On Calif. Campus, an Experimental Era Nears Its End
By William Booth
But for some time now, many of the faculty members at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who include some world-class brains, have felt the whiff, and occasionally the sting, of condemnation and discrimination--that the professors and their charges were not being taken seriously enough by the larger world because the university had an undeserved reputation in some quarters as a slacker's haven, mostly because it did not give the students letter grades.
But those days could soon be over.
No more "pass/no pass" at Santa Cruz.
For many of the 11,000 students here, this is a bummer, and it is certainly the end of an era.
In a landmark debate last week, the faculty senate overwhelmingly voted to end its 35-year experiment in alternative education and join almost all other higher-learning institutions in grading its students with A's or F's and everything in between.
The end of the noble experiment is bigger than this university, say authorities in higher education, since it effectively brings to a close the alternative learning atmospheres begun in the heady days of the 1960s, when many educators believed there might be a better way to adjudicate and reward student performance than giving letter grades.
A number of universities and colleges experimented with doing away with letter grades, but later returned to the tried-and-true method of producing graduates with grade-point averages.
With the faculty's vote at UC-Santa Cruz last week, this leaves only a handful of schools still resisting letter grades, including Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.; Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.; New College in Sarasota, Fla.; a branch of the University of Redlands in California; and Reed College in Portland, Ore., which uses a mix of grades and evaluations.
The desire for letter grades was pushed by the UC-Santa Cruz faculty, many of whom teach the sciences. In an e-mail sent to his colleagues last summer, biology professor Lincoln Taiz compared the narrative evaluations to the "embalmed corpse of Lenin that had outlived its revolutionary usefulness." In less colorful language, other professors agreed.
"Maybe we should just cut our losses and admit that some experiments don't work," said Harry Noller Jr., a biology professor.
Yet many faculty members and administrators at other institutions saw something they liked at UC-Santa Cruz. It is common today for professors at other schools to complain of students who compete too fiercely with one another for grades, who engage in "grade grubbing" or the practice of endlessly trying to negotiate better grades with their teachers, and who begin each semester asking, "Is this going to be on the final?"
Professors and students here who oppose letter grades fear that their unconventional campus may soon become another "educational assembly line," grinding out students like ground chuck and stamping them with letters.
The opponents and proponents of letter grades at Santa Cruz have been engaged in an often emotional debate about grades for the past three months, and the debate gets at the issue of what, exactly, a college degree means and to whom.
Last Wednesday, the faculty senate, which sets academic policies, voted 154 to 77 to begin to use letter grades for the incoming freshman class in 2001. If that vote is challenged, as is likely, the entire faculty of 588 professors will be polled by mail. But many here believe it is more than likely that the faculty will widely support letter grades.
"It's been a big battle," said Eric Gonzalez, an undergraduate and officer in the Student Union Assembly, which has opposed letter grades. "We know that if it comes down to a mail ballot, we'll lose." And what will be lost? "We're going to become like every other university. We're going to become just another college, and not this special place."
Brant Smith, a recent graduate of Santa Cruz and now a successful Internet businessman, is urging other alumni to fight the changes, comparing mandatory grades to "an assembly-line mentality." He adds that in the real world, outside of college, "nobody gets a grade, you give your employees an evaluation."
Since its inception in 1965, UC-Santa Cruz has created and maintained a unique environment. Its setting is stunning, located on Monterey Bay just outside funky Santa Cruz, a hippie-surfer town transmogrifying into a "Silicon Beach."
Student life is centered inside eight colleges, where the living and dining spaces are, and each college has a unique theme. Porter College is "a community influenced greatly by art and artists' ways of being in the world," according to the university's brochures. Oakes College pays "particular attention to students from underrepresented groups." College Eight focuses on "environmental issues within a social, political, scientific and humanistic context."
If this all sounds a bit earnest, it's supposed to. The founders of UC-Santa Cruz saw their mission as a "Great Experiment." One of the school's founders envisioned a place where undergraduates would attend small classes and have meaningful relationships of the mind with their professors.
Instead of letter grades, the students at UC-Santa Cruz receive evaluations that, in the best examples, are nuanced, detailed and descriptive appraisals of how well a student mastered the material, used critical thinking and grew as a scholar.
The vote about grades does not specifically end the narrative evaluations, but many faculty members and students here believe that once letter grades are the rule, evaluations will wither and become secondary. It is possible, for example, that the evaluations still might be used in some smaller classes, along with letter grades, but abandoned in the large classes of several hundred students, where many concede they had become less meaningful.
"We have too many students in too many of our classes to give meaningful evaluations, and you hear from medical schools, graduate schools, that they just don't want to spend the time, or don't have the time, to assess evaluations," Noller said. "They want grades."
Bill Ladusaw, a linguistics professor, says he sympathizes. He, too, has been rankled by the images of "flakiness" at Santa Cruz, despite the fact that the university consistently is ranked highly by numerous educational sources, its students are widely accepted at graduate schools and the university is world-renowned for some areas of research. And he says writing evaluations can be time-consuming. Assuming 15 minutes per evaluation, doing 100 students takes 25 hours every quarter.
But Ladusaw still defends the evaluations and resists letter grades. He believes letter grades make students too competitive and fixated--"You 'numerize' everything and students are always asking what does it take to get a B?" As for the evaluations, particularly in the humanities, Ladusaw says they are worth the extra effort. He described them as "grades-plus," and that when a student graduates, instead of just having a grade-point average, they have essentially 36 letters of reference, as 36 classes are required for an undergraduate degree.
Students, who have not been formally polled, generally say they like the evaluations. Their opinions on grades are more mixed. Those who want to go on to graduate schools in sciences, law or medicine say they need to be graded.
"I think a lot of students here don't take things as seriously as they would if there were mandatory grades," said Jordan Benjamin, a junior biochemistry and molecular biology major. "Being on a pass/no pass system allows a lot of people to think they're doing better than they are."
One thing many students and faculty members agree on is that mandatory letter grades are going to change the feel of the school. Like everything in California, the university is growing, with 500 to 700 new students a year, who are being taught in ever-larger classes.
"It was supposed to be this intimate setting," said Kristin Wartman, an editor at the student newspaper, City on a Hill Press. "But the bureaucracy wants more students. It's all about mainstreaming the campus, turning it into another puppy mill. We might fight it, but unfortunately, that's where things are headed."
Special correspondent Kathleen Haley contributed to this report.
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company