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Screenshot from a video shared on Twitter by U.S. senator Bernie Sanders.
The University of Michigan graduate student workers’ strike may have been a boon to certain students: some department chairs have said they plan to give out A’s.
“Any classes that don’t have grades submitted by noon tomorrow (May 16th) will have to have grades inputted by the department,” Gaurav Desai, chair of the English Language and Literature Department at Ann Arbor, wrote in an email Monday. “We do not have any mechanisms for submitting ‘real’ grades. So any students with outstanding grades will receive an ‘A.’”
Desai wrote, “The provost and the college are requiring departments to post grades in all classes in which grades have not yet been posted. We have no choice in this matter.” He also mentioned “emails and calls from many angry students demanding departmental action on submitting grades.”
He didn’t respond to requests for comment this week.
“The vast majority of classes in this department had their grades posted on time, but there were still a few outstanding,” said Kim Broekhuizen, a university spokesperson. “Some graduate student instructors who were the sole teachers of certain classes did not turn in any grades. Our understanding is that this email was sent out to offer a final opportunity for those graduate student instructors to post their own grades.”
Multiple instructors of record have signed a letter saying they plan to complain to the university’s accreditor about the institution’s “decision to falsify” grades.
“We urge administration to remedy this by bargaining in good faith with GEO [Graduate Employees’ Organization, the striking union] rather than forcing third parties to undermine academic integrity and professional ethics,” the letter says.
Andreas Gailus, chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Ann Arbor, confirmed sending an email including this to instructors of record:
“As you know, the hope for an agreement between GEO and the administration is fading, and it now seems likely that the strike will continue into the summer and through the fall semester. I think it is not fair to our students to make them wait for their grades until September. In light of this situation, I’ve decided that it is time for me to step in and assign grades. Needless to say that I’m not happy about this solution, but I don’t see a viable alternative, assuming that you don’t want to enter the grades yourself. My plan, at the moment, is to give straight ‘A’s’ to all students in GSI [graduate student instructor]-taught classes.”
Gailus asked recipients to let him know “if you see a better solution to the dilemma.” He declined to tell Inside Higher Ed Thursday whether he actually ended up giving straight A’s, saying, “Grades are legally protected, and I will therefore not discuss them.”
“The dean’s office has been putting a lot of pressure since the end of the semester,” he wrote to the instructors of record. “I’ve talked with other chairs across the humanities, most of whom have already entered grades for GSI-taught classes, and the colleagues in the remaining hold-outs—English and Romance—are planning to do so at the beginning of next week.”
Vincenzo Binetti, chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Ann Arbor, didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday. An email provided to Inside Higher Ed bearing his name doesn’t specifically mention giving out A’s, but it does include this:
Very regrettably, the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures is now required to input the unsubmitted grades for striking GSIs. The dean’s office has informed us that this responsibility ultimately falls on individual departments in LSA [the College of Literature, Science and the Arts]. Consequently, starting on Wednesday, May 17th, RLL [Romance Languages and Literatures] will begin to enter the grades for all GSI-led courses where final grades remain unsubmitted … Since the start of the GEO strike, we have reiterated our position to LSA that it is not appropriate for us to enter grades for striking GSIs. We remain deeply concerned about the submission of grades for political, academic and ethical reasons. However, we find ourselves in a situation where we have no alternative choice. It is crucial for you to be aware that RLL’s engagement in grade entry is the result of a directive made by the provost’s office and the LSA dean’s office.
Anne Curzan—dean of LSA, the university’s largest college—provided no comment, beyond referring Inside Higher Ed to a Wednesday statement from the provost.
Christopher Hill, chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Ann Arbor, is traveling and didn’t respond to requests for comment Thursday. An email provided to Inside Higher Ed bearing his name says he “used an approach specified by LSA, to use instructor-assigned grades for assignments up to the start of the strike, and give full credit for assignments after that.”
The strike began March 29.
“I did not evaluate any student work,” he wrote. “When attendance information up to the start of the strike was available, I used it. In most sections, however, I gave full credit for the attendance and participation part of the grade.”
