Academic dis-integrity at McGill

Note that for the correspondence contained below, I have retained the less generic references to members of the administration than for the 2007 and 2008 correspondence. Since this information was publicly posted for two years previously, and made its way to several newspapers, it would be pointless to further mask the identities of those involved.


Following the 2004 winter term, two students from my Artificial Intelligence class whose marks were in the bottom 25% of the class, complained of the C+ grades they had been assigned. According to the McGill Undergraduate Calendar, "In the Faculty of Engineering, letter grades are assigned according to the grading scheme adopted by the professor in charge of a particular course." However, the Artificial Intelligence class, being a 500-level course, is offered to both undergradate and graduate students. Since the policy concerning grading schemes, articulated above, does not appear in the McGill Graduate Calendar, some ambiguity concerning regulations in this case appear to exist.

While the Faculty of Engineering later attempted to resolve this ambiguity, it has been the accepted and longstanding practice in our faculty for instructors to determine their numeric-to-letter grade assignment scheme similarly for 500-level courses as for strictly undergraduate classes. In the case of my Artificial Intelligence class, I have been using a consistent numeric-to-letter scale for the past five years. Like most of my colleagues, however, I have never posted this scheme on the course outline as I wished to retain the flexibility to modify it subject to the final marks distribution (for example, to compensate for the results of an unusually easy or difficult examination).

However, following the complaints of the two students, certain decision makers at our university have overridden this instructor and awarded "B" grades instead. As I pointed out on various occasions, this is both unfair to the remaining students in the class, whose grades were not similarly inflated, as well as to all students who took the course in previous years.

Media coverage of this matter can be found in the

In response to the Dean's headlined assertion in the Gazette article, ("he should have given them an F") I note that it was not my intent to fail the graduate students in question, but simply to award them the same letter grade that an undergraduate student would earn for the same performance in my class. It is further ironic -- although not unsurprising -- for the Dean to suggest that professors should subvert the grading rules in this manner.

Note that it is not my desire to bring ridicule upon our faculty or university, but the refusal of our administration to deal with this matter in a manner that does not discriminate against one particular professor forces me to speak out.

The Details: Correspondence

At the instruction of the Dean, the Associate Chair requested that I "fill in a 'Grade Change Form' for each of the students involved so that they get a passing grade in ECSE-526."

Date: Tue, 03 Aug 2004 11:37:02 -0400
From: Jeremy Cooperstock
To: [Associate Chair (graduate)], CC: [ECE Programs Coordinator], [ECE Dept. Chair (acting), [Dean of Engineering], [Associate Dean (academic)], [Dean of Graduate Studies], [ECE Colleague], [Director, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies]
Subject: Re: FW: Grades in ECSE-526

Dear [Associate Chair],

As it is the faculty that has decided to award these students a passing grade (evidently, extending all the way to include those whose final grade was only 58.8%), I suggest that the faculty handle the "Grade Change Forms" without my involvement. I do not wish to take any part in validating this absurdity, which only makes a mockery of our entire grading system. If we are members of a university rather than a summer camp, then either graduate students should be subjected to the same rules as undergraduate students (i.e. C- is considered a pass) or they shouldn't, but this policy should be applied *consistently*, not just for those courses where a couple of students decide to make a stink.

Might I further suggest that if the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies wishes to award passing grades to graduate students in this situation, they review the cases of every graduate course offered by our department (if not the entire faculty), going back to 2000 if not earlier. At the very least, I've been using the same grading scheme in this course since then, awarding grades of C to other graduate students, who thus did not pass the course. Perhaps these students should be encouraged to appeal as well?

- Jeremy

Date: August 3, 2004 12:51 PM
From: Jeremy Cooperstock []
To: [Associate Chair (graduate)]
Cc: [ECE Programs Coordinator], [ECE Dept. Chair (acting)], [Dean of Engineering], [Associate Dean (academic)], [Dean of Graduate Studies], [ECE Colleague], [Director, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies]
Subject: Re: FW: Grades in ECSE-526

Dear [Associate Chair],

What the faculty has requested is not a change of grade, but rather, a change in interpretation of these grades, i.e., that a C- now be treated as a pass for graduate students, which is not something I can indicate (even if I agreed with it in principle) on such a form. If the suggestion is, instead, that a different numerical-to-letter-grade assignment be used, then again, this is a faculty decision to overrule the (better) judgement of the instructor, which I completely oppose, in particular when done inconsistently.

