Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Cornell begins online classes on April 6. In terms of grading, students have come together to petition for the "universal pass."

March 23, 2020

Growing Number of Students Call for Mandatory Pass Grading Option

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While Cornell has extended the deadline for students to choose between letter grades and pass/fail to April 21, a growing number of students are advocating for a more radical approach: a mandatory, “universal pass” system for all students this semester.

According to an FAQ page made by supporters of the movement, students would receive credit for all of their courses and have a “P” on their transcript, accompanied by a letter explaining the circumstances.

While other schools, such as Columbia, have moved to an all-pass/fail grading system for the remainder of the semester, the group takes it a step further, arguing that all classes should receive credit no matter one’s final grade.

According to supporters, this move alleviates inequities in technology access, the personal impact of COVID-19 on some students and other factors that may keep students from achieving their full potential during this time of crisis.

“What unites all Cornell students is how much we care about our grades and how much our grades will impact us in the future,” said Ahmed Elsammak ’21, one of the Big Red Pass organizers. “Many students will be going back to environments where they will not be able to maximize their potential in achieving those grades.”

Over 470 students signed the group’s petition in the last 48 hour. Already endorsed by Climate Justice Cornell and the Muslim Chaplaincy at Cornell, the movement has reached out to a range of other student groups for support and feedback.

While Cornell significantly expanded the availability of optional pass/fail grading to help accommodate for “lost instruction,” according to Vice Provost Lisa Nishii, Big Red Pass organizers said the opt-in option is still unfair because it allows future employers and graduate schools to discredit courses that are not taken for a letter grade.

“We think that [an opt-in option] is inequitable because the letter grade option still exists. Graduate schools and employers can still see you chose to take a class pass/fail instead of a letter grade,” said Elsammak, who, on the other hand, claimed that the universality of all-pass grading would prevent graduate schools from stigmatizing students for any choice they make.

Students shared their stories about why they support the Universal Pass movement on the Big Red Pass Facebook page.

“I live in rural Texas with nearly no internet connection,” wrote Zack McConnel in a Facebook post.

Some students that wrote on the page raised not just logistical issues, but also emotional challenges, such as escalating mental health concerns and family members with terminal illnesses who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

In this way, El-Sammak does not believe that letter grades are fair in a time of crisis because the more level playing field of residential college life has been eliminated.

“The campus creates a shared condition. It equalizes a lot of disadvantages students may have by providing us with recreational services, office hours, peer tutoring, libraries, wifi, a safe space,” Elsammak said. “The campus provides a level playing field we wouldn’t have in our original environments. The basis for comparison no longer exists because shared conditions no longer exist.”

Cornell is offering a wide variety of resources to students to alleviate concerns, including the Students Helping Students Fund. However, organizers do not think this is enough.

“The unique situation we face in this epidemic is one where Cornell cannot throw money at the problems to fix them. A lot of circumstances students are going home to are not ones Cornell can change,” Elsammak said. “Given the broad nature of this pandemic, I don’t think the solution is a case-by-case one. The solution needs to be universal, a safety net that no student can fall through.”

The call to eliminate letter grades does not have unanimous support, especially among those who hoped that this semester could be a GPA-booster. A petition created Monday evening urged the University to maintain its current optional policy, but extend the deadline to change grading basis up to seven days after final grades are released.

It wrote that Big Red Pass’ proposal “would eliminate opportunities for personal growth, jeopardize the competitiveness of Cornell graduates … and compromise freedom of choice for students.” The counter-petition has 510 signers, as of Tuesday evening.

However, organizers said they hoped that students who have more of an ability to perform well with online classes at home consider their less advantaged peers, comparing the policy to social distancing.

“Don’t just think about how you will be affected, but try to adopt the perspective of those less fortunate than you, who might be going through unimaginable trauma right now,” Elsammak said.