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Davis, California

Monday, May 29, 2023

Watts Legal: 01/30

 Question: I read your column in The Aggie and wrote down your email in case I ever had some legal questions. I am an upper division student at UC Davis, and I need some advice regarding the University’s policy on grading changes. Over the summer, I took a course during Summer Session II and elected to take it for pass/no pass credit. Before the deadline to do so, I used Sisweb to change the grading option to pass/no pass. By the end of the summer, I had the equivalent of a C grade in the class, having always intended to take the course pass/no pass rather than for a letter grade.

But when I looked at my transcript, I discovered that Sisweb had apparently malfunctioned when I initially switched to pass/no pass. Sisweb didn’t process the switch and there was no record of me making the switch, so the C grade is showing up in my transcript and affecting my GPA. I explained the situation to my professor, who helped me submit a retroactive grade change request.

The grading change committee denied my request. I want to fight this, because it’s not my fault that there’s a flaw in the Sisweb system. The University cannot prove that I did not make that initial switch to pass/no pass. But the University says that I’m the one that has to prove that I requested pass/no pass, which is impossible.

On principle, I want my grade changed to pass/no pass, and I would like the university to make changes to Sisweb so that this doesn’t hurt other students in the future. Is there anything I can do?

-Jim S.

Davis, CA

Answer: You did the right thing by filing a petition with the Grade Change Committee. Unfortunately, reversing its decision will be an uphill battle.

Sometimes the most difficult part of solving a problem is determining which arm of the bureaucratic octopus to ask for help. According to its website, the Grade Change Committee “reviews all retroactive and grade change requests not unambiguously justified by the Regulations of the Academic Senate and of the Davis Division.” In other words, if the normal regulations of the Academic Senate clearly entitle you to a grade change, the committee does not need to review the grade change request. The website doesn’t say where you’re supposed to go to request an “unambiguously justified” grade change, but I assume you must have asked your professor or the registrar to change your grade, and one or both of them declined. Either way, the committee is the right place to ask at this point.

The committee reviews each petition on a case-by-case basis, though it applies the same set of rules to the facts of each case. It also claims the authority to make exceptions to its own rules when a petition warrants it.

In general, the committee won’t change your grade unless the grade resulted from a clerical or procedural error. It won’t substitute its judgment for a professor’s judgment; if you thought your essay deserved an A, but your professor thought it deserved a failing grade, the committee probably would not touch the case. A clerical error is one that is made by someone other than the student, such as an instructor or a staff adviser. Your problem seems like a clerical error to me, though the committee stresses that “ignorance on the part of a student regarding university policy is not generally considered valid justification for retroactive action.”

If I were to play devil’s advocate, I’d say the committee could reasonably interpret your failure to immediately notice the Sisweb problem as “ignorance on the part of the student.” It’s possible that “university policy” is to use this flawed Sisweb system, and that everything was working exactly as the university planned it to work. Maybe when you submitted your pass/no pass request, you were using a weird internet browser or accessing Sisweb from a faulty internet connection, both of which “university policy” says you should not do.

But even though the committee denied your petition, you can still appeal. You usually get only one shot at the appeal, and you have to make the appeal within one academic quarter. Also, appeals are limited to confirming that the committee did not act in an arbitrary or capricious manner in making its determination. You have to provide substantial and new information and argue that the committee’s prior decision was not based on substantial evidence. You can’t just rehash the committee’s decision; you have to come up with new evidence.

How should you obtain new evidence? I suggest you talk to Sisweb administrators and ask them whether they have any record of Sisweb having technical difficulties during the time you tried to make the switch to pass/no pass. You could then argue that these glitches are indeed a “procedural error” that entitles you to a retroactive grade change.

If Sisweb refuses to give up the records, or claims that is has no records, do not give up just yet. Make a formal request under the California Public Records Act by sending an email to the campus public records coordinator, Lynette Temple, at lstemple@ucdavis.edu. From my previous experience with her, she will promptly respond to inquiries. You can use the public records request template at firstamendmentcoalition.org/public-records-2/sample-cpra-request-letter/ or Google “California public records act request template” for more information on how to file a request.


Daniel is a Sacramento attorney, former Davis City Council candidate and graduate of UC Davis School of Law. He’ll answer questions sent to him at governorwatts@gmail.com or tweeted to @governorwatts.