This situation reminds me of the time several years ago, when two undergraduate students in my Operating Systems class (who were almost certainly going to fail) plagiarized their assignments and were subsequently allowed to withdraw from the course without penalty, long past the add/drop deadline, while a few others, who worked honestly throughout the semester, received failing grades. I cannot go along with these poorly thought out decisions of our university, which only diminish the value of the McGill name printed on our graduation certificates.

- Jeremy

My (acting) Department Chair then noted that "This matter may escalate and go up to the level of the Dean and VP where we may lose in the end because there is some doubt as to how the mapping from a number to a letter grade was assumed to be interpreted."

Date: Wed, 04 Aug 2004 12:02:26 -0400
From: Jeremy Cooperstock
To: [ECE Dept. Chair (acting)]
CC: [Associate Chair (graduate)]
Subject: Re: FW: Grades in ECSE-526

Hi [ECE Dept. Chair (acting)],

This has already gone to the level of the Dean, and it seems we have already lost. Regardless, as I explained to [ECE Associate Chair], the "Change of Grade" form does not provide a means in which the instructor can specify "interpret a C+ or lower as a pass grade for graduate students" so even if I agreed with applying a different interpretation of passing grades to some graduate students and not to others, this form is not the correct vehicle for changing their grades.

If the faculty wishes to pass these students, so be it, but I cannot put my signature on a document that applies different standards to select students.

- Jeremy

Date: Sat, 21 Aug 2004 15:37:24 -0400
From: Jeremy Cooperstock
To: [ECE Graduate Office]
CC: [ECE Associate Chair (graduate)], [5 ECE Colleagues]
Subject: Re: Grades for course ECSE 526

[ECE Associate Chair],

I'll be curious to learn whether the faculty proposes to take over the assignment of grades for my courses next year as well. Perhaps I should simply assign everyone A's?

[ECE Colleagues],

Just to let you know what is happening, two graduate students from my AI class complained that they received C+ grades despite their numeric marks being above 65%. These students were in the bottom quarter of the class (and even lower on the final exam), both for the current year as well as for the entire five years that I've been teaching the course. As Electrical and Computer Engineering has until now allowed professors to use their own grading scheme for their courses, I have consistently applied a cutoff of 70% for a mark of B-. Now, it seems that anxious to avoid a showdown with GPSO, the faculty appears poised to pass these students, despite the obvious unfairness not only to undergraduate students in the class, but also to graduate students in any other ECE class where the instructor has similarly applied a grading scheme that was inconsistent with the GPSO guidelines.

I've exhausted my energies in explaining why this is downright wrong (not to mention a mockery of our academic standards) so I'm ending this battle by letting you know what is going on...

- Jeremy

At this point, a number of colleagues lent their support:

Date: Monday, August 23, 2004 12:36 PM

The interference of the Dean's office in setting the grades given in a course is something that needs to be discussed (clarified, actually) at the faculty level.

On page 207 of the university calendar (2004/2005), in the section 3.5.1 "Letter Grades" it states:

"In the Faculty of Engineering, letter grades are assigned according to the grading scheme adopted by the professor in charge of a particular course."

This seems very clear to me, and if the Dean wants to make exceptions, he better have good reasons, which does not undermine the authority of the professor to set grades. Giving deferrals on medical or compassionate grounds is one thing, but altering grades just because a student complains is unacceptable. The Dean has set a precedent which will lead more and more students to complain about professor's grading scheme in the hope of getting a higher grade.

I really think that our department should protest the treatment that Prof. Cooperstock received for doing his job, and bring it up at the Faculty meeting at the earliest convenient time. I would propose that we make a motion that the statement in the University Calendar regarding the professors right to set the grading scheme be respected, and that changes can only be made for the usual exceptions (medical, etc).

Date: Tue, 24 Aug 2004 13:44:26 -0400

I can also feel the frustration of having the Faculty bypass Jeremy's decision in this case. The more since, traditionally, many of us have not been using the numerical scale under Rule 6.6 in assigning letter grades in graduate courses.

I will be pleased to back up any protest/motion originating from our Department on this issue. However, to make our case stronger, we should make sure that we are targeting the right set of issues. For your information, also please note that the Dean intends to put the issue of grading on the agenda for a meeting of the Faculty Academic Committee in the early Fall.

Then, from the Minutes of the Faculty of Engineering Meeting: December 7, 2004

v) Faculty Grading Issues

Associate Dean Frost reported that the following statement included in the 2002/03 undergraduate calendar regarding the assignment of letter grades will be contained in the 2005/06 calendar. "In the Faculty of Engineering, letter grades are assigned according to the grading scheme adopted by the professor in charge of a particular course. This policy will also be applied to all 500 level courses administered by the faculty. However, the grading of 600 level courses should follow the university standard procedure."

