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Students consider two referenda

By Reuven M. Lerner

Students will voice their opinion on second-term freshman grades as part of Undergraduate Association elections on March 15. A non-binding referendum asks students how many pass/no-record classes undergraduates should be allowed to take, and when they should be allowed to take them. Manuel Rodriguez '89, who submitted the referendum, says that the vote will inform the faculty of student opinion on the proposed changes in freshman grading.

On Jan. 26 the Committee on the First-Year Program suggested to the Committee on the Undergraduate Program that second-semester pass/no-record grading be replaced with one subject "credit/no credit" per semester, starting in the spring of their freshman year. The MIT faculty will hear the proposal on March 15, the day of UA elections, and will vote on the proposed changes in April.

CUP student representative Alan Davidson '89 said that while "there are good things in the CFYP report," he had "yet to be convinced that pass/fail is the root of all the evil." He explained that the CFYP proposal was going to a faculty vote only because the CUP couldn't reach a consensus. Many faculty members think students want to do away with pass/no-credit, but the UA referendum may change their minds, Davidson said.

Associate Dean of Engineering Jack Kerrebrock said the referendum contains "an interesting set of possibilities," and that "the faculty will pay a lot of attention to the vote." He admitted that no students he knew wanted to abolish pass/no-credit grading completely and that he personally saw some good in the current grading system. Kerrebrock supported the "modified Manning report," which changes the CFYP report's "credit/no-credit" grades to "pass/no-record."

UA President Jonathan Katz '90 was disappointed that there has been no major student outcry against the report. While he acknowledged there were "problems" with the current pass/fail system," he said that "doing away with it [was] not the answer." Katz suggested that if faculty were concerned about freshmen passing classes without learning the material, then perhaps those freshmen should not be allowed to pass.

Rodriguez, last year's UAP, said the five voting options would be explained in detail on the ballot. One would indicate acceptance of the CFYP proposal, while another would ask to keep the grading system as it is.

A third proposal would let students take any seven subjects on pass/no-credit, whenever they want, beginning with their second semester. Rodriguez said that this option would leave the current system intact for those who wanted it, while giving increased flexibility to those who didn't.

A fourth option, "other," would let students state any other ideas they might have. Currently, a fifth choice reads "no option," but Rodriguez said that this option may be replaced by one or two other grading system proposals sometime this week.

Dean for Undergraduate Education Margaret L. A. MacVicar '65 said the referendum "seems reasonable," and was happy to see that students have "a range of options," as opposed to "all up or all down," when voting. She added that she had hoped students would have more than three choices, which is the case with the faculty. MacVicar said that while the CFYP proposal is the most conservative on the student ballot, it is the middle-of-the-road position both in the minds and on the ballots of the faculty. The most extreme option that the faculty has is complete elimination of pass/no-credit freshman grading, an option which she said most students have not considered. She added that some faculty members have been trying to eliminate pass/no-credit grading for over a decade, and said that "pass/no-credit is not perceived as a freedom issue."

Davidson thinks the faculty is ready to pass the changes. "The only thing that's going to change their minds now is us," he added. But he wanted students to realize that "the faculty has a lot of respect for us," and that if students protest the proposed changes, faculty members may change their minds.

Ethics referendum also on ballot

Rodriguez was also instrumental in getting an ethics referendum on the ballot. If this referendum passes, graduating seniors will receive copies of a pledge committing themselves to investigate the environmental and social attitudes of their employers. The proposal reads, "Do you favor the distribution of this personal pledge at the MIT Commencement Ceremony which would be handed out with the graduation diploma and signed at the discretion of the student?"

The pledge is similar to measures taken at other universities, including Stanford, in the last few years. The proposed pledge reads as follows: "I pledge to investigate thoroughly and to weigh the social and environmental consequences of any professional activity that I may undertake."

"The Coalition to Humanize MIT" introduced a similar pledge at last year's commencement, and expressed hopes that a referendum would be introduced on this year's UA ballot asking for student approval on distribution of the pledge. When asked for her reaction, MacVicar said she was in favor of the pledge, and suggested that incoming freshmen be requested to sign such a pledge. She added that a pledge would help students think about the ramifications of their work both during and after their studies at MIT.

Rodriguez said that the proposed pledge doesn't discourage graduates from working for companies which have negative environmental and social records. Instead, he suggested, alumni should seek out such companies, and attempt to change them, rather than work for groups with already-established good reputations.