What To Do About Grading: A Rough Guide

How should faculty conduct themselves if the administration cannot or will not reach an agreement with the Graduate Fellows Teaching Federation? The impasse between them, as we all know, has put faculty who depend on GTFs between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, they cannot function normally without GTFs, while on the other hand several of the alternatives to normality entail at best a disservice to our students, at worst educational malpractice. Confronted with the ethical and professional challenges posed by the administration’s latest “continuity plan,” many, perhaps most faculty embrace our recommendation to “Keep Calm and Carry On.” But it is not the place of United Academics to say what faculty should or should not do. Some colleagues may have no alternatives at all—if, for example, a dean decides to “modify final exams for some or all courses” in a particular unit, as the most recent continuity plan allows. For the rest of us, this is a decision each colleague will have to make for her/himself, within the parameters of law, contract, ethics, and professional integrity. As we see it, the range of responses can be clumped into three broad categories:

Truncate: Faculty may decide to “forgo the final and take the existing grade” and/or exclude term papers from the calculation of a student’s grade for the entire course.

Among all the alternatives recommend by the administration, is the least acceptable, ethically and pedagogically, as well as the option that exposes us to the charge of educational malpractice. It is fatalistic in its assumption that the strike will not be averted; once announced to students, it cannot be undone—even if an agreement is reached; faculty who choose this path without informing their students defraud them by requiring work that will not be included in the calculation of a grade. It is also grossly unfair to student who, for whatever reason, began the term poorly and hoped to improve their scores in end-of-term written assignments and final exams. The administration’s “solution” to this problem—to make final examinations available to those who want to take them—compounds malpractice with inequity. On the other hand, this option carries no negative consequences for individual faculty in their dealings with administration.

Modify: Faculty may decide to modify final exams into machine-readable formats, thereby obviating the need for human involvement in the grading process.

Here the ethics are more nuanced. There is nothing inherently wrong with ScanTron exams—in many disciplines, after all, machine-readable exams are preferable and for entirely legitimate, pedagogical reasons. In other disciplines, however, modification cannot occur without a degradation of standards or, worse, serious distortions in the evaluation of student performance. For those who regard machine-readable exams as an inappropriate evaluation method, this option offers no comfort. For those who have little or no expertise in crafting ScanTron examinations, there is the added risk that students will suffer the effects of tests designed poorly and hastily. In disciplines to which machine-readable exams are not well adapted, this option, like the first, threatens to dilute and degrade academic standards. Needless to say, this option does nothing to address the problem of grading end-of-term written assignments. But like the first option, it carries no negative consequences for individual faculty in their dealings with administration.

Keep Calm and Carry On: Faculty may decide simply to carry on as normal, leaving end-of-term writing deadlines and final examinations in place, in hopes that the administration will reach a settlement with the GTFF.

Paradoxically, the most coherent option ethically is also the one that carries with it the greatest potential risk for faculty. If the impasse cannot be overcome, this option would render many faculty unable to deliver any grades by the administration’s deadline, which in turn would automatically result in a grade of “X” (“missing grade”) for their students. The administration has announced that “X” grades are “not an option,” however, although it is not clear what exactly that means. Because it is not reasonable to expect faculty to take on all the grading work of their teaching fellows, this option may mean that grading might be performed by unqualified “assistants,” using all or only part of the student work. But in the likely event that “assistants” are unable to finish grading before the administration’s deadline, a grade of “X” will result—the very thing that hiring “assistants” is meant, ostensibly, to avoid. In order to mitigate the damage caused by entrusting the evaluation of final exams or end-of-term written work to unqualified “assistants,” moreover, deans and/or department heads may calculate grades on the basis of partial work, in which case the outcome of this option would be no different from the highly problematic option 1. But at least faculty would emerge from the transaction with their professional integrity intact. Does this option imperil the relations of individual faculty with the administration? It is difficult to say. The Collective Bargaining Agreement stipulates that in the event of a strike, faculty “will not unreasonably refuse to perform” work “which was previously performed by a striking employee.” In other words, our obligations hinge on what constitutes a “reasonable” volume of additional, compensated work at the end of term to meet the administration’s grading deadline.

