Coronavirus, Op-Ed, Opinion

OP-ED: On education and the sustainability of democracy: In defense of a universal pass/fail policy

Op-Eds do not reflect the editorial opinion of The Daily Free Press. They are solely the opinion of the author(s). 

Joey Chen is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, many universities and colleges across the U.S. have shifted their grading policies to either a mandatory or optional pass/fail system to afford students greater flexibility during this crisis. Boston University has adopted a special grading policy for the Spring semester, allowing all undergraduate students to designate their courses as credit/no credit in place of letter grades. 

While the decision is well-intentioned, it’s neither the most equitable nor logical option. 

It’s clear that the grades earned this semester will not be a fair or legitimate measure of one’s effort or ability, but a reflection of more uncontrollable variables such as one’s time zone, access to learning resources and living situation. Under an opt-in policy, where students can elect for letter grades or credit/no credit, a fair evaluation of students’ transcripts would only be more difficult and confusing due to a lack of uniformity in grading. Without a universal policy, there is no way to account for these discrepancies or the motivations behind opting to pass/fail — it just leaves too much room for ambiguity

Students will still feel pressured to continue striving for letter grades in order to stay competitive among their peers for graduate and fellowship programs. As an example, the Harvard Medical School signaled that they will only accept pass/fail grades if they were instituted for all students. To honor every student with graduate school aspirations, BU needs to mandate pass/fail grades for everyone. An optional system is ineffective because it hurts the very students we should be concerned about helping.

Not only would a universal grading policy take into account the wildly different home situations of every student, but it would also benefit those who are fortunate enough to have a healthy, safe and comfortable home environment. Instead of agonizing over letter grades and worrying about how this transition to an online system will affect their grades, students can take this as an opportunity to focus on recuperating and connecting with family members. 

Everybody benefits in this scenario, and those who find the pass/fail option necessary are not penalized.

I realize that many of us are reluctant to give up our A’s when we have worked so hard to earn them during the beginning of the semester. But expecting any student to perform on the same level through online instruction they would at school despite socio-economic, geographic, political, health and other barriers is not only unreasonable, it’s downright callous. 

Let’s not forget that some of us may be fighting a very different battle where much more than a GPA is at stake. 

As an academic institution, BU needs to think closely about the fundamental purpose of an education and the values it hopes to impart on students. We cannot forget that education is about making informed choices that reflect the kind of world we want to live in — what values we hope our children will have, what importance we wish to give to the different spheres of human activity. 

A mandatory pass/fail policy sends a clear, humane message asking students and faculty to prioritize their health and well-being above all else. An optional one forces students to weigh their academic concerns against other equally important concerns, and then decide how to allocate their resources — such as time, energy and attention — accordingly. It pits students against one another instead of uniting them in a common endeavor. 

Why do we fail to see that by encouraging this shortsighted, self-centered behavior we lose sight of the goals of education, and that we risk sliding all too easily into the winners-and-losers politics of the Trump era? If we want to preserve any sense of civic responsibility or wish for our students to see any value in fulfilling the obligations of citizenship, then we need to emphasize empathy above all else. This is as much about ethics and ensuring the sustainability of democracy as an academic dilemma. 

Right now, the appropriate response is a call for leniency and compassion, not rigidity. Faculty members deserve our sympathy as well, many of whom had to shift their traditionally classroom-taught courses to an online format in a matter of days. Maintaining the same level of academic rigor and grading responsibility is equally unfair to the professors who have to provide instruction through the video conference platform Zoom as to students who have to learn from it.

Although many things remain uncertain and out of our control, we have the choice to help others stand up with us, not against us, in the common pursuit of education during these most extraordinary of circumstances. 

When I wake up to the screams of ambulance sirens outside my bedroom window in New York City, I’m reminded of just how grave the situation is. As classmates, as friends, as constituents of a larger community, we need to do all we can to help our fellow students complete the semester successfully. 

A universal pass/fail policy is the fairest, most just approach that BU can take. 


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  1. Nathan Phillips

    I agree with Joey.

  2. I also agree with Jojo.