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May 31, 2001


University Senate Matters, Nathan Hershey

I was very pleased to learn from Chancellor Nordenberg, a month prior to the public announcement on May 22, that an arrangement had been reached between the plaintiffs in the same-sex partners health benefits litigation and the University, to place the litigation on hold, thus making possible the chancellor's appointment of a committee to comprehensively examine the subject and to recommend to him a course of action. The University Senate anti-discriminatory policies committee, chaired by Anne Medsger, had proposed last year the establishment by the chancellor of such a committee, and the Faculty Assembly had unanimously endorsed the proposal.

Assuming the chancellor's committee recommends providing such benefits, and the chancellor accepts the recommendation and begins to act upon it, the chancellor will have to deal with the possibility of retaliation through the state appropriation process that has been threatened by some legislators. I have great confidence in the chancellor's negotiation skills and I know he is highly respected by the governor and the legislative leadership. He will need to enlist the active support of the chief executives of Penn State and Temple in his efforts at the state level.

Those of us at who advocate granting health benefits to same-sex partners need to support him as he deals with this issue.



Approximately five years ago I learned of a dispute at California University of Pennsylvania, a public university, between a faculty member and the institution's president over a course grade change. This conflict led to the firing of the faculty member who sought arbitration and eventually succeeded in regaining his position and recovering lost salary. However, he recently lost his lawsuit brought because of the firing, on the basis that he did not have a constitutional right of expression through the grading procedures of the university, thus no violation of his constitutional rights had occurred.

I had become intrigued by this dispute because, although I had not at the time ever received a specific request to change a course grade, I had had, as practically every faculty member has had, students come to see me to express their dissatisfaction with their grades. I began to wonder whether there were any explicit policies at the University of Pittsburgh concerning changing course grades, apart from "I" and "G" grades.

After I learned of the court decision in the California University of Pennsylvania dispute, I became concerned for others, as well as myself, in connection with policies and criteria for changing course grades. Apparently there is no University-wide policy apart from the brief statements in the Undergraduate Bulletin and the Graduate and Professional Bulletin. The key language of both statements is: Only the instructor of a course may change a student's grade by submitting a Change of Grade Card. All grade changes require the authorization of the dean of the school from which the original grade was issued.

Subsequent to the December 2000 grading period, I received requests from two students to have course grades changed. Both students believed that the low grades I had given them might prevent them from earning degrees from the University. I declined to make the requested grade changes or to assign additional work to lay the foundation for an improved grade. As it turned out, both students were mistaken with regard to the effect of the poor grade from me on their academic situation.

I spoke with faculty at several schools of the University and decided course grade change was a subject that needed study. I referred the subject to Jacqueline Lever, chair of the University Senate student affairs committee in March, who promptly began a committee investigation by soliciting from the schools of the University the policies or rules that related to the process and criteria for changing grades in their schools.

On May 22, Professor Lever, on behalf of her committee, submitted a report summarizing the information from most of the schools. The report also contains several recommendations. I was extremely pleased with the manner in which Professor Lever and her committee responded to my request, and with the content of the report.

I believe the subject deserves further attention. For example, there could be a single University policy on grade changes with specific guidance. Or, there could be a policy that authorizes each school to establish its own policy containing criteria and process for changing course grades. Fairness would appear to require some basic consistency within the University. It is also important for a policy to indicate specifically the steps to be followed by students seeking to obtain a change of grade, and the extent of intervention allowed to a dean where the student and the faculty member have not resolved a dispute over a grade.

If schools are going to have the authority to establish policies for grade changes, their content should be made explicit to faculty and students. If a student seeking to have his/her course grade raised is given the opportunity by the instructor to perform additional work, all students in that course should have that opportunity. A school policy that appears to encourage requests for grade changes might generate many requests to faculty who are not generous with high grades, and this could lead to considerable friction. I intend to recommend to my successor, James Cassing, that the subject be given additional attention.

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