Perhaps because the students I talk to every day are not “my” students (i.e., I am not their teacher, and I don’t actually have to assign a grade), I now have a broadened perspective on the importance of — and even the educational value of — failing. At the end of the semester, for instance, I often get e-mails from professors saying something like, "Sally hasn’t been to class since spring break, has missed her midterm and her final and hasn’t responded to my e-mails. What should I do?” I have to restrain myself from simply writing back: “FAIL HER.” As the dean and not Sally’s teacher, I am able to see Sally’s situation as cut-and-dried: she has disappeared and stopped doing the work. She has chosen, for whatever reason, not to complete the course and the consequence of her decision is an F.
I failed a student this semester, under similar circumstances, except my student never showed up to class once. In this respect, it was much easier to fail them: the student obviously did not put in the work and did not drop the class, so it was literally the only option. Even so, I was anxious when actually giving the grade, even though I had been careful early on to talk to the right people and document every step of the process: one never knows what will happen in these situations, and I've had students in the past who have fought harder for less.
Of more interest to me this semester was a rash of people receiving not-failing-but-not-passing grades. I had one student who perhaps could have failed, but I discovered that I have spent so little time in the lower end of the grading curve I had trouble figuring out exactly what scores to give on their work. As a general rule, I aim for a B as an average grade, and construct most of my grading scale in the expectation that almost everything will fall in the B- to A- range. A grades and C+ grades are easy to recognize: they're much better or a little worse than the expectation. Below a C+, though, I have fewer set expectations: I know (because I've been asked enough times) what the difference between an 84 and an 87 is; I'm not sure I could tell you the difference between a 64 and a 67. It helped, this semester, that the people who received grades on the lower end of the scale did so largely because of their failure to turn assignments in on time, but this is clearly a subject I will need to devote more thought to.