Faculty Senate approves academic policy changes in response to COVID-19

At a special emergency meeting on March 26, the Faculty Senate approved a variety of new academic policies, including implementing a Satisfactory/No Credit grade for spring quarter.

Members of the Faculty Senate met virtually Thursday to consider academic policy exceptions requested by the Academic Continuity Group. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

In a special meeting Thursday, the Faculty Senate approved several new academic policies designed to give students and instructors some flexibility during the extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances - and disruption - caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

Under one of the new policies approved at the March 26 meeting, all university courses will be graded Satisfactory/No Credit for spring quarter of 2019-20, except for those offered by the Graduate School of Business, School of Law and the School of Medicine MD program.

Since the state of California remains under a shelter-in-place order, the Faculty Senate held the meeting using a video conferencing service - a first for the senators.

At the start of the meeting, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne also gave a short address, in which he noted that researchers and scientists from around the world are working together to understand the novel coronavirus and discover drugs that might prove effective against it, adding that knowledge from China, South Korea and other countries have been crucial in understanding the most effective strategies for containment and mitigation.

He said it is Stanford’s role to help foster this cross-border scholarship and to extend kindness and respect to every member of our own community, regardless of race, ethnicity or national origin.

"Our Asian and Asian American students and scholars are an important part of our Stanford family and I am concerned that they may be feeling increased pressure or scrutiny at this time," Tessier-Lavigne said. "I want to reaffirm that we stand in support of them, and all members of our community. The strength of our community comes from embracing our diversity and all that our varied perspectives and backgrounds bring to the table. The coronavirus affects us all - and it is more important than ever that we stand together to tackle the threat it poses to our world."

Also at the meeting, Provost Persis Drell announced that Stanford had established a new tenure clock policy for untenured faculty, in recognition of the serious academic and personal challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The policy, which was designed to be flexible and inclusive, offers a one-year extension for all faculty holding tenure-accruing appointments. She said the university has also instituted a pause on faculty and staff searches, recognizing the growing financial uncertainties facing the university. Find more information on these actions on the Stanford Health Alerts website.

Changes to academic policies

Most of the nearly 4-hour senate meeting focused on discussion of three proposed policy changes to the general university grading system, including two grading policy changes proposed by the Academic Continuity Group, which Stanford convened to assess and propose the best way to maintain the education mission of Stanford during the COVID-19 pandemic, and one policy change proposed by the Associated Students of Stanford University.

Sarah Church, team leader of the Academic Continuity Group, and a professor of physics at Stanford, said the most common argument in favor of a Satisfactory/No Credit grade was education equity during these unsettling times.

"It is the realization that in this extraordinary moment we find ourselves in, students are going to be doing their work in an environment that is going to be quite different for each of them, and for some populations it’s going to be quite hard to navigate," she said.

"There will be issues such as lack of access to broadband internet or a decent internet connection. There will be students who will be sharing internet access with siblings. There will be students who don’t have a place to work or even a table to work on. Students have cited a concern with having access to the necessary equipment to be able to have a successful online course."

Church also noted that the number of COVID-19 cases is increasing, and students, instructors and teaching assistants are likely to become sick. The courses will have to be able to accommodate students who get sick, and in some of the larger classes, that could be a large number, she said. Also, she said removing the option for a letter grade might lower student stress during an especially stressful time.

In addition to considering a Satisfactory/No Credit grade for spring quarter, the senate also considered two other proposals that it ultimately rejected.