Perhaps to assuage our concerns on this score, representatives of the administration have stated, repeatedly and in public, that there will no reprisals against faculty who cannot submit grades on time, resulting in a grade of “X” for the affected students. If the administration did retaliate, their actions would be subject to grievance under the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Ethically and pedagogically, however, there is little doubt that this is the best option. It does not compromise academic standards; it treats students equally and fairly; it does not introduce new and potentially flawed measures of students’ work; it does not rule out the possibility of a settlement between administration and the GTFF.

The GTFF has communicated to its members that they can expect to return to work once terms of settlement are reached, at which point all unfinished grading can be completed—unless, of course, the administration has by then already intervened on our classrooms and teaching to assign grades on the basis of partial work or with the help of unqualified “assistants.” We hope that they do not do that, but reach agreement instead.


‘X’ Grades and Financial Aid: The Facts of the Matter

The latest communication from the University administration on the issue of the 'X' grade and financial aid eligibility is confusing.  The suggested threats to aid eligibility as a result of using such grades are vague, though the communication implies that they are beyond the control of the University and a consequence of federal regulations. The policies online seem clear both about the use of the “X” grade and its relation to financial aid eligibility.

Federal Aid policies require that institutions develop a set of eligibility requirements that meet certain standards (which the UO policies apparently do). They also specify processes for reviewing eligibility on a regular basis and making a determination about Student Academic Progress (SAP) (see http://ifap.ed.gov/fsahandbook/attachments/1415FSAHbkVol4Ch3.pdf). Under the UO policy, “X” grades are treated as “non-passing” grades and these do not count toward SAP. The concern expressed by the administration is that “X” grades could affect a student’s academic progress. According to the Federal guidelines, reviews of SAP (for programs lasting more than one year) may take place annually at the end of a financial aid pay period (though they may take place more frequently). The specific UO review policy is not included in the public Financial Aid website. However, federal regulations permit institutions to place students who are determined not to be making satisfactory progress on financial aid warning for one term. Students may then demonstrate satisfactory progress according to the institution’s standards. Students who lose financial aid eligibility may appeal: “When a student loses FSA eligibility because he [sic] failed to make satisfactory progress, if the school permits appeals, he may appeal that result on the basis of: his injury or illness, the death of a relative, or other special circumstances. His appeal must explain why he failed to make satisfactory progress and what has changed in his situation that will allow him to make satisfactory progress at the next evaluation.” The UO apparently allows appeals (and in the case of “X” grades apparently routinely responds to them by asking students to prove “participation”). Under the present circumstances, awarding hundreds or thousands of “X” grades would lead to a daunting number of appeals, but such appeals appear to be possible under current UO policies and federal regulations.

The financial aid system is complex and it is possible that UO financial aid professionals could provide additional information about the use of “X” grades, eligibility, appeals, and so on, that would lead to different conclusions. However, given the federal regulations regarding student financial aid eligibility, it appears that the University administration, through the financial aid office, is primarily responsible for determining eligibility and providing a system of appeal for responding to special circumstances. Existing UO policies and federal regulations then would appear to make the use of “X” grades a “viable” (though potentially time- and resource-consuming) option.

The financial aid system is about access to higher education and depends upon transparency, with clear enforceable rules and appeal processes to ensure that the system serves the needs of our students. It is important that communications on these matters are clear and consistent. It is important that the University administration take seriously their responsibilities in the present situation and make sure that our students (graduate and undergraduate) are the central concern.


