Student Grades: The Final Authority?

Thomas R. Whiddon & Clarence E. Burns
Health and Human Performance
University of Montana-Missoula

Historically, professors assigned student grades based on predetermined standards. Adjudged by faculty precepts, students were apportioned traditional A's, B's, C's, D's, or F's. Commonly in the early decades of the twentieth century, faculty determined a cutoff point of 90 percent for an A; if the average totaled 89.7 percent, the student received a B. Whether a professor apportioned F's to 10 or 70 percent of the students was seldom questioned because professors were regarded as the final authority. If a student thought the assigned grade unfair, the customary recourse was to persuade the professor to change the grade. Such recourse, however, was seldom effective as faculty grading procedures were deemed law.

In the 1960's, assigned grades often reflected a class average rather than predetermined standards (Johnson et al., 1982). In the 1970's, some institutions of higher education, such as Stanford University, destroyed the grading curve as the grades of D and F were abolished (Reibstein, 1994). Thus, for more than twenty years, students attending Stanford have not received F's (Sowell, 1994). Furthermore, in the late 1960's and early 1970's, a time of educational experimentation, ungraded classes (i.e., pass/no pass) also became popular in an attempt to make students more inner directed in noncompetitive atmospheres (Ebel, 1980).

As grading systems became more flexible, students began to challenge grades that were perceived to be unfair. If a student failed to convince the professor to change a grade, the grievance was aired before an administrator. When all else failed, the fairness of the grade in some cases was pursued through the court system.In a landmark case, for example, the court decided in Connelly v University of Vt State Agric College (1965) that a student did have a protected property interest in a grade and thus could ask the court to review an academic grade decision. In Board of Curators, U of Mo v Horowitz (1978), the Supreme Court agreed with Connelly v University of Vt State Agric College that the court had a right to review an academic grade decision under a substantive due process standard. However, the court recommended caution in reviewing the substance of a genuine academic decision which would undermine the professional judgment of faculty. The decision affirmed the belief that university faculty should be given discretionary powers in making judgments about the academic performance of students and their entitlement to promotion or graduation. Furthermore, the judges were cautious in overriding decisions where " expert evaluation of cumulative information" is required.

In Clements v County of Nassau (1987), Clements flunked out of a nursing school and contended that a failing grade was received because of instructor animosity. The law suit asserted that the student was denied due process and equal protection by the school's grievance procedure. Prior to the court suit, the student initiated the school's four-step grievance policy and was ruled against in the first three stages. During a final review before the college's Academic Standing Committee, Clements was granted the right to repeat the course. The instructor, however, refused to change the grade. The district court granted summary judgment against Clements and a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit affirmed saying, "Indeed, the evidence demonstrates that the College and its instructors made every effort to give Clements second and even third chances." Furthermore, it said, that it was unlikely that "...a reasonable jury could conclude that her failing grade was such a substantial departure from accepted academic norms as to demonstrate that the instructor did not exercise professional Judgment."

In Oschner v Board of Trustees of Washington Community College District No. 17 (1991), Oschner received an F in a course which was required to complete his degree program from Spokane Community College. Oschner contended that he attended class, but left because the instructor failed to show up within a reasonable time. As such, Oschner received absentee marks which he claimed were due to an arbitrary and capricious attendance policy because another student, who often left the class with him, was not graded down. The instructor defended his decision to assign Oschner an F because he missed too many classes. The appeal court ruled that Oschner should have a right to trial because a question was raised concerning the fairness of the grade. In the Washington State Appeal Court decision to determine whether the case should be tried, the judges stated the following:

"The decision to award or not award a degree, and based upon what criteria, is one uniquely within the academic sphere. The courts should abstain from interference in this process unless arbitrary and capricious decision making or bad faith is present. Decisions arrived at honestly and with due consideration are not arbitrary and capricious."

The Spokane Superior Court jury determined that Joseph Oschner did not fail because of arbitrary or punitive acts.

Based on the aforementioned legal decisions, the general pattern is that professors have a professional prerogative to assign grades to students. The procedure to assign grades, however, should not substantially depart from accepted academic norms and thus lend itself to improprieties in professional judgment. Secondly, student grades should not be arbitrary or capricious. Thirdly, a process should exist in which students can appeal grades. Lastly, when attendance is figured in the grade, it should be fair. While fairness is a vague term, the Oschner decision implied that fairness occurs when the attendance policy is not arbitrary and capricious.

