Faculty votes to keep P/F@ByName:By Prabhat Mehta
At the beginning of the spring term last year, the Committee on the Undergraduate Program presented two reports to the faculty for review: the Committee on the First Year Program's evaluation of the pass/no-record system and curricular flexibility, and the Science-Engineering Working Group's study of science education.
The CFYP report called for the elimination of both pass/no-record grading in the second term of the freshman year and the two-subject pass/fail option available to juniors and seniors. In place of the old system, the committee recommended that students after their first term be able to take one course on a pass/no-record basis per term.
In addition, the plan called for raising pass/no-record's minimum passing level after first term freshman year from a D letter grade to a C. The report also suggested that some of the pass/no-record courses taken after the first term be allowed to satisfy Institute and departmental requirements.
The CFYP argued that second term pass/no-record should be eliminated because many freshmen used it to take extremely heavy loads, neglecting subjects that serve as the basis for later studies. The committee noted that 45 percent of second-term freshmen took more than 55 units in a recent year while only 12 percent of sophomores did so.
"I don't think that pass/fail should be meant to mask poor performance," said CFYP chair Kenneth R. Manning at open forum in February.
The spreading out of the pass/no-record subjects was intended to improve flexibility in the undergraduate curriculum, which was seen as too rigid and uniform. Committee members hoped that under the plan students would feel easier in taking more time to complete the Science Core requirement, leaving open more options in the freshman year for exploration.
SEWG notes growing
importance of biology
The SEWG report called for the development of a two-term integrated course which would combine chemistry, materials science and biology. The course should be added to the Science Core to replace the existing chemistry requirement, the report stated. To offset the extra term, the Science Distribution Requirement should be lowered from three to two courses, the report further recommended.
A desire to include biology in the core curriculum was the primary reason behind the integrated course idea. "During the last 25 years, a revolutionary change in biology has occurred, in which the faculty of MIT has fully participated.... It is evident that the definition of the basics in science has changed to include parts of biology," the SEWG report stated.
Professor Anthony P. French, a member of SEWG, went as far as to say that "it would be a crime" to graduate without any exposure to modern biology.
SEWG suggested a two-stage plan for implementation of the integrated sequence. The group hoped that the course would be finally adopted by the 1991-92 school year.
Although students and faculty in general concurred on the growing importance of biology, many faculty members feared that the sequence would end up a loosely defined survey course. "I really don't think it can all be done in two terms," said Professor of Chemistry Daniel S. Kemp last spring.
Mark S. Wrighton, also of the chemistry department, said, "There has been a tradition at MIT that core subjects are an introduction to the discipline." He felt that the integrated course might fail in providing adequate depth of coverage.
Some students also found fault with the course, noting that it would further restrict the curriculum.
In spite of the criticism, the faculty approved a gradual implementation of the integrated sequence, and last fall over a hundred members of the Class of 1993 expressed interest in Chemistry, Materials Science, and Biology (SP01), a pilot version of the course. The three departments administering the course will evaluate the success of SP01 and its spring counterpart, SP02, in order to assess the desirability of turning them into a core requirement.
CFYP proposals blasted,
P/F elimination dies
The CFYP plan received an overwhelmingly negative response from the student body and generated an intense debate among the faculty. At campus-wide forums, students continually blasted the proposal to eliminate second term pass/no-record. At East Campus, Sarita Gandhi '90 called the CFYP's reasoning that a student only needs one term for academic adjustment "laughable."
The Undergraduate Association moved slowly at first, citing "reservations" about the proposal but offering no substantial challenge. But with an April vote nearing and the results of a referendum taken in mid-March indicating a 72 percent approval rating among students for second term pass/no-record, the UA Council adopted a resolution to make a concerted effort to save the status quo. Efforts included a petition drive, increased communication with faculty members opposed to pass/no-record elimination, and publicity efforts aimed at bringing students to the faculty meetings.
Meanwhile, faculty members in favor of and opposed to the pass/no-record system squared off on the issue over a series of four faculty meetings.
Many supporters of pass/no-record argued that there was insufficient evidence as to whether students abuse the current system. "The evidence that freshmen [abuse pass/fail] is exceedingly flimsy," stated Professor James T. Higginbotham at the April 19 faculty meeting.
Others cited pass/no-record's role in easing pace and pressure and helping students of varied backgrounds work to eliminate differences they might have upon entering the Institute. "A full year of pass/no-record grading has for a long time served a humane purpose.... Let it be," said Undergraduate Academic Support Office head Travis R. Merritt.
Those who sought to limit freshman pass/no-record argued that students have indeed been abusing the system. More generally, some argued that allowing students choice in taking courses on pass/fail allows them to strategically avoid harder subjects or to "get them out of the way" by overloading during the freshman year.
"It sends a very wrong message to freshmen," said Professor John L. Wyatt Jr. '68, one of the most vocal critics of pass/no-record.
Claude R. Canizares, a member of CFYP, criticized the argument that students needed more time to adjust to the academic and social pressures of college life. "Everyone agrees that there is a hard adjustment in the first term, but then there is a hard adjustment at many universities where there is no pass/fail."
As the voting date approached, several proposals for amending the CFYP plan were presented. One, co-sponsored by Wyatt and Professor William T. Peake '51, called for even further restriction on pass/fail grading. It was narrowly defeated by a vote of 66-51 at the April 19 faculty meeting.
The protracted debate on April 19 forced the faculty to postpone a vote on the proposals. A special meeting had to be arranged for May 3 to resolve the matter. At that meeting, the faculty approved a revised proposal which preserved pass/no-record for second term freshmen.
The proposal also raised the minimum passing grade in pass/no-record to a C, lowered the freshman credit limit to 54 units in the fall and 57 in the spring, and redesignated the junior/senior pass/fail option to pass/no-record -- thereby allowing all students who take non-graded classes to eliminate them from their records in the event of failure.
Copyright 1990 by The Tech. All rights reserved.
This story was originally published on Tuesday, February 6, 1990.
Volume 110, Year in Review
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