Open Letter to Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Stanford Senate Faculty

About Stanford Spring 2020 Grades

Dear President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Stanford Senate Faculty,

Thank you for meeting and voting on urgent matters affecting our students during this extraordinary time.

As the Senate rightly reasoned in Thursday’s meeting on March 26, 2020, our unprecedented move to online teaching during a pandemic requires the stability that an S grade may offer. Such flexibility remains paramount given students’ potential for interference by illness, family or logistical issues, or technological difficulties. 

Please allow me to express my gratitude for considering flexible and inclusive options for grading. Yet, speaking only for myself as a member of the teaching staff, not my academic unit, please also allow me to respectfully disagree with the Senate’s vote for mandatory S/NC grading without the possibility to opt for a letter grade. I understand the Senate rejected the ASSU “option C”. A+/A/NC, but option C was different than allowing students to opt for a grade instead of an S. Adding the grade option would modify options A or B for a much better outcome for students. Peer institutions like UC Berkeley and University of Pennsylvania have chosen this path.

Without a doubt, this is a time of pedagogical uncertainty. The S/NC grading decision may appear to optimize assessment procedures and ensure continuity across campus. However, I nevertheless agree with many students that the S/NC stifles rather than promotes flexibility in grading. Adaptability and effort are key to this new educational experience, and allowing the possibility of grades offers an invaluable opportunity for students in need to shine.

Many  of our most vulnerable students from low-income backgrounds face great logistical uncertainty for their first quarter online but still passionately appeal for the grade option. For example, a student whose family is currently homeless wrote to me:

Even with my current food and housing insecurities, the S will not give me the academic security the faculty senate imagines. I very much need that A and have made arrangements for connectivity to allow me to do A work. As a FLI sophomore it took me a year to hit my stride and get straight As,  I need medical schools to see my continued improvement, please don’t tell me that medical schools will cut me slack for an S grade, when instead they could see my As under even the most dire circumstances. Please don’t patronize me and tell me the S is for my own good, I worked very hard here to get As, please let me shine.

I have 69 similar messages from students that I have permission to share.  Students' needs come first in this time. Will late quarter requests for grade options cause administrative complexities? We already have these, and they are not more urgent than the future of our students.  Please reconsider the Senate vote to include an option for a letter grade in addition to the S.  


Dr. Ruth A. Starkman