Confusion as a Strike-Breaking Tactic

“Provide students with the following options:

  • Forgo the final and take the grade they had going into the final.
  • Take the final, but receive an “X” (missing grade), until such time that finals can be graded”

-Academic Affairs, early November, 2014

“In cases where there is not sufficient information to assign a final grade, the X grade will need to be used and the impacts of those grade will need to be addressed on a case by case basis.”
-Academic Continuity Plan, November 14, 2014

“Is an X grade a viable strategy during the strike? No. The registrar’s office places an X in a student’s record when no grade is recorded by the instructor. In earlier stages of preparation, we believed that X grades might be a viable solution; however, upon further investigation with the registrar and financial aid staff, we determined that that is not the case.”
-Academic Affairs, November 21, 2014

During a strike situation, sowing confusion is a tactic that employers typically use to redirect anger at a union for disrupting the normally placid workplace. It appears our administration has chosen to deploy this tactic in their conflict with the GTFF. Despite knowing since last May that a GTF strike is a real possibility, the administration, at this late date, still cannot answer the basic question of how grading will be handled if the GTFs are not at work during finals. After a month of telling the campus the ‘X’ grade is the best option, suddenly the administration has announced that it is not a viable option, but have offered in its place “solutions” that verge on educational malpractice and that threaten the professional integrity of many of our colleagues. Combined with the late and dubious claim that any grade other than a standard letter grade might cause undergraduates difficulties, they are clearly hoping frustrated faculty will decide to go ahead and volunteer to grade papers, projects, and finals.

It is unfortunate that the administration has chosen to pursue a strategy that puts faculty in the middle of this situation. The campus is caught up in confrontation and brinksmanship. Regardless of where anyone stands on the issues between the GTFF and the administration, we all have right to expect our administration to provide creative leadership in these difficult times. We are not getting this leadership from our colleagues in Johnson Hall. Instead, it seems leadership of the strike planning and this larger confrontation has been placed into the hands of an “Academic Continuity Team.” To date, the Academic Continuity Team has pressured department heads and program directors to enlist their faculty in the fight against the GTFF. They have announced plans to dilute and degrade our academic standards. And they have chosen to use faculty as their primary strike-breaking weapon.

Again, we believe these actions are as deliberate as they are regrettable. Evidently, the administration decisions have put the faculty in the middle of this conflict, problematizing our relationship with our graduate students. This is unacceptable.

We call on our colleagues in Johnson Hall to provide creative leadership by doing what it takes to resolve the conflict. The administration team has consistently said that they are rejecting the GTFF proposals on principle. We do not understand how the principle of denying GTFs paid leave can be more important to them than ensuring that our students’ performance is evaluated fully and appropriately, not by “assistants,” but by the professors and graduate fellows who know them and their work best.

Finding ourselves in this lamentable middle-ground position, United Academics is ready to work with both parties to find a reasonable solution to this stand-off. We believe that there is a solution to be found and that no problem is so intractable that it cannot be resolved. We invite both sides to contact President Michael Dreiling if they are ready and willing to explore a compromise that will ensure that our campus moves on peacefully and harmoniously. We will keep you updated on these efforts.


AAUP Statement on University Senate Resolution and GTFF Strike

Statement from AAUP President Rudy Fichtenbaum

The AAUP commends the University of Oregon faculty senate on their stand against the administration’s attempt to subvert faculty governance and weaken academic standards as means to undermine the potential GTFF strike.

In the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, AAUP affirms that the faculty “has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.” This standard is reaffirmed in the University of Oregon’s Constitution. Decisions related to these fundamental academic areas must involve the faculty, through the appropriate shared governance body, and we commend the faculty senate for demanding that the administration adhere to these professional standards.

The university administration’s attempt to circumvent the shared governance process in order to break a potential strike by the graduate employees makes their action all the more troubling. AAUP has long recognized academic unionization as both a fundamental right and an effective means of furthering AAUP’s core principles of academic freedom, due process, and economic security for all academic workers. We stand in solidarity with the GTFF and call on the administration to return to the table and to negotiate in good faith.

