March 24, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Pass Every Student, a Novel Solution for a Novel Coronavirus

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COVID-19 has swept the globe. Born of negligence and buoyed by incompetence, the virus has grown unrestrained in the United States, causing instability not seen for generations. While Cornell University took the necessary measure of shutting campus and moving classes online, the administration still fails to recognize the full scope of how the pandemic’s social, economic and health implications impact the thousands of students from diverse backgrounds who call Cornell home. Offering students the option to shift all courses from graded to S/U may facially tackle this unique disruption wrought on students’ lives, but it fails to address the divergent situations between students from different backgrounds. Students have responded to our Google Form requesting testimonies sharing their stories about how the pandemic has impacted them. A small sampling of their stories include:

“My mother has stage four brain cancer — she is immunocompromised. I will probably lose her during this pandemic since she has essentially no immune system due to the aggressive form of cancer she has.” 

“Some of my family members are already unemployed, so I have to work a full-time schedule in order to help out with the bills.”

“I am currently under government quarantine in my home country. We were taken to the quarantine centers the second we got off the plane. The WiFi here is really bad. The food is also government provided. The situation is really stressful.”

The intention of the S/U option is admirable, but its outcome will surely translate the pandemic’s uneven impact into a discrepancy between our transcripts. Cornell must now account for this crisis by adopting a Universal Pass system for this semester.

Many different factors will influence each student’s ability to maintain their academic performance in these uncertain times. Those without reliable internet access will struggle to participate in their classes, especially with stay-at-home orders placing public internet service out of reach. The dispersion of students around the globe will turn timezones into scholastic nightmares. Those in unstable housing or abusive households, suddenly without the reliability of Cornell residency, will be forced to carry an emotional burden of greater weight than the course load itself. Plainly, many students or their families will likely contract COVID-19.

As the country grinds its economy to a halt in a scorched-earth bid to flatten the curve, we are flung head first into a recession. Jobs will be lost. Many already have been. The toll this takes on the low-income and middle-income families at Cornell cannot be overstated, and shares little with the experience of wealthier families who are better equipped to weather the storm. The obligations of working multiple jobs or caring for younger siblings whose schools have closed down will be compounded by the stress of economic calamity. This is no time to grade all students on the same metrics.

Under the opt-in S/U system, graduate schools and potential employers will assess Cornell students on two different tiers: those whose extenuating circumstances pushed them to abandon letter grades and those who could confidently work toward the A. In addition, many graduate schools, including Harvard Medical School, do not even accept pass/fail grades unless they are universal. If we expect graduate schools to give preference to A’s over P’s, Cornell should destigmatize the passing grade by assigning it to everyone.

A Universal Pass system is the most equitable solution available to us. Under a UP system, all students would receive credit for their courses and a grade of “P” on their transcript. With UP, no student will be penalized for factors outside of their control. Every student in Cornell will pass their courses and receive credit towards their major, distribution requirements and graduation. In the context of graduate program applications, everyone’s transcripts would also be accompanied by a letter from the University explaining the circumstances of the pandemic that led to this outcome.

The University’s significant strides toward equity on campus must not be dashed by an inadequate response to the pandemic. Cornell has commendably spent decades working to even the playing field for students from all walks of life. But campus is closed; we are no longer on that playing field. We understand that the administration is loath to deviate so far from normal semesters, but we urge them to look to our peer institutions who have recognized the bias in optional pass/fail (MIT, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Columbia) and follow suit.

Students who have worked hard all semester might understandably be opposed to their high grades being swapped for passing ones. But it’s important to look past personal benefit and show solidarity with the student who is now their family’s only breadwinner, or is caring for a sick family member, or who does not have at-home wifi, or who god-forbid is sick themselves. These students are the most likely to be forced into choosing the pass/fail option due to their newfound circumstances. A shock ripples through our tightrope. The optional S/U is a valuable safety net, but true equity is to ensure nobody falls. A novel coronavirus requires a novel solution. It’s time for Cornell to rise to the unfortunate occasion and live up to the standard of Any Person, Any Study by instituting Universal Pass.


Elijah Fox is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Ahmed El Sammak is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. They write on behalf of the Cornell Universal Pass Campaign, #BigRedPass. Comments can be sent to [email protected]Guest Room runs periodically this semester.