“Needless to say, providing full credit for assignments after the start of the strike means that some students may have received grades higher than what they would have otherwise received,” he wrote. “The alternatives, to assign grades only on the basis of work up to the start of the strike or to evaluate work submitted after its start—when students had little or no guidance—were not acceptable. In my own view, as the member of the department ultimately responsible for the submission of grades in these courses, waiting until the end of the strike, when striking GSIs have said that they will complete grading, also was not a tenable choice because the slow pace of university-GEO negotiations suggests that the strike will continue for some time.”
Laurie K. McCauley, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, wrote in her statement Wednesday, “As of this afternoon, 95.4 percent of all grades have been submitted. The large majority of classes that are still missing grades are independent study or study abroad classes that, while still vital to record, customarily arrive later than usual.”
It’s unclear what amount of that 95.4 percent was achieved through giving out A’s or other grading approaches that don’t involve the actual instructor providing grades.
“To the best of our knowledge, this practice of grades in this manner has been used in 33 total sections out of more than 4,000 taught last semester (in LSA),” Broekhuizen said. By “in this manner,” she said she meant “the broader concept of others inputting grades in place of graduate students, like if a professor were hospitalized or passed away before grades were submitted.”
“It’s important to remember that we are in this situation because some members of the graduate employees’ union abandoned their classes and their students,” she wrote. “Three weeks after the end of the semester, they still have not turned in grades.”
McCauley, the provost, wrote, “While this progress is encouraging, I want to also acknowledge the inherent discomfort created when a faculty member or department chair must enter a final grade in lieu of an instructor of record who is not available to do so.”
“This is not easy for any of us,” the provost wrote. “However, leaving students without grades indefinitely for a course they have completed is unconscionable. It affects their financial aid, applications for work and graduate school, enrollment in spring and summer classes, and other career plans. The University of Michigan has a duty to help those students by finalizing their grades.”
She wrote that “We are looking into” concerns “raised in recent days about the methods some departments are using to resolve missing grades,” and “asking leaders across our units to do all they can to ensure that grades are as accurate as possible.”
“There has been no blanket mandate regarding how schools, colleges or departments resolve this issue,” she wrote. “On the contrary, I have asked deans to work with department chairs and faculty to ensure all students receive grades as soon as possible.”
David Davison, a striking sixth-year Ph.D. student in the English Language and Literature Department, wrote in an email that he was “very sad” to receive the email from his department chair about giving out A’s.
“Gaurav has been relatively supportive, but like many academics with administrative responsibilities, he feels a great deal of (exploited) obligation to his role: both in terms of supporting his graduate students, by not punishing us (and even by rushing us summer funding to protect us from the loss of strike income), but also in terms of supporting the university,” Davison wrote. “And so while I have appreciated immensely the lack of retribution, he still wrote an email justifying scabbing. Crossing a picket line to scab is one of the most offensive things a worker can do. It undermines labor power and solidarity.
“As a scholar of power and fascism myself, though, I can’t stand when anyone, especially someone with a title next to their name, describes not having a choice,” Davison said. “We all choose whether to comply with power.”
Late last month, History Department faculty members sent a statement to university administrators, saying, “We are deeply troubled by reports that the administration intends to punish faculty, staff and department chairs who refuse to assign grades for work that they have not personally assessed,” and “In light of the administration’s pressure to implicate faculty in breaking GEO’s strike and to perform uncompensated labor, history department faculty have made a collective decision to withhold our grades as a form of protest until May 12. On that day, we will collectively reconsider our stance.”
That date came and went last week.
“The department faculty gathered on May 11th to discuss our next steps,” department chair Angela Dillard said Thursday. “There was a general sense that the strategy to withhold grades was an important way to stand in solidarity with our graduate students, but not successful in encouraging the kind of negotiations necessary to resolve the strike. Given the open-ended nature of the ongoing strike, many felt that our responsibility toward our undergraduates was now more pressing.”
“My colleagues started uploading grades on May 12th, and we are working on the last two lecture courses,” she said. “Fortunately, we have very few classes for which graduate students were the instructor of record, and have not had to face the possibility of assigning blanket A’s. But I will quickly add that the amount of work required to grade essays and exams without the essential labor of our GSIs was substantial, and many of my colleagues feel that this effort has not been fully and appropriately acknowledged by our provost and other members of the upper administration. This remains the source of much discontent.”