At The University of Montana, the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) under Academic Responsibility (Section 6.200) states that "As a teacher, every person in the bargaining unit is responsible for the effective instruction including evaluation of students at the University" (p. 13). The process to initiate complaints against a faculty member or administrator regarding academic judgments is delineated in Student Complaint Procedure (section 21.000) and Formal Complaint Procedure (section 21.500).

Although the instructor's responsibility to assign student grades is nearly universal, the specific procedures, time frame, and composition of complaint committees will vary from one institution to another. Nonetheless, general grievance processes are similar, and student grades can be overturned. The University of Montana leaves that final decision to the president as is evidenced by the following contract language:

The Student Complaint Committee shall determine findings of fact and recommend either dismissal of the complaint, a warning letter, formal reprimand, and/or a specific remedy limited to curing the act or omission complained of.... The President may accept or reject the Committee's suggestion. Implementation of a specific remedy rests with the University President, whose decision shall be the final a campus disposition of the complaint (pp. 98-99).

Are there situations in which faculty grades are overturned without students engaging in the formal grievance complaint process? In order to address this question. fifty-three questionnaires accompanied by self-addressed stamped envelopes were mailed to a random selection of faculty from the National Social Science Association membership list. With the promise of anonymity, twenty-six questionnaires, representing 26 institutions of higher education in 17 states, were returned. Due to the compact nature of the data solicited. statistical analysis was deemed unnecessary. The findings, therefore, will be reported on a case by case basis utilizing the usable results of the survey. The respondents were first asked if they were aware of any situations in which administrators changed grades without faculty permission. If the respondent indicated "yes," additional information was requested regarding the reason, whether a grievance was invoked, number of times, date, and a brief description of the incident. Three professors checked "no" to the initial question, but provided unsolicited notations about the notion of administrators changing grades without faculty consent:

Response #1: I have taught 32 years. Such an act is not permissible.
Response #2: Grades must be changed only by instructors.
Response #3: I'm not aware of such incidents though I suspect they do occur.

Out of 26 completed questionnaires and one interview, eight revealed situations where grades had been changed. Six grades were reported being overturned by administration due to student complaints alleging unfair grading practices. One case involved a coach attempting to pressure the instructor to change a grade. While the professor did not comply, it was later discovered that an administrator changed the grade from a D to an A without the knowledge of the faculty member. The final case involved an administrator's request to an instructor to change some F's to C's because the poor grades threatened a grant. The professor demurred, but the department chair altered the grades anyway.

A summary of the information collected from the survey and some of the annotations provided by the faculty respondents follows:

Case #1: When I was an undergraduate, the dean changed my grade from F to B over the decision of the instructor.

Case #2: A student appealed a grade with the help of a female campus organization, but all university grievance committees supported my position. The president, however, succumbed and overturned the grade.

Case #3: In the English Department, 1 or 2 appeals are submitted every year due to alleged haphazard and questionable evaluation methods certain instructors. A committee of tenured faculty reevaluate the assignments independently and the chair alters the grades if he/she deems it warranted. Only those who appeal are allowed to be considered for grade changes.

Case #4: One grade was changed over my objection. The student in question enrolled late in the term despite my expressed reluctance. Once enrolled, she attended 2 or 3 sessions and vanished. I submitted a grade of F. When her father (politician) complained, the administration requested that I change the grade. Since there was no basis for changing the grade, I refused. The administration, in response, determined that the student enrolled improperly, therefore was not an official member of the class, thus not responsible for the assigned grade. The course and grade were removed from her transcripts.

Case #5: A baseball player received an F in my class. The player requested the grade changed to a D. I agreed with the condition he do additional work. After speaking with his coach, the athlete returned requesting his grade be elevated to a C. He was told that the D was a gift. An hour later, the coach phoned and said, "Who in the f___ do you think you are not giving my ballplayer a C. You're a f___ing lowly teacher who doesn't do s___ for this university like my baseball team does. You don't know who you're dealing with. You'll find out who runs this f___ing university." He hung up. The athlete completed the extra work and I changed his grade to a D. When I returned spring semester, the ballplayer's grade was an "A." Not wanting to jeopardize my doctorate, I did not pursue the matter. I did find out "who the f___ ran the place."

Case #6: We've had incidences in which an individual chair attempted to change grades, but our secretaries, aware of procedures, informed appropriate faculty members.

