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Faculty Discuss Grade Experiment

By Sarah Y. Keightley
News Editor

The faculty discussed several subjects at its meeting Wednesday, including the three-year intermediate grades proposal, unanimous approval of the minor program in biomedical engineering, and the presentation of the Killian Faculty Achievement Award.

Also, the placement of the September Monday class holiday and the motion to eliminate the current freshman evaluation system were discussed. President Charles M. Vest briefly talked about the transition period in finding a replacement for Provost Mark S. Wrighton.

Near the end of the meeting, the Killian Committee gave its report, announcing Professor of Physics Daniel Kleppner as this year's Killian award winner. He received a standing ovation.

This award celebrates the professional accomplishments of a full-time professor, and the recipient holds the title for one year, presenting one or more lectures to the MIT community.

Kleppner said that he was "somewhat bewildered, but very grateful and very happy."

At the start of the meeting, the faculty members that were present unanimously approved the minor program in biomedical engineering.

Intermediate grades

Most of the discussion at the meeting focused on the intermediate grades experiment. After a vote, about 25 to 30 faculty members approved of the plan, while about 15 voted against it. Some did not vote.

Before the vote was taken, Chair of the Faculty Robert L. Jaffe said that though the Committee on the Undergraduate Program "has the authority to do this without the vote of the faculty, I felt it would be reasonable to ask for a vote of the faculty."

The CUP largely, but does not unanimously, support the experiment, Jaffe said.

As part of the discussion of the proposal, Chair of the Committee on Academic Performance Nigel H. M. Wilson PhD '70 presented the pros and cons of intermediate grades, as well as the results of a faculty survey conducted last month.

About one-third of the faculty responded, and 59 percent, or 168, preferred the plus/minus system, while 11 percent, or 30, called it unacceptable. A smaller number, 16 percent, preferred the AB, BC system, while 12 percent, called this unacceptable.

There was "strikingly low support for the current system," Wilson said. Twenty-five percent, or 70 faculty members, called it the preferred option, while 5 percent, or 13, found it to be unacceptable.

The intermediate grades experiment will take effect from September 1995 to August 1998, Wilson explained. The plus/minus modifiers would appear on all internal grade reports, but not on transcripts that are sent out. Grade point averages would still be based on the current grading system.

The experiment "provides many of the benefits of intermediate grades," such as giving feedback to students, advisers, and departments, Wilson said. "The second rationale is that it will provide information to the whole MIT community on the impact of one possible form of intermediate grades."

Also, the experiment "will avoid a divisive issue between the students and the faculty," Wilson added.

Dean of the Graduate School Frank E. Perkins '55 said that the Committee on Graduate School Policy was "split right down the middle on whether [the experiment] was a wise thing to pursue or not." Still, the committee did not take a formal vote, so they did not endorse the proposal.

Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Alvin W. Drake '57 voiced his disapproval of the proposal. The student body consists of "extraordinary people," he said. "Getting high resolution is not a good idea."

Drake also wanted the new course catalogs to note which classes would and would not record plus/minus grades.

Professor of Biology Graham C. Walker said that though "this isn't the most life or death issue," in his 10 years as the biology undergraduate officer and his six years as a housemaster, "I don't recall any specific instance of a student complaining" about the lack of intermediate grades.

"My sense is if you give some increased resolution [in grades] to MIT students, they're going to use it on themselves to increase pace and pressure," Walker said.

Dean for Undergraduate Academic Affairs Travis R. Merrit supported the proposal, but said he was concerned that some students applying to graduate schools and other professional schools would send out their internal transcripts which would include the plus/minus grades.

He hoped that the internal transcript would have a "bold and unmistakable" message that it not be used outside the Institute.

Jaffe noted that many other universities use plus/minus grading systems: "We're not breaking radically new grounds."