United Academics Statement on the GTFF Strike

The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) is about to go on strike after a year of failed negotiations with the University of Oregon administration. The two points on which agreement has not been reached are (1) a living wage increase and (2) two weeks of paid leave per year for illness or childbirth. United Academics stands with the GTFF and its reasonable proposals, and urges the administration to accept them.

Why do we support the GTFF? On November 5th, President Coltrane stood before the University Senate to explain why attracting, supporting, and retaining graduate students is essential to meeting our academic ambitions. The UO is doing poorly in this respect. Recent data shows that our total number of graduate students continues to decline and remains near the bottom among members of the American Association of Universities. As the GTFF has demonstrated, and the administration admits, many of the UO’s comparators already provide paid sick leave for their graduate employees. The UO cannot afford to fall further behind our comparators. Better pay and a humane sick leave policy would make the UO more competitive, but the administration has consistently rebuffed these proposals.

What the GTFF has asked for is in no way grandiose. In fact, the City of Eugene is mandating sick leave benefits for all workers across the city. Unfortunately, university employees are exempt from this requirement, forcing the GTFF to bargain for these modest benefits. The administration cannot justify rejecting them on economic, pragmatic or moral grounds. Yet the administration appears willing to create real instability for the university by provoking a damaging strike, even as we struggle to strengthen graduate recruitment and retention, and as we engage in a nationwide search for a new university president.

Indeed, the administration appears willing to degrade undergraduate education in order to prevail over the GTFF. A secret memorandum from senior administrators to deans and directors, outlining a plan to break the strike by diluting academic standards has rightly caused outrage among faculty. Especially galling is the suggestion by the administration that it can find “community members” to teach and grade in place of GTFs. The administration is lining up whatever labor it can find and has circulated a pay scale for anyone willing to scab.

The administration seems prepared to break this strike at tremendous monetary cost to the university, in time wasted by the university community planning for a strike, and in harm to our academic reputation. The administration is currently on a reckless path that threatens to damage the university and all who work here.

We call on those responsible to settle with the GTFF now before any more harm is done to graduate students, undergraduates, and the university as a whole.

Please volunteer to support the GTFF by sending an email to us at: info@uauoregon.org

Please attend your University Senate meeting, Wed. Nov. 19 in Lawrence 115, 3-5pm (Agenda: http://senate.uoregon.edu/content/senate-meeting-agenda-november-19-2014)

This motion explicitly outlines how the University Administration has bypassed the University Constitution in its strike plans: http://senate.uoregon.edu/content/opposition-efforts-academic-affairs-dilute-and-degrade-academic-standards-event-graduate


More information on what faculty can do is here:

United Academics FAQ and our previous statement on a potential strike:



ASUO statement of support for the GTFF


UO Senate Resolution in Support of the GTFF


GTFF Petition






Information on potential GTFF strike.

The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation (GTFF) held an emergency meeting on Friday, October 17, and their members voted to reject the university administration’s latest offer. The GTFF declared impasse and filed appropriate paperwork with the Employment Relations Board. If they do go ahead with a strike, it would be most likely to occur in week 10 or finals week.

There has been plenty of conversation around campus about how faculty should respond in the event of a strike by the GTFF. The university administration has been urging deans and department heads to get faculty to volunteer to replace striking GTFs. Some department and unit heads have raised tough questions about the implications for graduate students of these strike-breaking initiatives, presented by the “Academic Continuity Team” of the administration. We understand that these plans involve department heads arranging one-on-one meetings with faculty to discuss their willingness to take on additional work and replace striking graduate student employees. We also understand that the administration may press deans and unit heads to enlist non-tenure-track faculty for this purpose – a troubling prospect, given the greater vulnerability of NTT faculty to such pressure. It remains to be seen whether the university administration will follow through on any of these plans.

Settling a fair contract is the best way to avoid disruptions from a strike. We hesitate to speak for a sister union, but you can read about the history of their bargaining and the reasoning behind their actions at their website. We fail to understand the administration’s resistance to paying GTFs a living wage or providing them with a bare minimum of sick leave, the two issues that remain unresolved.

