Don’t be UNSAT: Why HKS Students Should NOT Opt-in to Letter Grades

Géraud Bablon
Géraud Bablon is a dual-degree MPP and Master in Urban Planning candidate at the Kennedy School and the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Celebrating individual merit is a core feature at the Kennedy School. We have fellowships, while other schools have need-based financial aid. We split our buildings into parts and name them after elite benefactors.

This pandemic calls on us to put that spirit of meritocratic competition aside. Unless necessary to fulfill a specific requirement for a fellowship or a prospective job, HKS students should not opt-in to a letter grade.

Dean Elmendorf’s announcement on March 25th to switch the grading scheme for the semester to satisfactory / unsatisfactory was in response to concerns that traditional letter grades would be unfair to students. While some schools had an emergency grading system already in place in their bylaws, ready to be enacted by faculty vote, students at HKS had to petition the school to make the switch. The school has chosen to frame opting-out as an individual choice, not a collective responsibility. Communication has focused on the procedure to opt-in for letter grades. But opting-in to letter grades should be a last resort, for students who have no other choice.

Measuring students’ achievement through grades in this moment is unfair and tone deaf. Classmates are grieving the loss of their family members and fearing for their sick partners. They’ve gone home to spotty WiFi, are supporting their parents who have been laid off, or are looking after their siblings or children. As usual, low-income students and students of color are likely shouldering a greater burden. Students may be suffering from depression after the uncertainty and loss of the past month, and the loneliness of social isolation. Many won’t have considered it worth writing to their deans for support.

During collective trauma the burden falls on the institution to foster compassion in our community. The spirit of satisfactory / unsatisfactory is to reduce competition, when that competition has become inequitable and when more pressing priorities have emerged.

In that spirit, those who have the support structures to be least affected, and who have been able to maintain high grades, are called on to make a sacrifice for those who are shouldering more. This is no small ask: giving up recognition on a transcript for a semester’s hard work is a big sacrifice. It’s even harder when, after graduation, that transcript risks being weighed against other HKS transcripts that opted-in to letter grades. Opting-in to letter grades is a collective action problem: if only the students who are suffering the most forgo letter grades, then the scheme fails completely as an equalizer.

One of the joys of the past month has been an opening of the floodgates of human compassion: in the genuine concern in emails from colleagues, in grocery store conversations with strangers, in rapidly-blooming mutual aid societies. Inviting compassion is a core competency of leadership models at institutions like the Harvard Divinity School and MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. It’s less a part of our vocabulary at the Kennedy School, yet compassion is fundamental to effective public service. Let’s use this moment to work on cultivating it within ourselves.

To students who have been intending to opt-in for a letter grade: don’t. Make this sacrifice in solidarity with your classmates who are having a harder time than you are.

To students who want pass/fail but still feel the pressure to take a letter grade instead: don’t. Allow yourself this grace and lean into the other priorities that the past month has made evident.


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