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Vote delayed on CUP P/F proposal

By Michael Gojer

and Niraj S. Desai

The faculty postponed action on the Committee on the Undergraduate Program's motion to eliminate second-term freshman pass/no-credit grading at Wednesday's faculty meeting. The proposal will be considered at a special meeting of the faculty to be held sometime in the next several weeks.

But faculty members did narrowly vote down (66-51) a proposed amendment to the main motion that would have limited the number of pass/no-credit options available to students after the first term. The amendment, introduced by Associate Professor John L. Wyatt Jr. '68 and Professor William T. Peake '51, would have reduced the number of pass/no-credit classes upperclassmen and second-term freshmen could take from seven to two and would have barred use of those options on departmental requirements.

Another Wyatt/Peake amendment to the CUP motion was accepted by the faculty on a voice vote. It requires that first-term freshmen receive grades of C or better in order to receive credit under pass/no-credit grading. The unamended CUP proposal only required a grade of C or better for students taking pass/no-credit classes after their first terms. Currently, credit is given for a grade of D in such classes.

In addition, the faculty voted down the CUP's plank on increased "flexibility" in the freshman year by a wide margin. The plank called on the Institute to encourage freshman to experiment with their academic programs. For example, some students might elect to spread out their science core requirements into their second or third years. But several faculty members on Wednesday argued that endorsing a blanket "increased flexibility" resolution was pointless unless the alternatives could be clearly spelled out. The motion was turned down 113 to 38.

The CUP plan, as it now stands, calls for the elimination of both the present system of pass/no-credit grading for second-term freshmen and the junior/senior pass/fail option. Instead it would allow students to take one subject on pass/no-credit per term up to a maximum of seven. A grade of C or better would be required for credit in all pass/no-credit subjects, including those taken first-term freshman year.

Still on the table is an amendment to the CUP plan which would give students two options on when to switch to grades. The amendment, proposed by Professors Marc A. Kastner and Robert J. Birgeneau, adds to the CUP plan an option for freshmen to remain on pass/no-credit grading all year in exchange for a reduction in the number of pass/no-credit classes that could be taken after the first term from seven to three.

Consideration of the main motion and the Kastner/Birgeneau amendment was necessitated by a lack of time -- the faculty meeting lasted over two and a half hours. Throughout the meeting about 40 students silently held up placards from the audience reading "P/F" and "two terms" in large letters.

Critics: pass/fail sends

wrong message

As at last month's meeting, Wyatt and Peake argued strongly against pass/no-credit grading, saying it encourages poor study habits in vital core subjects. "My primary argument for restricting second-term pass/fail," Wyatt said, "is that it sends a very wrong message to freshmen" on what it takes to get through the MIT curricula. Wyatt said that message is extremely destructive, for example, for students entering the "battlefield of Course VI."

Peake criticized the premise of pass/no-credit, saying it was based on deceiving employers and graduate schools by removing information from a student's transcript. He also said it gave students the erroneous message that grades of A, B, and C were equivalent.

But several speakers rebutted the assertion that freshmen do not study hard enough and that this leaves them unprepared for upperclass courses. Associate Provost S. Jay Keyser cited figures which indicated that heavy majorities of upperclassmen receive grades of C or better in their classes. If these people are indeed unprepared, Keyser said, then these figures suggests three possibilities: students work harder because they are on grades; teachers grade students on grades more leniently; or the current pass/no-credit system actually works.

Keyser discounted the first possibility, saying it was more likely that students do better on grades because they are able as upperclassmen to take subjects that interest them, rather than having to fulfill core requirements. He doubted that the idea that instructors selectively grade students was plausible.

What the available data suggests, Keyser concluded, is that the pass/fail system does indeed work in allowing students the opportunity to build a solid academic foundation in their first years.

Professor Robert S. Kennedy SM '59, who is housemaster of McGregor House, said that he saw now difference in the study habits of freshmen and upperclassmen. Late at night at McGregor, Kennedy said he regularly saw freshmen as well as upperclassmen staying up to finish problem sets and other homework.

Former Undergraduate Association Vice President Alan Davidson '89 criticized the idea that students would let their educations be harmed by pass/no-credit grading. While pass/no-credit may relieve anxiety about grades, it does not cause students to stop caring about learning, he said.

Do freshmen overload?

The CUP's motion represents a "middle ground," according to Professor Claude R. Canizares, a member of the Committee on the First-Year Program whose report formed the basis for the CUP proposal. The CFYP believed the pass/no-credit changes would result in better "intellectual quality," Canizares said.