In the event that no agreement is reached, however, we think it is important for everyone in the UA bargaining unit to understand their rights and obligations under the collective bargaining agreement.

First and foremost, remember that if you are called into a meeting to discuss a potential GTFF strike, you have the right to ask for union representation. You can request union representation by replying to this email.

In addition to the information we released previously, we hope the following points will help you through a potential strike:

  • Faculty need not cross a GTFF picket line beyond their contractual obligation to fulfill specific on-campus responsibilities.

Under Oregon state law and by the provisions of our collective bargaining agreement (CBA), faculty cannot engage in a “strike, slowdown, walkout, refusal to report to work, mass absenteeism, or other interruptions of work” while our CBA is still in effect. Practically speaking, this means you cannot join a GTFF strike and refuse to cross the picket line. You are legally obligated to perform the work you are contracted to do. It would support the striking GTFs, though, if you did not cross their picket line to perform work you are not contracted to do on campus. Staying away from campus, except to fulfill contractual obligations, is one way to aid this effort.

  • Faculty have no professional or moral obligation to volunteer to perform the work of striking GTFs.

If the University of Oregon behaves as other administrations have done in similar situations, the administration will try to pressure faculty to cover for striking GTFFs by calling on our commitment to our mission to provide an excellent education to the undergraduate students. They will appeal to our commitment to our careers in order to prevail over the GTFF.

Whatever your stance on the GTFF negotiations, we believe strongly that we have a duty to support our graduate student scholars-in-training in their fight for basic rights in the workplace. We know our graduate teaching fellows are committed to undergraduate education; we work with them every day and see their dedication. We know that striking is a last resort for our GTFs. Standing with our fellow academic employees and graduate students will help us all build a better university.

  • Faculty need not volunteer to perform the work of striking GTFs.

No faculty member is under any obligation to volunteer for a striking academic employee, no matter how trivial the work. The university administration has stated a preference for having faculty volunteer to perform the work of striking GTFs. You have no contractual obligation to volunteer.

  • Faculty have the right to refuse to be assigned the work of striking GTFs if they believe that the additional workload is unreasonable.

Our CBA states “Bargaining unit faculty members will not unreasonably refuse to perform [striking GTF] work.” We agreed then, and we agree now, that faculty should not unreasonably refuse to perform such work. We also strongly believe that the determination of what work is or is not unreasonable should be decided by the faculty, who are, after all, in the best position to judge whether additional work in the last two weeks of the term is “unreasonable.” The administration may well disagree with an individual faculty member’s definition of “unreasonable,” nor can we predict how a dispute of “unreasonableness” would fare in arbitration. In light of these uncertainties, faculty should assert their desire to have a union representative present in negotiations with deans and unit heads.

  • Faculty have their own work. Faculty have full teaching loads. Faculty have full research loads. Faculty have full lives. Most faculty have no additional time, energy, or ability to take on extra work in the last two weeks of the term.

We do not, at this time, know what will happen if administrators, including department or unit heads, try to assign work to faculty. We strongly urge faculty members to consult with union officers or staff if they wish to refuse an assignment on the grounds that an assignment is unreasonable. We strongly believe that most, if not all, faculty members will not be in a position to accept additional work at a time when the workload is already heavy. We do not expect that the university will attempt to assign additional work to faculty until we get closer to a potential strike. Finally, we believe that any additional work that faculty members take should be considered an overload, which would have to be compensated. Faculty, in other words, have the right to ask, “If I do this overload work, what will the compensation be?”

The GTFF has never gone out on strike, so this will be the campus’s first experience with a graduate employee strike. We will have to work together and cooperate to ensure that everyone understands their rights and obligations.

We have posted more information about a potential GTFF strike in a Frequently Asked Questions page. If you have additional questions about a GTF strike, please contact the office at info[at]uauoregon.org.

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