Date: Sat, 18 Dec 2004 09:28:55 +0100
From: Jeremy Cooperstock
CC: [Associate Chair (graduate)] [ECE Colleague], [ECE Dept. Chair], [Dean of Engineering]
Subject: [Fwd: Minutes - Faculty Meeting]

Dear [Associate Dean (academic)],

I was interested to read in the Minutes that the statement in the undergraduate calendar, "letter grades are assigned according to the grading scheme adopted by the professor in charge of a particular course" will also be applied to 500-level courses administered by the Faculty. It was my understanding that this was already the case, with the sole exception of my class on Artificial Intelligence (304-526), in which the grades I assigned last year were modified without my consent and against my protests.

In any case, I would request some clarification of this policy -- and the Faculty's willingness to enforce them -- before I resume my teaching duties next year. At present, I am left with the sense that our faculty holds in very low regard my efforts at maintaining a consistent and fair grading scheme over the years.

- Jeremy

Date: Mon, 10 Jan 2005 14:36:44 +0100
From: Jeremy Cooperstock
CC: [Associate Chair (graduate)], [ECE Colleague], [ECE Dept. Chair], [Dean of Engineering]
Subject: [Fwd: Minutes - Faculty Meeting]

Dear [Associate Dean (academic)],

I'm resending this note of December 18 in the event that you did not receive it earlier. In any case, I would request a reply from the Faculty clarifying both the reasons for overriding only my own (consistent) grading practices out of all the the 500-level courses taught in Engineering, as well as an explanation of how the newly announced policy of the faculty will be applied any differently.

I trust you can appreciate my frustration with the situation, which, in my opinion, simply makes a mockery of our academic standards.

- Jeremy Cooperstock

The Associate Dean supplied a thoughtful response, but noted at the conclusion "since I wasn't directly involved with this, I suggest you contact the Dean if you would like further clarification on this."

Date: Tue, 11 Jan 2005 17:56:10 +0100
From: Jeremy Cooperstock
To: "[Dean of Engineering]"
CC: [Associate Dean (academic)], [Associate Chair (graduate)], [ECE Colleague], [ECE Dept. Chair], [Dean of Graduate Studies], [Director, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies], [ECE Graduate Office]
Subject: Re: [Fwd: Minutes - Faculty Meeting]

Dear [Dean of Engineering],

From the time of my arrival at McGill in 1997 until your decision last year to award B- grades to students whose performance in my Artificial Intelligence class did not warrant it, I had been under the impression that -- as was common practice among my colleagues in the Faculty of Engineering -- I was free to adopt a grading scheme of my own choosing, which I applied consistently.

Pursuant to [Associate Dean (academic)]'s response, it appears that the recent "clarifications" to our faculty's grading policies remains subject to approval by the university and thus, my question of how this policy will be applied in the future remains moot. In the interim, I request an explanation for your overriding only my own (consistent) grading practices out of all the 500-level courses taught in Engineering.

Should this have been an error, I would be grateful to learn that your overruling of my grades, which was done without even a cursory discussion with me, will be reversed, thereby restoring a measure of credibility to my grading, ensuring fairness to all other students, both in my classes and those of other Engineering faculty, and upholding the academic integrity of our institution, which I fear, is being seriously eroded by our catering to students who complain the loudest. I wonder what sort of legal liability the university would be exposed to should similar grading decisions be made in the Faculty of Medicine, allowing students to become practicing doctors without demonstrating ample knowledge of medicine?


The Dean responded, justifying his changing the grade according to the published schedule given in the graduate information booklet.

Date: Wed, 19 Jan 2005 14:42:09 +0100
To: [Dean of Engineering]
CC: [Associate Dean, Graduate Studies], [ECE Colleague], [ECE Dept. Chair], [Associate Chair (graduate)] , [Director, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies], [Dean of Graduate Studies], [ECE Graduate Office]
Subject: Re: [Fwd: Minutes - Faculty Meeting]

Dear [Dean of Engineering],

Thank you for your response, which, unfortunately, seems to have missed the essence of my question.

While I appreciate that my grading scheme differs from the guidelines offered in the graduate information booklet, that is hardly the point here. Rather, what concerns me is the manner in which you have trodden roughshod over a set of grading practices that have been in effect, consistently, over the past six years, apparently without concern for the rather substantial number of my colleagues who engage in the same practice of setting their own grading scheme for 500-level courses.

