvard Faculty Say Coronavirus-Prompted Grading Change Will Level Academic Playing Field


Several Harvard faculty said they believe the College’s universal satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading system announced Friday afternoon will level the playing field and take pressure off students during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

All undergraduates will receive grades of either “Emergency Satisfactory” or “Emergency Unsatisfactory” in their spring classes, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay and Dean of Undergraduate Education Amanda J. Claybaugh announced in respective emails to faculty and students Friday afternoon.

Slavic Languages and Literatures professor Stephanie Sandler wrote in an email that she was “very pleased” to hear of the decision because it takes into account the “disparate circumstances” students find themselves in since the University transitioned all courses online and closed undergraduate dormitories due to the outbreak.

“Removing the pressure of grades for all students seems to me a humane and entirely appropriate response to the shift to remote courses, and a way to help all our students focus on the learning they are able to do this term,” Sandler wrote.


Computer Science professor and former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 called the change “exactly the right one” because he sees no way to ensure that access to academic resources remotely is as equal as it is with students living on campus.

“One of the things that you can accomplish in a residential college is to a very significant degree level the playing field,” Lewis said.

Some students may live 12 time zones away, in cramped quarters with family members, or in an area without quality internet connection, Lewis added.

Art, Film, and Visual Studies Director of Undergraduate Studies Matthew Saunders ’97 said remote learning “exacerbates a lot of potential unfairness,” particularly for his courses, which involve evaluating students’ physical creations.

“There are ways we can share that over Zoom and I certainly can see a lot in that format, but that’s not the kind of nuance that you would want for, you know, really specific evaluation,” Saunders said. “I didn’t really trust the technology to put me in a position to make confident choices.”

Saunders said students should not be concerned the non-letter grade could derail their applications to graduate programs.

“The arguments that this is detrimental to people’s applications to programs pretend that this is happening just at Harvard, and that this is a vacuum,” Saunders said. “Every graduate program in the country looking at people in the class of 2020, 2021, 2022 is going to be aware of what this moment means in the transcripts.”

Classics department chair Kathleen M. Coleman wrote in an email that she expects graduate programs to be understanding of the circumstances, but faculty members will take the “precaution” of explaining the SEM/UEM grades in letters of recommendation.

“This is a pandemic; it spans the globe,” Coleman wrote. “Everyone looking at a student’s transcript will have lived through it. The reason for the grade will be neither a mystery nor a secret.”

Coleman added she does not believe the shift will affect honors designations for graduating seniors in her department.

The Computer Science department is developing a “thoughtful” way to take the new grading system into account when developing its cutoff for honors, which will include qualitative evaluation in some cases, according to Computer Science area co-chair Edward W. “Eddie” Kohler.

Several professors said they hoped the decision would push grades to the back of students’ minds during an already tumultuous semester.

Applied Physics area chair Eric Mazur said that this semester’s system will be a “very interesting experiment” into how students behave without the motivation of grades.

“I’ve always thought that grades are a very poor incentive to learning because they replace an intrinsic desire to learn with an extrinsic one,” Mazur said. “It’s not conducive to learning.”

Lewis said that Harvard students tend to “greatly overvalue” grades and how they are applied.

“This should be liberating — you should now be able to focus on learning and not worry about the grade,” he said. “I just hope everybody takes a step back and kind of tries to, you know, think about what they were going to school for in the first place.”

“At a time that’s otherwise presenting lots of challenges to lots of families, it should be reassuring and a somewhat positive thing,” Lewis added. “That’s the way I hope students will approach it.”

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.