Announcement about pass-fail decision

Dear Williams community,

We have entered into an unprecedented period in national and global history. Clearly, for Williams this has also been a historically challenging moment: one which has forced actions we never imagined would be needed. I know that members of the Williams community are doing the utmost to support each other, and I appreciate all of your efforts, wherever this message may find you.

Here on campus, we continue to monitor the situation and determine how best to respond to shifting events. Most immediately and sadly, it seems quite clear that any hopes of our reconvening this semester must now be put to rest. Williams College will be completing the semester remotely. This news is likely to spark questions about commencement, reunion and summer opportunities. We are working methodically through those decisions, trying to strike the right balance between providing certainty where we can and avoiding premature conclusions. You can expect a message about commencement, reunion and summer programming soon.

Meanwhile, we have made the decision to switch to universal pass/fail for all courses taken by undergraduates this semester. You will not be surprised to learn that many people have expressed strong views on the subject, sometimes referring to what other schools are doing. Those examples vary, because each college or university is responding in ways appropriate to their own situation. Some are continuing with existing grading policies. Some are moving to optional pass/fail, with a subset pushing back their deadline for declaring a class as pass/fail. Still others, including MIT, Columbia, Wellesley and Bowdoin, have established universal pass/fail grading policies for all students.

At Williams, our Faculty Steering Committee recommended a decision-making process appropriate to our governance and culture. Steering started by inviting comments from faculty. Several dozen responded, and Steering combined these with input from the Committee of Educational Affairs, the Committee on Academic Standing and the Committee on Honor and Discipline, as well as the Registrar. Thank you to everyone who contributed to that process, as well as to the many students, families, alumni and others who wrote to me or other members of senior staff directly. The input was then funneled up to a group that included me, Dean of Faculty and Cluett Professor of Religion Denise Buell, Provost and Professor of Economics Dukes Love, Associate Dean for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Professor of Political Science Ngonidzashe Munemo, and Dean of the College and Hales Professor of Psychology Marlene Sandstrom. Our group reviewed all the input and deliberated at length before deciding to move to universal pass/fail for courses taken by undergraduates. The college’s two graduate programs will make decisions appropriate to their own situations and inform their students separately. You can find more detail about how this will be implemented in our new Pass-Fail FAQ on the Registrar’s website.

During a standard semester, grades reflect a faculty member’s assessment of the quality of a student’s work produced under relatively consistent and controlled circumstances. The pandemic and ensuing campus closure make consistency and control impossible. Everyone is doing the best they can, but we felt the focus had to be on learning, not on grading. We decided it was unrealistic to apply a grading system designed for people living and working on a rural liberal arts campus to a situation in which teachers and learners are dispersed to homes and locations from where they have to teach and learn in varied settings, while also managing potential exposure to COVID-19 and even the possibility of illness in their households. Nor could we compare a student’s work during this semester to their past academic or future performance. Conventional grading would not work either longitudinally or cross-sectionally.

Knowing that people in our community hold many different views on this matter, I ask that we all keep in mind the unprecedented nature of the moment we are living through. Global and local disruptions require that prior thinking and inherited wisdom be re-evaluated and measured against new circumstances. Things that used to make sense, or which have always been done a certain way, might or might not work in our new conditions. The question has to at least be asked so that it can be answered.

There is good news. The wonderful educators at Williams are devoting the weeks of spring break to re-thinking their courses in ways that will provide robust and rigorous educational experiences, suitable for students scattered across the globe. I am grateful to the faculty who are redesigning syllabi, approaches, and assignments, and to the staff who are supporting them. Likewise, I am grateful to our students for showing the patience and commitment to learn amidst historic upheaval.

Some people expressed concerns to me that a move to pass/fail would disincentivize students. Students, if you are in a situation where you are able to expand your intellectual horizons and learning capacities, I encourage you to leap at the opportunity. Nobody will ever look at the spring of 2020 as a normal moment in your educational trajectories. But if you work with your faculty and push yourselves, you can make the most of even this experience.

Williams is built on the belief that a broad education makes people better problem solvers and thought leaders. We also believe in the value of community and connection, which now have to be expressed in new forms. Williams students, faculty and staff have the intelligence, curiosity, and passion to demonstrate these principles and show how our values can help us overcome great challenges. Students, my advice to you especially is to work with your faculty to learn as much as you can. This will not be the last challenge society faces, and what you absorb from your Williams education today will help you find the solutions for tomorrow.

I think of you all every day, and am sending good thoughts to you and your families as we all navigate difficult waters.


Maud S. Mandel
Professor of History; Program in Jewish Studies