Had I been informed, at the start of the year, that you would be unilaterally converting the grades I assigned based on the formula suggested by Graduate Studies, I would have increased the difficulty of assignments and final examination and the resulting letter grades would have been similar to those that I assigned initially. Of course, this would have been complicated by the fact that you altered the grading scheme applied to some, and not all, of the students in my class. Such glaring inconsistency should sound the alarm bells for anyone making responsible decisions.

To make the point somewhat more clear, for the 500-level ECSE courses, I surveyed the course web pages, obtained the grading scales used last year, and conducted an informal study, posing the following two questions to my colleagues:

a) what numeric-to-letter grade assignment you used in your 500-level courses in the last few years (e.g. A >= 85, A- >= 80, B+ >= 75, B >= 70, B- >= 65)
b) if, when, and how this conversion scale was communicated to your class

Based on the results, which I provide here both in the form of anonymized comments from all responses received to my email as well as a spreadsheet attachment, it appears that:

  1. a relatively small percentage of 500-level courses actually follow the guidelines of Graduate Studies (for example, only 37.5% of courses last year used a threshold that was within one percentage point of the 65 for B- suggested by Graduate Studies)
  2. of the courses that do not follow the Graduate Studies guidelines *none* of the professors (at least, based on the email responses received) inform their classes of the numeric-to-letter grade scale used

I provide here a summary of the responses for your benefit:

I don't tend to have a consistent conversion each year because there is so much variation from year to year - mostly because I keep changing the way that I grade the design project.
I usually use the same scale as you listed. However, occasionally, I change it to whatever I really find appropriate (that happens when I mess up the exam making it too easy or too hard). I judge the appropriateness by looking at the histogram of final scores achieved by all students. I NEVER communicate my scaling system to the students - only to the head od Dept. and in case of re-reads.
The grade was mostly project-based and there were only 9 people in class. I would stick to the scheme you mention as the example below in terms of point-grade thresholds (although... everyone did really well and consequently had over 85%).
the mapping is never teh same. It depends on where the marks lay.This Fall, I had A>84, A->79,B+>74,B>69,B->64,C+>59,C>54. I had 6/17 A's, about 35%. .... I do not tell students ahead of time-since I do not know myself. the whole point of letter grades-and it was contentious in teh 70'1 when they were brought in- is that you can be flexible, and assign them to fit the general average, without the need to do as we were doing with numerical grades, that is to "curve" the marks until a satisfactory distribution was achieved. We didn't tell students about the curving formula, either
The thresholds vary from year to year depending on the final results. This year the highest mark was around 82 while last year it was close to 90. Typically A is around 80 and B is near 60 with the intervening grades going in steps of around 7 or so. I never commit myself to the class on where these thresholds will be
The scale I use varies from year to year depending on how much I have misjudged the difficulty of what I set in the exams, etc.. In general, it is not far off the tables in the calendar although it does not exactly use them. However, this year the results actually fitted with the calendar scales. I do not usually communicate the mapping to the students (and they do not usually ask).
In the most recent instance, this was the marking scheme that I adopted: A: >79 A-: >71 B+: >63 B:>62 B-:>60 This scheme was neither communicated before to the class, nor did anyone every contest it.
This [the Graduate Studies scale] is the scheme that I typically use. I don't communicate the breakpoints for the grade assignments.
I sort the final grades and tentatively draw lines at the "standard" positions. I then adjust the positions so that the break points are at gaps (usually downward). This is in essence a "quantization" problem. It can be compared to curving using a monotonic function, but only the values of the curve at the break points matter... I don't give specific information to the students to give me full flexibility. If asked "Do you curve?", I answer with a general description of the "quantization" procedure.
I use the standard McGill numeric-to-letter grade assignment in my 500-level course, as you've indicated below. The conversion scale is communicated to my class during the first lecture when going over the course outline. I let them know verbally that the standard McGill scale will be used.

The ability to adjust grading scales based on the actual difficulty of assignments and examinations is indeed useful. Nevertheless, I managed, over the years, to keep my grading scale consistent. As I make clear to classes at the beginning of each term, my courses are not intended for those who expect to coast through with little effort. And while it would be fallacious to compare the difficulty of courses based on the grading scale, given that this fails to take into account the varying difficulty of assignments and final examinations, my standards, are, numerically, more in line with the Graduate School of the University of Toronto, an institution to which we frequently compare ourselves, and to whose level of excellence I would hope that we strive to equal, if not surpass.