  • All university courses that were being offered with only a letter grade option when spring quarter enrollment opened (except those offered by the Graduate School of Business, the School of Law and the School of Medicine MD program unless opted in by those schools) will have the option of being offered with a letter grade or Credit/No Credit during spring quarter 2019-20. Instructors will also have the choice Satisfactory/No Credit for their spring quarter course. (Proposed by the Academic Continuity Group)
  • All university courses (except those offered by the Graduate School of Business, the School of Law and the School of Medicine MD program unless opted in by those schools) will be A+/A/No Credit for spring quarter 2019-20. This [would] mean that students who achieve between a C- and A will be granted an A; students who achieve an A+ would receive that grade; and students who receive a D+ or below would be granted No Credit. (Proposed by the Associated Students of Stanford University)


Senators debated the three options at length but ultimately settled on the Satisfactory/No Credit grade for spring quarter, a policy that will not apply to the Graduate School of Business, the School of Law and the School of Medicine MD program unless opted into by the school. In addition, the senate approved the following measures:

  • Units of credit taken at another accredited institution during spring 2019-20 will not count toward the university limit on transfer credit.
  • Units of credit taken in extension, correspondence and online courses at another accredited institution during spring 2019-20 will not count toward the university limit on transfer credits.
  • Units of credit taken for a "CR" or "S" grade during spring quarter 2019-20 will not count toward the 36-unit maximum (27 units for transfer students).
  • The senate strongly urges that deans, departments and programs exclude units of credit earned for a "CR" or "S" grade during spring quarter 2019-20 from program unit maximums and/or alter program requirements as appropriate.
  • Courses taken during winter and spring quarter 2019-20 as CR/NC (or S/NC if Proposed Policy #1a passes) may be eligible to fulfill General Education Requirements pending review by the Breadth Governance Board (for Ways), the Thinking Matters Governance Board (for Thinking Matters), PWR (for PWR1 and PWR2), the Writing and Rhetoric Review Board for Writing in the Major, in manners and with timelines that those groups decide.
  • For students who are currently in the second year of their doctoral program and have not yet been admitted to candidacy, the university will allow departments and programs to defer the university candidacy requirement that students complete the department qualifying procedures and apply for candidacy by the end of their second year in the program. If departments and programs, specifically the department chair, director of graduate studies or graduate studies faculty committee, believe that their qualifying process cannot be implemented in spring 2019-20 due to COVID-19 disruptions, they may decide to allow students to meet the candidacy requirement by the end of autumn quarter 2020-21. If a department offers qualifying exams in spring 2019-20 the student will be given the option to defer to autumn 2020-21 without penalty in terms of meeting their degree progress milestones.
  • During spring 2019-20, and if necessary, retroactively for the winter quarter 2019-20, for time-sensitive decision-making the chair of the Faculty Senate and the Academic Secretary shall be granted decision-making authority on other processes and issues in consultation with relevant Academic Council Committees and Emergency Operations Committees designated by the provost.

President’s comments

In his remarks to the senate, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne praised the remarkable work that faculty members across the university are doing to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.

He said he was impressed with the innovation and flexibility that Stanford’s faculty has shown during the university’s transition to remote learning and research, and to respond to the unprecedented challenge of moving an entire quarter of teaching online.

Tessier-Lavigne said he was inspired by the dozens of research projects that have been launched been launched in response to COVID-19.

"At Stanford Medicine alone, researchers are studying how to prevent, diagnose, and treat the disease; others are working to understand how it spreads and how the immune system responds to it," he said.

Tessier-Lavigne said that faculty across the university are also exploring the many ways the coronavirus pandemic is affecting our society - from creating 3D printing ventilators to studying the economic implications of the pandemic, to sharing strategies for staying connected while social distancing - researchers from all seven schools are looking for solutions to the complex problems arising from this crisis.

Tessier-Lavigne also praised the critical work that Stanford Medicine is doing to take care of patients.

"They are truly on the front lines of the coronavirus response, working around the clock to care for our community," he said.

Tessier-Lavigne said it is clear that the novel coronavirus will have far-reaching consequences and leave a lasting impact on our society. In the near and medium term, Stanford will focus on supporting its community, preserving university operations as best it can and ensuring that Stanford contributes to combating COVID-19 and saving lives through research and clinical care.

"At the same time, I don’t think it’s too soon to begin planning for the longer term," he said.

"To that end, I am convening a Recovery Team to evaluate the impact of the crisis and to plan how we will manage the aftermath and get our campus back to a new normal. The world will be different when this is all over. And we are beginning to think through how Stanford can lead and contribute in the world that emerges after the pandemic subsides."


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