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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

TCU senator wants retroactive-removal process for grades

Tufts Community Union Senator Toby Bonthrone is pressing the administration to institute a policy that would allow students who were suffering from untreated conditions but were unaware of them to drop previous semesters' grades.

Bonthrone, a senior, said he was approached by a student who had suffered from a severe, undiagnosed medical ailment the previous semester and saw a consequent dip in her performance.

The student told Bonthrone she would have pursued a medical withdrawal if she had been aware of the condition.

Bonthrone said that he was rebuffed when he approached the administration with the student's concerns. "Suffice it to say, the response was not very positive," he said.

In response, Bonthrone is proposing an option known as a "retroactive withdrawal procedure," in which students can have grades from a past semester annulled if they prove the detrimental academic effects stem from "extenuating circumstances," such as a medical condition or personal trauma.

Some of the primary considerations are, "If you had known, would you have withdrawn?" and "How noticeable was the dip?" Bonthrone said.

Bonthrone said that the procedure would require that the student present his or her case to a committee comprised of a mixture of academic and medical professionals.

"You've got to create a committee that acts like a court," Bonthrone said. "That is, it weighs the evidence of the case and decides dispassionately."

The University of Pennsylvania currently allows for retroactive withdrawal. Kent Peterman, associate dean of UPenn's College of Arts and Sciences, said that students go through a judicial process similar to the one Bonthrone suggested.

"It's … evaluated on a case-by-case basis," Peterman said. "The student must make a compelling argument that he or she was not able to complete the class because of extenuating circumstances."

Peterman added that if students are successful in their petition, evidence will persist in the form of a W for withdrawal in the place of grades for that semester. W's do not affect a student's GPA.

"It raises questions in the [transcript] reader's mind of what happened, so it puts the onus on the student to explain what happened," Peterman said.

Tufts students can withdraw from a class and take a W for a grade at any point during — but not after — the semester, according to Dean of Student Affairs Bruce Reitman.

Tufts also offers students the option of withdrawing from a semester and going on medical leave, distinct from personal leave because it causes records from the semester in which they posted poor performance to be completely expunged from their records.

"Unlike personal leave, medical leave — because it's a situation with circumstances beyond one's control — [means] the grade outcome can be different," Reitman said.

Students must submit a request to the administration, bolstered by supporting evidence from medical professionals and advisors before they can obtain this status.

"It's based on the recommendation of the physicians or the clinicians. In other words, you can't just decide, ‘I'm going on medical leave,'" Reitman said.

But students must initiate this process while the semester in question is still underway.

Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser disputed the advisability of Bonthrone's proposed retroactive withdrawal procedure because it could give students too much power to selectively upgrade their transcripts after the semester in question concludes.

"If you start making that available, then you open yourself up [to] all sorts of requests from students who are unhappy with a particular grade," Glaser said.

Avis Hinkson, director of undergraduate advising at the College of Letters and Science at the University of California, Berkeley, said that in the rare cases when the retroactive withdrawal procedure occurs there, the university does not allow students to choose individual classes, but instead affixes a W to the entire semester.

"Our expectation is that a student who is facing a set of extenuating circumstances is able to communicate that to us during the semester, but there are circumstances which prohibit them from [doing that]," Hinkson said.

Glaser said that Tufts offers an extensive safety net to students working through personal or health-related issues, and he questioned the idea that a student would be unaware of such problems at the time.

"I think it's highly unusual for people not to know that something's gone awry," Glaser said. "We offer them counseling, we offer them assistance, we offer them guidance, we offer them options."

Reitman echoed the opinion that any action to nullify the results of academic performance must occur within the timeline of the classes in question. "A semester's grades are considered to be in essence sealed at the end of the semester," he said.

Glaser said his central concern is that a transcript accurately reflects a student's performance, and cautioned that the retroactive withdrawal procedure could dilute this precision by allowing students to remove unwanted grades.

"The integrity of the transcript is essential for the credibility of the institution," Glaser said. "Other institutions will want to know that the transcript actually happened in the semester. They need some assurance that the transcript has integrity, that it's not being changed all over the place."

In response to this criticism, Bonthrone said that a semester marred by circumstances beyond a student's control could have a permanent impact on that student's overall academic standing.

"What's more important, long-term accuracy, which this erroneous semester or two would completely throw off, or short-term accuracy?" Bonthrone asked. "What is the priority of the university here?"

Suggesting that a failure to institute the retroactive withdrawal procedure could be perceived as discrimination against students with outstanding disabilities, Bonthrone said that it is in Tufts' best interest to open this option.

"From every point of view, moral or legal, Tufts would benefit from instituting [a] retroactive withdrawal procedure," he said.

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