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Faculty vote to keep P/F; C needed to pass

By Andrew L. Fish

After over two hours of debate, the faculty voted to retain both semesters of freshman pass/no record grading Wednesday. But the the faculty raised the definition of a passing grade from a D to a C and lowered the maximum credit limit for freshmen by six units in each semester (to 54 units in the first semester and 57 in the second). The changes will take effect with the class entering in 1990.

The vote was a clear rejection of the Committee on the First Year Program's proposal to limit pass/no record grading to one semester, with one pass/no record subject permitted in the next seven semesters. The CFYP claimed this would reduce overloading in the second semester and increase "flexibility" by allowing students to take science core classes in the sophomore year with pass/no record grading. But the faculty overwhelmingly rejected the notion of deferring science core subjects last month, and axed the pass/no record restructuring Wednesday.

The key vote was on an amendment which called for lowering freshman credit limits, making pass denote a C, and changing junior/senior pass/fail to pass/no record. It was offered by five faculty members as a substitute for the Committee on the Undergraduate Program motion, which was based on the CFYP plan.

Professor J. Kim Vandiver SM '75, a sponsor of the proposal, explained that the amendment would "correct the principal deficiencies of the current system" -- freshman overloading and "the practice of squeaking by with D-level performance." At the same time, it would preserve the system's "chief beneficial feature" -- "an adequate period of adjustment for a diverse entering class," she said. It would be "prudent to address specific problems" and "minimize the risks inherent in more radical change," she noted.

Vandiver also noted that the lower credit limit would not penalize students who could complete more work, as they could petition the Committee on Academic Performance to exceed the credit limit.

Professor Travis R. Merritt, head of the Undergraduate Academic Support Office and a sponsor of the amendment, noted that pass/no record "has for a long time enjoyed overwhelming support from [students]." He said the amendment represented a "broad faculty consensus" and suggested that faculty would continue to evaluate the pass/no record system in the future.

Some oppose amendment

Professor Arthur P. Mattuck, head of the Department of Mathematics, strongly opposed the amendment. "I believe it solves none of the problems" cited by its authors, he said. Mattuck claimed that of his six freshman advisees, five were overloading, "as exhibited by the grades they are getting." Mattuck said the number of units a student could handle varied from individual to individual, and only introducing grades in the second semester would eliminate such overloading.

Also, Mattuck said the true abuse of pass/no record "is a B student who is doing C work [and] an A student who is doing B work."

Professor Harold Abelson PhD '73 also questioned whether "overloading" could be measured by the number of units students were taking. He noted that second semester freshman who enroll in both Physics II (8.02) and Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (6.001) performed significantly better than those who did not take 6.001. While Abelson said he did not know how many units each student was taking, he noted that 6.001 is a 15 unit course and that many students who selected it would be considered "overloaded" by an objective standard.

Professor Thomas J. Greytak '62 said a shift to grades in the second semester of the freshman year would provide an "intermediate step" in a freshman's adjustment to MIT. In addition, Greytak approved of using pass/no record "as a method for exploring" beyond the freshman year.

Professor Claude R. Canizares, a member of the CFYP, was opposed to approving a proposal which had been quickly crafted. He noted that the CUP motion had been drafted over several years and said that only this proposal should be voted up or down.

In spite of these objections, the faculty approved the amendment by a vote of 86-56.

Another amendment introduced

The issue seemed settled after the amendment had passed. But after a motion to call the question failed by 11 votes (78-55, with a two-thirds majority needed), Mattuck quickly introduced an amendment to eliminate the second semester of freshman pass/no record grading and the second semester credit limit. The move was so hasty that when asked what a passing mark would be, Mattuck could not immediately decide (he settled on a C).

Professor Boris Magasanick complained that this plan had been voted down at the last faculty meeting. (At the last meeting the faculty rejected an amendment to the CUP motion which would have allowed only two pass/no record subjects after the first semester.) But President Paul E. Gray '54 allowed the amendment and additional debate ensued.

Several faculty members who had opposed eliminating the second semester of pass/no record at the faculty's last meeting again rose in opposition. Professor Graham C. Walker asked, "How can an elite university with an elite faculty admit an elite group of students and make them feel worthless?" He said second semester freshman grading would reinforce this notion.

Associate Provost S. Jay Keyser urged the faculty to "err on the side of giving time" to students who might need it. Professor Robert S. Kennedy SM '59 reiterated his claim that freshmen do not abuse the second semester of pass/no record grading.

In the end, the Mattuck amendment was defeated by a 76-57 vote.

The amended motion was then approved by a voice vote, ending the current debate over the freshman grading system and killing the CFYP's recommendations.

Earlier action

Earlier in the meeting, the faculty rejected two other amendments to the CUP motion. The first, offered by Professors Robert J. Birgeneau and Marc A. Kastner, would have given freshmen the option of being on pass/no record during their second semester, but only with a 51 unit credit limit. CUP student representative Alan Davidson '89 expressed concern that this would create a "two-tier system" with freshmen on pass/no record feeling like "second-class citizens." After a short debate, the amendment was overwhelmingly rejected by voice vote.

Abelson introduced an amendment to allow students (after the first semester) to designate classes as pass/no record after receiving their grades, within the framework of the CUP motion. This amendment was also rejected by a voice vote, after faculty complained that it would create "chaos in recording" and defeat the purpose of pass/no record in affecting the attitude of the student while taking a subject.