Passing for Normal at Santa Cruz

Red-Letter Day for a Counterculture Experiment

That "subtly disguised insane asylum for freaks"—as one student described the redwood-studded University of California at Santa Cruz campus, circa 1970—took one more dose of pedagogical Prozac this spring. On February 23, the school's faculty senate voted 154-77 to make letter grades mandatory for all entering undergraduates beginning in fall 2001. The vote jettisoned the school's "pass/no-record" grading policy, evolved over 35 years, which gave students a "pass" for a course or conveniently expunged it from their transcripts.

Dubbed "The End of the Great Experiment" by one campus newspaper, the decision has paved the way for a May 31 meeting at which faculty are set to discuss and possibly abandon the campus's cherished narrative evaluation system, by which students are given written descriptions of their performance in each course. The threatened loss of that system has darkened the prognosis for alternative education at Santa Cruz and other countercultural institutions.

"Santa Cruz has a very special educational atmosphere and culture," says politics professor Peter Euben, "and that will be undone by mandatory grades. It will change the culture here profoundly and it will change it for the worse."

"This is the death of one of the nation's great grading systems," adds alumnus Chris Ridder, who graduated from Santa Cruz in 1993 and is now a second-year law student at UC Berkeley. Like many students, Ridder came to Santa Cruz seeking detailed evaluations that assessed him as an individual, and not just as a "meaningless number." In his view, narrative evaluations speak volumes more than any letter grade possibly could. "I received a number of evaluations that said, 'Well, Chris didn't come to class, but he did write really good papers,' " Ridder says. "Is that an A or a B? As the reader of that evaluation you can decide what's important to you."

Prominent alumni of the few colleges elsewhere in America still offering alternative grading systems are sympathetic to the cause. "My life drastically improved the second I was able to get out of the stultifying public high school education I received," says Matt Groening, the cartoonist and Simpsonscreator, who graduated from Olympia, Washington's Evergreen State College in 1977. "I had a real problem with the grading system." Groening sought out Evergreen's radically informal program, which requires its 4000 students to evaluate themselves in addition to being narratively evaluated by their professors.

Mightn't that lead to self-inflated grades? On the contrary, says Groening: "I had some pretty harsh evaluations." He recalls a creative writing professor informing him bluntly in one such instance, "Here's your formula, Matt. You do this formula very well. Now, you have to ask yourself, is it worth doing?"

"That stuck with me for the rest of my life," Groening says. He adds sardonically, "It haunts me every night."

Some faculty at Santa Cruz claim the days of experimentation are over. "Almost everybody who's educated in America gets a grade," says Anthony Tromba, a mathematics professor who has taught at Santa Cruz for 30 years. "There's a price you pay for being different from everybody else." That price is paid in everything from faculty reputation to graduate schools that refuse to process unwieldy 50-page transcripts. "In the world of higher education," continues Tromba, "what matters in terms of getting funding from outside agencies and getting the best students is the excellence of the research reputation. We are a large research university and fast becoming even larger. These are enormous pressures."

Margo Hendricks, a literature professor who came to the school 10 years ago, has been feeling the squeeze. When her introduction-to-Shakespeare course jumped from an average of 100 students to as many as 175, she began using cut-and-paste forms for her underperforming students to save on the hour it took to write each one's evaluation. But now, "I'm using templates for everybody except those students who do exceptionally well," she confesses. "For the rest, I literally plug in their names."

Moreover, sitting on committees for Mellon Humanities Fellowships convinced Hendricks that narrative evaluations were hurting students. They also proved an impediment when it became clear that students needed GPAs to be eligible for the new Gates Millennium Scholars program, which offers minority scholarships. Hendricks says that when Santa Cruz circulated an e-mail requesting faculty to convert narratives into GPAs for student applications, the irony hit home especially hard. "The mandatory narrative evaluation system has become a system that can hinder students who are of great concern to me as a faculty member of color," she explains. "If narrative evaluations are a stumbling block, then I cannot support them."

Most everyone agrees that the campus has been slipping down a conformist slope for years. "Santa Cruz has been giving up little pieces of what made it unique since its origin," says Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University. "Almost all of the real experimental colleges are gone."

In 1997 Santa Cruz introduced an option for letter grades, and by fall 1999, 39 percent of the school's undergraduates had signed on. One of those was senior Jeff Williams, a legal studies major and former editor at the campus paper, Fish Rap Live! "I take grades for classes in my major, but evaluations are overall a much more comprehensive way of assessing your work in a class," says Williams. "It's in my best interest to do both."

"I'm not surprised," says Michele Myers, president of Sarah Lawrence College, referring to the Santa Cruz faculty's decision. "Narrative evaluations are based upon real knowledge of a student. If you have 200 students in a class, there's no way in the world you can know them that well." With an enrollment of about 1500, the Sarah Lawrence student-to-faculty ratio is 6 to 1. That ratio at Santa Cruz is 20 to 1. The difference, says Myers, is palpable. "At most campuses students have a reputation as grade grubbers. We don't get that here. In my view a good narrative evaluation is probably the most important teaching tool we have." Sarah Lawrence students actually do receive grades, but they typically see only their evaluations. Grades are kept on record for transcript purposes and must be specifically requested.

Whether or not it abolishes evaluations, Santa Cruz isn't the only school feeling pressure to conform. Last January New York State education commissioner Richard P. Mills refused to let the 40 alternative high schools in New York City submit portfolio projects in place of the onerous English Regent's exam now required for graduation. And some new alternative colleges, such as Arizona International College, which is affiliated with the University of Arizona, are having trouble getting off the ground. "You would think there would be room for experimentation in American higher education," says Arizona International founder Celestino Fernández. "But there is not. The pressures are great and almost endless to become like everyone else."

If nothing else, Santa Cruz retains its capacity to provoke. "If Santa Cruz loses evaluations, then it basically has sold its soul to the devil," says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in New York. "The truth is, at a certain level no one worries about letter grades anymore. You don't take a philosophy class and say Kant gets an A and Hegel gets a C."

As Lifemagazine observed a short while after the school opened, "Santa Cruz itself came into existence at almost the only possible time." Governor Ronald Reagan took office one year later, and teaching budgets grew tighter. By some estimates the school never recovered from the state's conservative regime. "They should stop building prisons in California," Botstein says, "and invest in higher education."

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