When UC Santa Cruz opened its doors in 1965, the university aimed to be an alternative to traditional UC campuses. The founding mission was to be a progressive educational space — an education of the whole person and not just technical training. This took shape with the Narrative Evaluation System (NES), where professors graded students with written evaluations instead of letters.
NES was different from how most modern universities operated and made it difficult for students to apply to graduate schools and scholarships. But this feature appealed to students who were seeking a more progressive education. The tug-of-war of interests meant that the system was contested for decades before officially changing.
“The faculty will not vote to institute grades if it is clear that students are opposed,” wrote City on a Hill Press (CHP) columnist Craig Block. “If you believe, like many of us, that UCSC does not need grades, talk to faculty members. Time is short. Act now.”
Block’s demand fell flat. In 1979, UCSC faculty, who control grading policy through the Academic Senate, approved to offer a letter grade option as a supplement to the NES.
Faculty worried about the reputation NES imparted and the capability of professors to write thorough and thoughtful responses in a short amount of time for the growing student body. In the ’90s and early 2000s, faculty motioned multiple times to replace written evaluations with grades. In November 1999, 1,200 students protested against mandatory grades, temporarily halting the change.
“Linking arms, we formed two corridors, each more than 150 yards long through which professors had to pass to reach the meeting hall,” wrote Patrick McHugh in CHP. “That mass of students peered into the eyes of their professors … That wordless cry spoke volumes. At that moment, and by the slimmest margins, we won.”
The victory was short-lived. A few months later, 170 UCSC faculty members moved again to end NES and on Feb. 24, 2000, letter grades became mandatory.
“We want to be a part of this process because we care so much, not because we want to give faculty a hard time,” said Student Union Assembly Chair Kirti Srivastava in 2000 to CHP. “We want to be a part of this because we love our education.”