This piece is part of an ongoing scope—a collection of multiple pieces from various viewpoints—addressing the discourse surrounding University President Lee Bollinger’s decision to make all courses pass/fail for the spring 2020 semester in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Currently, students around the country are pushing for universal grading reform as the fairest solution in current circumstances, given the countless ways that the COVID-19 crisis has already disrupted and will continue to disrupt students’ lives. Now that so many people have been forced off-campus, there are students who will have to deal with food insecurity, unemployment, inadequate housing, and lack of healthcare—not to mention the fact that the shift to distance learning poses serious problems for international students in different time zones and for everyone who lacks reliable Internet, computer, or library access.
This is not an ordinary semester, and University departments should change their grading policies to reflect that reality.
The universal pass/fail policy proposed by the joint Columbia College and General Studies Committee on Instruction was adopted precisely with this reasoning in mind, as Dean James Valentini explained in an email last Saturday. This decision is incredibly important for all students who are likely to experience significant disruptions in their lives due to the unpredictable impact of a global pandemic.
However, the universal pass/fail policy is still not perfect, even when it comes to achieving the University’s own stated aims. The most glaring problem is that students would still be at risk of failing their classes under the current policy. This risk of an F grade would harm precisely the same students that the policy is intended to protect—those no longer able to attend classes because of issues with Internet or time zones or those who simply won’t be able to keep up with coursework owing to the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. This is why students at other schools, such as New York University and Yale University, have been calling for a universal pass rather than a pass/fail model.
Moreover, some students at Columbia have raised concerns over the impact of a mandatory pass/fail policy on those who were depending on high GPAs this semester for a variety of reasons, such as academic standing, scholarship eligibility, graduate school admissions, and employment prospects. In response to these concerns, many have pointed out that employers and admissions or scholarship committees will likely take the impact of the pandemic into account, and wouldn’t fault students for University-wide decisions about the grading policy. However, it’s still worth taking these concerns seriously and thinking about ways we could address them.
That’s why a coalition of students at Columbia has started to demand that the University improves on its existing pass/fail model by adopting an all-A’s policy instead. This would be a better solution than adopting the opt-in pass/fail model or allowing students to uncover letter grades. Both of these alternatives would give an unfair advantage to everyone who has the luxury of being able to keep up with their classes at around the same level as before, and, as Columbia professor Jenny Davidson points out, it would also put undue pressure on students who might already be struggling with academic stress and mental health.
An all-A’s policy would be an improvement over the existing pass/fail model since it would eliminate the risk of an F grade while also addressing the concerns of students worried about the impact of pass/fail on their GPAs. Both of these goals are in line with Valentini’s stated aim of doing “what is best for the entire academic community so that the playing field is leveled for all” in this moment of unprecedented crisis.
Some students have pushed back against the idea of an all-A’s policy on the grounds that an A grade should be reflective of merit or hard work. But in current circumstances, it is deeply misguided to assume that a letter grade would be reflective of “merit” in any meaningful sense. It is easy enough for students to work hard and receive a good letter grade when they are not worried about how they will earn enough money to buy groceries or pay rent, how they will get access to a computer or Wi-Fi while staying in quarantine, or how they will find time to work on classes while taking care of family members who are sick or at risk. Does that mean that students who now have to confront all of those issues are less deserving of an A?
Then, of course, there is the inevitable question of what would motivate students to keep doing work if everyone simply received all A’s. I would offer two responses to this concern. First, the main point of the policy would be to give everyone the freedom to simply step away from their coursework for the rest of this semester, with no fear of negative consequences, if they feel that doing so would be best for their mental health and overall well-being. Giving students this freedom would be one of the best ways to raise our morale as a community during these difficult times.
My second response would be that this crisis is an opportune time for us to reflect on the way that we are evaluated as students even in “normal” circumstances. The COVID-19 crisis has only shown us what should’ve been clear to us all along—that grades cannot really be reflective of “merit” in a vastly unequal world, in which some students are assured of their futures while others are just struggling to get by day-to-day. If nothing else, we could simply view the all-A’s policy as a kind of collective experiment: What would our lives be like if we took classes just for the sake of learning and growing as human beings, rather than just as a means of getting a grade for future employers and admissions officers to judge our worth?
At the very least, I hope that the administration will take into account all of the concerns that drove over a thousand students to sign onto the petition for an all-A’s policy. Not only would it be the ideal policy for achieving the University’s own stated aims, but it would also be the best way of extending solidarity to all students who are struggling in this crisis.
The author is part of a coalition of Columbia students advocating for a universal A grading system. The group’s petition, which has received over 1,200 signatures at the time of publication, can be accessed here.
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