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Questions and Answers About the Spring 2020 Grading Policy

Dear Students,

I appreciate the responses — questions, concerns, gratitude, deep disappointment and even anger — that many of you have shared about the College’s decision to move to a Credit/No-Credit grading policy for the spring 2020 semester, eliminating the option for you to uncover your grades. The full faculty voted on this policy change, with a clear majority voting to approve it. While this decision is final and exceptions will not be made, I hope those of you who are frustrated by it find some reassurance in knowing that the faculty did not arrive at it easily. It was informed by hours of debate and discussion and deep consideration of a range of concerns raised by students and faculty, and it was made only after serious consideration of all points of view. I hope this note and these answers to some of the most frequently asked questions help address your questions about the decision and its impact on students this semester.

This global pandemic has introduced levels of uncertainty, pain, and grief, and its effects are felt unevenly across our student body, just as they are across the globe. Some of you are, thankfully, relatively unscathed by the virus and the dramatic changes we have all gone through to manage its damage; others are struggling to learn remotely amid circumstances that were unimaginable just two months ago, spanning a spectrum of challenges from unreliable access to the internet to the collapse of your families’ economic stability to the loss of loved ones. It is, in a word, devastating.

Even in normal times, you regularly navigate myriad life situations external to your Swarthmore education that interfere with your experience on campus. The College commits a tremendous amount of time, energy, and financial resources toward mitigating those factors and, to the greatest extent possible, toward putting all of our students on equal footing. COVID-19 has significantly limited our ability to do that. As the faculty began to fully appreciate that reality, we realized that it was all but impossible to equitably assign grades while you are being affected by this unprecedented crisis in such vastly different ways.

I hope that we can collectively maintain perspective during this moment. Your professors are here to continue supporting you through your academic journey — now more than ever. The absence of a letter grade doesn’t mean the absence of their evaluation of your work, and they are prepared to provide you with recommendations for fellowships, jobs, and graduate and professional school. We all want you to succeed, but we acknowledge that some of you may feel defeated. We’re here to walk the path with you, and when you are able to thrive, even amid these adverse conditions, we celebrate with you. 

Our decision to move to a Credit/No-Credit semester is in step with many of our peer institutions. In fact, given that so many colleges and universities have moved to versions of the Credit/No-Credit policy this spring, many graduate and professional schools have already shared plans to consider alternative forms of evaluation more fully as they review applications, such as recommendations, statements of purpose, overall academic work, and extracurricular activities.

All of us wish we had more time to respond to this crisis, and I am sorry that this change comes at this point in the semester. Like everyone, our faculty sought to make the best choices under less-than-ideal circumstances. As the College looks ahead to the fall, we are grateful to have more time to plan comprehensively across a number of scenarios so that students and faculty alike have clearer expectations from the beginning. 

In the past few days, I’ve heard some of you ask, “Why should I invest so much in my schoolwork if I’m not being graded?” While I understand that kind of deep frustration and disappointment in response to this decision, I hope you’ll agree that your educational experience at Swarthmore cannot be defined by a semester’s grades. You came to Swarthmore to learn, to push yourself, to test your thinking and ideas, and to prepare yourself for a life of engagement, leadership, and furthering of the common good. You probably didn’t expect to be tested so soon, so profoundly, or in ways so challenging that demanded your intellectual and emotional growth so quickly. Why should you keep at it? Because this extended moment will eventually pass, and society will need your participation and your resilience, your thinking and your heart.


Sarah Willie-LeBreton
Provost and Dean of the Faculty