While we are of course bound to follow McGill's policies rather than those of the University of Toronto, many of my colleagues (including a former Dean, as well as past and present department chairs of Electrical and Computer Engineering) have apparently shared my belief over the past few years that the policy, as articulated in the McGill University undergraduate calendar, concerning grading practices in the Faculty of Engineering, applied to our 500-level courses. I would like to think that as [...], you would not single out one faculty member on whom to impose a different set of rules, yet this is exactly what has happened.

According to U of T's Graduate Grading and Evaluation Practices Policy of May 12, 2004 (, describing the closest equivalent to our 500-level courses:

Wherever an undergraduate course taken by a graduate student is assigned a numerical grade, the mark will be translated into a letter grade according to the following equivalences:
Letter Grade
A+ 90-100%
A 85-89%
A- 80-84%

B+ 77-79%
B 73-76%
B- 70-72%

FZ 0-69%

This policy also indicates that courses taken for graduate credit are assigned a letter grade wherein A is considered "Excellent", B is "Good" and below that is "Inadequate." Similarly, when I award a B, this implies that the student has demonstrated "good" knowledge of the material. In my opinion, as instructor of the Artificial Intelligence course, this was not the case for the students who earned grades of C or C+. With no disrespect intended, I believe that as instructor, I am not only responsible for making such judgments, but am also better qualified than those who had no involvement in the course to assess the students' knowledge of the material.

If you and [...] feel otherwise, then might I suggest one of the following alternatives: the students in question be awarded B grades for a new course with which I have not been associated (e.g. "Soft Computing in Engineering") or Graduate Studies treat the C grades as "pass" for students who complain sufficiently loudly. These options place the responsibility for inconsistent standards and practices of questionable academic integrity where they belong, whereas your recent decision shifts the damage to my own reputation. In this regard, I oppose with equal conviction your modifying the grades I assigned just as I would oppose your changing the text of a letter bearing my signature.

In light of the above, I respectfully request that you reconsider your decision. Otherwise, I must question why I should bother investing effort in consistent and fair grading practices when it would be so much easier to announce to the world that my grades are determined politically by the [...], rather than based on academic performance, and give everyone an A.


Date: Tuesday, February 01, 2005 12:10 PM
From: Jeremy Cooperstock []
To: [Dean of Engineering]
Cc: [Associate Dean, Graduate Studies]; [ECE colleague]; [ECE Dept. Chair]; [Associate Chair (graduate)]; [Director, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies]; [Dean of Graduate Studies]; [ECE Graduate Office]
Subject: Re: [Fwd: Minutes - Faculty Meeting]

Dear [Dean of Engineering],

I would appreciate a response from you to the issues I have raised, and an indication as to whether you plan to restore the grades as I assigned them originally.

- Jeremy

[Dean of Engineering] responded, "I do not plan to restore the grades in question for the reasons cited in my previous email to you." and Martha Crago replied to the Dean: "My opinion is that his grades cannot be reassigned since he did not give written information on his grading scheme before the grades were given out."

Needless to say, these responses both ignore the documentation I have provided that demonstrates the bulk of my colleagues do exactly the same (i.e. "do not give out written information on [their] grading scheme"). So why should one set of grading standards be imposed (post-hoc) on a single faculty member, while not even bothering to question whether the students affected have demonstrated a reasonable grasp of the subject matter? This seems very wrong.

March 9, 2005

The university was discussing a (possibly temporary) policy that 400-level and below courses are graded according to individual faculty rules, 600-level and above are graded according to graduate faculty rules, while for 500-level courses, undergraduates are graded according to the individual faculty rules and graduate students are graded according to graduate faculty rules.

It is depressing to note that of the three possible solutions to the 500-level grading dilemna in Engineering:

  1. all students are graded according to the same (graduate) faculty rules
  2. all students are graded according to the instructor's policy
  3. students are graded differently depending on their program of study

the McGill administration, in yet another shining example of Solomonesque wisdom, has opted for the one solution that divides our students and allows for the potential application of imbalanced grading practices. Of course, the expected response is "Hopefully, professors will opt to apply the same (graduate faculty) guidelines to all students in 500-level classes." But what if they don't? Why should the possiblity of differential grading practices within a single class even be entertained? I wonder what's next... perhaps we require another grading scheme for students who have part-time jobs, and yet another for students who plan one day to become university administrators?

At the very least, I can now take comfort in the knowledge that the Dean's actions, unfairly raising the grades of three graduate students while not applying the same bias to the entire class, is now becoming official McGill policy.