Yes, a UGA professor did post policy that allowed students to set own grades to ease stress

I have to admit that I did not believe it when I read last night that University of Georgia professor Richard Watson, a respected researcher in the business school, was going to allow students to decide their own grades in an effort to ease their stress, especially after I hunted down student reviews that describe his classes as tough.

Yet, there was an online story that went viral after being picked up by the Drudge Report that quoted his syllabi for two courses as saying:

"if students feel “unduly stressed by a grade for any assessable material or the overall course,” they can “email the instructor indicating what grade [they] think is appropriate, and it will be so changed” with “no explanation” being required.

“If in a group meeting, you feel stressed by your group’s dynamics, you should leave the meeting immediately and need offer no explanation to the group members,” the policy adds, saying such students can “discontinue all further group work” with their remaining grade being “based totally on non-group work.”

“Tests and exams” will be “open book and open notes” and “designed to assess low level mastery of the course material" (This is not that unusual, as much of what is taught in advanced college classes transcends the book. I took "open book" tests in college and, believe me, those exams weren't necessarily easier.)

The online accounts lacked any verification from either the professor or UGA so I waited to report on the issue until UGA confirmed this morning these were Watson's "actual words." I was about 97 percent certain the story was based on a misunderstanding or misreading so I wanted to talk to UGA before I wrote anything.

Turns out I was way wrong. They were Watson's actual words.

UGA shared this statement this morning: "The professor has removed this language from the syllabus. In addition, the University of Georgia applies very high standards in its curricular delivery, including a university-wide policy that mandates all faculty employ a grading system based on transparent and pre-defined coursework."

I pressed UGA for a more detailed explanation as the whole thing still doesn't make sense to me and received this statement around 1 p.m. from Benjamin C. Ayers, Terry College of Business Dean and Earl Davis Chair in Taxation:

I want to assure you that the University of Georgia and the Terry College of Business remain steadfastly committed to academic excellence in the classroom and maintaining the highest standards of academic rigor in our undergraduate and graduate programs.

A recent online report published a syllabus that a Terry College of Business professor had placed on his website. The syllabus stated that his grading policy would allow students inappropriate input into the assignment of their own grades. I want you to know that the syllabus did not conform with the University’s rigorous expectations and policy regarding academic standards for grading. I have explained this discrepancy to the professor, and he has removed the statement from his syllabus. Rest assured that this ill-advised proposal will not be implemented in any Terry classroom.

The University of Georgia upholds strict guidelines and academic policies to promote a culture of academic rigor, integrity and honesty. These are core values of the institution.

I still am surprised. Why would a professor noted for his strict attendance policies retreat on grades? Watson is the J. Rex Fuqua Distinguished Chair for Internet Strategy. His bio states:

The University of Georgia has been very supportive of my academic career, and I have published over 180 articles in leading academic and practitioner journals, written or edited more than 10 books (including a data management text book and the first book on Energy Informatics). I have served as a senior editor for  MIS Quarterly  and was co-conference chair for International Conference on Information Systems 2004 and Americas Conference on Information Systems 2014. I have been President of the Association for Information Systems. My current research interests are ecological sustainability, energy informatics, and information systems leadership.

I am trying to talk to Watson today to clarify his motivations and rationale. Some folks are suggesting the University of Georgia professor's "stress reduction" policies were satire in the Jonathan Swift tradition -- a professor has to keep students calm now that they could be armed in class with the new campus carry law.

So why UGA wouldn’t just tell us this or let the professor do so?

Here is my theory: His so-called stress reduction policies -- which may be farce -- set off all the people who believe universities are liberal hothouses turning out adults incapable of crossing the street alone.

UGA is having enough problems dealing with those folks and perhaps did not want to trigger the Second Amendment crowd. (I wrote gun editorials for 11 years. That is a fervent group.)

I am warming to this theory. I still do not believe those policies were in earnest given all that I have learned about Dr. Watson.

I also want to share this response from a reader,  who says this happens elsewhere:

I don't think what the UGA professor is doing is quite as unusual or unheard of as you suggest. There's a ton of research that says that focus on grades rather than learning produces poor outcomes, and there are entire private high schools and colleges (Commonwealth and Hampshire in Massachusetts) that - for this reason - avoid letter grades entirely and rely on professors written student evaluations. At my Ivy league university one of the most respected history professors told students at the beginning of class that they would all receive an A, and students in that class worked incredibly hard and learned a lot, but not out of fear of failing, because they wanted to learn and they were free to really dig into what interested them.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.