Campus, Coronavirus, News

Petition for pass/fail program puts pressure on university officials

Boston University’s provost and chief academic officer Jean Morrison and other BU deans are debating whether to give the Spring semester courses pass/fail grades after a petition calling on the university to do so was circulated online. COURTESY PXHERE

In light of Boston University’s implementation of remote learning due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Jean Morrison, university provost and chief academic officer, and other BU deans are considering an optional pass/fail program for Spring semester courses. 

Evan Teplensky, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences and a BU Student Government senator, sent out an online petition on Tuesday calling for the university to give students a pass/fail option for any, or all, of their spring courses. 

The petition was created the same day that President Robert Brown posted an update to the BU COVID-19 information page, stating that Morrison and deans are continuing to debate the issue, and will “communicate more information on this decision in the coming weeks.”

The petition currently has over 5,000 signatures with a goal of 7,500 signatures. Signatures include not only students, but also faculty and parents, who have encouraged their students to read the petition, Teplensky said.

Teplensky said he views the optional pass/fail program as an essential resource for students whose academic circumstances have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak. He said time zone differences, unfamiliar work environments and uncertainty regarding financial stability, as well as the health of students and their families, were his primary reasons for launching the petition.  

Teplensky said he is most concerned for students whose lives may be directly impacted by the virus, thus rendering them unable to dedicate their full attention to academics. 

“We don’t know what the future is going to be like,” Teplensky said. “If the disease gets worse, we might have to start taking care of family members and making sure they’re okay, so I think that we definitely need to reduce the stress and anxiety going on.” 

Teplensky drew inspiration for his petition from universities he deemed as “peer institutes,” which are schools mirroring BU’s large city campus that have implemented optional or mandatory pass/fail programs following their transition to online learning. Among these universities are Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University and George Washington University.  

James Schmidt, professor of history, philosophy and political science at BU, said he believes BU should be following in the footsteps of institutions like MIT, and institute a mandatory pass/fail policy in light of the academic changes. 

“We can’t rule out the possibility that all that we’re doing [by administering optional pass/fail] is rewarding students who have been lucky enough not to have been greatly affected by this disruption,” Schmidt said, “and penalizing those that have been thrust into situations where they have inadequate resources to get their work done, or they’re possibly living with family that are suffering from the disease.” 

Schmidt also said the university should consider the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic’s long term impact, and how it may affect professors’ ability to adequately evaluate students on a normal grading scale.  

“It would make sense for universities simply to be doing pass and fail at this point, rather than pretending that we’re living in a normal universe anymore,” Schmidt said. “It seems that there’s just this naive assumption that the faculty members at this university, by the time we get to April, are going to be in any condition to give a reasonable evaluation of what students are doing.” 

Teplensky’s petition proposes that letter grades still be recorded for students who elect to use pass/fail, and made available in the event that students need to access complete grades for future applications to graduate or professional institutions.  

Schmidt said he does not see a need for including additional letter grades for the Spring semester, since he believes the academic impact of coronavirus will be universally recognized by graduate and post-graduate institutions.

“It’s not as if credentialing agencies are going to forget that we were having a major public health crisis at the time,” Schmidt said. “Graduate schools could easily read faculty evaluations, which convey much more information on what a student has done than letter grades.”  

To ensure that BU students are evaluated fairly in future applications, Teplensky’s petition calls for an asterisk to be included on all student transcripts, referencing the state of BU academics at the time of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Graduate schools need to understand that this semester is not like any in history, and that’s not something I can change within a petition, and that’s not something that will change overnight,” Teplensky said. “We want a note, just a little asterisk saying, in case in three years people forget why grades might be lower for this semester, that all courses were switched online because of a pandemic. Out of all of this, I don’t think that’s too much to request. I think this is the most reasonable.”

Jessica Kent, professor of writing at BU, wrote in a comment on Teplensky’s petition that she agrees with moving to some form of a pass/fail program for the sake of both faculty and student health. 

“I’m a faculty member,” Kent wrote, “and with faculty and students in the midst of a pandemic, we need to focus on taking care of our health (including mental health) and safety.”

Schmidt said he believes BU faculty members are divided on whether or not to transition to pass/fail. 

“Some of us were in favor of going to pass/fail and others weren’t,” Schmidt said. “There are reasonable arguments on both sides, but what I saw to be the weakness of the other argument is that nobody is really thinking much about what sort of a world we’re likely to be in at the end of April.” 

Laura Jenks, the chief of staff at the Office of the Provost, wrote in an email that accreditation is a key factor in the administration’s ongoing consideration of optional pass/fail, therefore input and agreement from faculty members is especially valuable. 

“It’s a complex decision with potential impact on things such as accreditation and students’ ability to apply for graduate programs, so it is important that it is considered carefully and in partnership with the faculty of the University,” Jenks wrote. “Our top priority is ensuring that all students can complete this semester earning academic credit for their courses.”

Teplensky’s petition calls for the temporary suspension of prior university conditions surrounding pass/fail, which stipulate that students cannot apply pass/fail to degree components, such as BU Hub requirements, major/minor requirements or language requirements.

“That’s the biggest part of this, so that if a student wants to go pass/fail and they’re nervous about their credits for BU Hub and major requirements,” Teplensky said, “all those will be accredited and students won’t have to worry about that.” 

Teplensky is currently awaiting a response from Kenneth Elmore, the dean of students, regarding a meeting time to go over different iterations of the pass/fail program and discuss which implementation might work best for the university. Teplensky said he does not want to make any promises that the university will agree to the program. 

“I don’t want to overhype it and I don’t want to under-hype it,” Teplensky said. “At the end of the day it is a possibility, and if we keep pushing it could be a reality.”  

Morrison wrote in a BU Today article on March 16 that pass/fail is an “option under consideration.” 

Jenks wrote that Morrison and the deans are aware of the student anticipation of an announcement regarding pass/fail, and are working toward providing an answer as soon as they can. 

“We do understand that there is a considerable amount of stress and interest around this question, so we are working to get a University-wide decision as soon as possible,” Jenks wrote. “We’ll be communicating with everyone as soon as a decision is made.” 

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