In particular, the CFYP argued that eliminating second-term pass/no-credit would discourage freshmen from "overloading" -- taking more classes than they can handle. Canizares noted that students' courseloads drop off sharply after the first year. He suggested that if students took fewer classes or even underloaded -- an option which only five percent of freshmen exercise -- the result would be a decrease in pace and pressure.

William F. McGrath '89, student representative on the CUP, countered that the students who overload are usually the ones who are best able to handle the coursework. He said Undergraduate Academic Support Office figures show that "overloaders" mostly had higher SAT scores and better grades than other students.

McGrath further noted that 85 percent of freshmen get a grade of C or better in their classes, and 55 percent get a B or better. The faculty would be sending conflicting messages to students if they give good grades to students and yet claim that students are not doing well enough.

P/F supporters: little

evidence has been given

McGrath criticized the whole pass/no-credit debate, saying that faculty members who support the CUP motion have not collected adequate statistical information, and that the goals of some faculty seem to be "to remove pass/fail even if the resulting policy is awkward or unwise." The quality of the debate is breeding "cynicism about MIT's commitment to a serious review of the curriculum," McGrath said.

The proposals made to revise the pass/no-credit system seem to be "policies in search of a rationale" rather than policies which logically follow from the known evidence, McGrath said.

"The evidence that freshmen [abuse pass/fail] is exceeding flimsy," agreed Professor James T. Higginbotham. "I have not seen a sorting-through of the evidence" necessary to justify the CUP proposal. Also, too much of the evidence given for cutting back on pass/no-credit is anecdotal, Higginbotham said.

Peake dismissed such criticisms, remarking that the evidence against pass/no-credit is at least as good as the original reasons for implementing it.

Pace and pressure

Professor Graham C. Walker said that his experience as housemaster of McCormick had left him very uncomfortable with the probable effect of the CUP proposal. It would unnecessarily increase the pace and pressure of life at MIT for freshmen, Walker said.

Faculty members who dismiss this concern do not understand the nature of undergraduate life at the Institute, Walker said. "You don't sense it," he said of the anxiety among students. Walker suggested it might be beneficial for every faculty member to spend a year living in undergraduate housing before deciding how hard undergraduates work, or how much pressure they are under.

Putting freshman on grades would "bring into sharp relief" differences in background among students, argued UASO head Travis R. Merritt. As it stands, freshmen pass/no-credit allows students with relatively weak backgrounds to catch up to their peers.

"A full year of pass/no-record grading has for a long time served a humane purpose.... Let it be," Merritt said.

Wyatt rejected arguments that elimination of second-term pass/no-credit would increase the pace and pressure of freshman life unnecessarily. When he was an undergraduate -- before the introduction of freshman pass/fail -- the pace and pressure of MIT life was no more severe than it is now, Wyatt claimed. The only difference, he said, was that the pressure was more spread out: freshman worked harder, but sophomores had an easier time.

Wyatt also doubted that students are overwhelmingly in favor of leaving pass/fail alone. He claimed the results of the UA's referndum on the issue last month showed divided student opinions, and said that in extensive conversations with students in the Student Center over the last six weeks he has found no student concensus.

Flexibility punted

CUP had endorsed encouraging freshmen to take more varied schedules.

But, Prof. Kerry Immanuel (EAPS): increasing flexibility in the freshman year might diminish flexibility in later years. In meteorology, can't even start w/o prereq's of science core.

Prof. Mark Smith: if you tell students they can take an alternative path through freshman year, you have to tell them of the costs of that path. The freshman advising system can't deal with predicting a student's academic future. "Unbridled flexibility will have consequences for individual students."

Prof. Travis Merrit (UASO head): UASO has attempted to put spirit of flexibility into the literature. But to really encourage flexibility all-out, UASO would need to put consequences of core deferral in explicit language. If the faculty can't name those consequences now, we might as well not vote it.

The CUP had tied flexibility to the pass/fail issue. MacVicar said CUPwas concerned about the general "cocooning effect" of the freshman year, according to MacVicar. The freshman year currently functions as a "monolithic" structure, she said, because it is viewed as a rite of passage and because administrative features like full-year pass/no-credit and special freshman advising set it apart. Starting students on grades in the second semester would help smooth out the transition from the freshman year to upperclass years, she argued.

Professor Jonathan King claimed that the flexibility issue was "just a kind of skulking horse" for the motion against second term pass/fail.

Professor Robert S. Kennedy SM '59, housemaster at MacGregor House, said that he was "amazed at how mature and responsible the vast majority of our students are." The faculty doesn't have to "protect [students] from themselves."

Higginbotham, who is housemaster at Senior House, argued that by eliminating second-term pass/no-credit, MIT might "lose some students." Also, second term of the freshman year is when things students' high school learning "gives out," Higginbotham said.