Case #7: I was called into the chair's office. He questioned me about several failing grades assigned to students in an off-campus class funded by a grant. I told him their performances justified the grades. He stated that the failures might affect the recruiting of students for additional training classes. I discovered later that the grades had been changed.

Case #8: The dean met with a professor because several students complained about being penalized for excessive number of absences. No resolution was agreed upon during the meeting. While the professor was away from campus, the dean unilaterally raised 24 grades. The professor filed a grievance. The faculty union accommodated the dean and allowed the students to appeal the grades. The president accepted the dean's decision.

While each case varies, a common theme throughout is that a faculty assigned a grade to a student and the grade was overturned by an administrator without faculty approval and, in some cases, without faculty knowledge. The survey also suggests that the frequency of grade changes by administrators may be increasing as academia shifts back to a more traditional grading system. This trend might be due in part to anecdotal evidence that student whining and student complaints are on the rise. Student attitudes appear to be changing as is evidenced by the following statement from Newsweek regarding student performance and grading:

Time was, when you received a grade, that was it. You might groan and moan, but you accepted it as the outcome of your efforts or lack thereof (and yes, sometimes a tough grader). In the last few years, however, some students have developed a disgruntled consumer approach. If they don't like their grade, they go to the return counter to trade it in for something better (Weisenfeld, 1996).

The National Social Sciences Association survey also revealed a high degree of faculty bitterness regarding grade changes.Faculty members reported being violated in those cases where grades were modified by administration. At one institution, a faculty member sought professional counseling after a grade changing incident. While higher education prescribes grading as a teaching responsibility, it is likely that instructors felt offended because the institutions failed to support them in the area of teaching.

It can be argued that changing grades without faculty consent is a violation of academic freedom. At the University of Montana, academic freedom is described below:

The University of Montana has had a long tradition of, and a deep commitment to, academic freedom. The welfare and strength of the University and of society at large depends upon the free search for truth and its free expression. To this end The University of Montana shall recognize and protect full freedom of inquiry, teaching, research, discussion, study, publication...(CBA, p. 12).

One other issue warrants mention. Is grade changing legal? One respondent in the survey reported seeking legal action against a dean. After reviewing the circumstances of the case, the attorney informed the respondent that since a grievance was filed with the faculty union, the right to pursue the case independent of the union had been forfeited.

It appears as though at least one court has answered the question regarding the legality of grade changing. In Parate v. Isabor (1989), the court ruled that administration does not possess the right to order or force a faculty member to alter a grade. The court went on to say, however, that a professor has no constitutional interest in the grade which a student ultimately receives. Therefore, after a faculty member submits a grade, the administration can alter grades without interfering with that faculty member's First Amendment rights. In other words, administrators can change student grades after faculty officially register them. This is a disconcerting ruling for all faculty members who cherish their professional responsibility in evaluating student performance.

Who has the final authority in the assignment of grades? The courts have upheld the notion that faculty possess the fundamental authority. The Connelly decision, however, established that students do have protected property interests in grades and can seek correction of unjust grades. Furthermore, the courts advocate the inherent presence of appropriate appeal processes to address differences in interpretation of grading practices. Regardless of what the courts advocate regarding faculty authority and student rights, however, the eight cases reported here, combined with the Parate v Isabor decision, suggest that administrators own the ultimate authority to undermine faculty and appeal decisions, if they see fit. One of the questions raised as the result of these findings is how many grade changes have gone undetected?


Board of Curators, U of Mo vs Horowitz, 435 US78, 96 N6 (1978).

Clements v County of Nassau, No. 87-7590 (New York, 1987).

Collective Bargaining Agreement Between UTU and the MUS (1993).

Connelly v Univ. of Vt State Agric College, 244 F Supp 56, (1965).

Ebel, R.L. (1980). "The failure of schools without failure." Phi Delta Kappan, 61, 386-388.

Johnson, M.S., Springer, S., & Sternglatz, S. (1982). How to Succeed in College. Los Altos, (CA): William Kaufmann, Inc. p. 98.

Oschner v Board of trustees of Washington Community College District No. 17. 811 P. 2d 985 (Washington, 1991).

Parate v Isabor, 52 West Ed law 47, 868 F.2d821 (Tennessee, 1989).

Reibstein, L. (1994, June). "Give me an A, or Give me Death." Newsweek, p. 62.

Sowell, T. (1994). A gentleman's A. Forbes, 154(1):82.

Weisenfeld, K. (1996, june). Making the grade. Newsweek, p. 16.

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