Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

A student video chats inside an empty lecture hall on March 13, after Cornell announced a transition to online classes. Now, the Big Red Choice movement is advocating for an opt-in pass/fail grading system during the rest of the virtual semester.

March 27, 2020

Amid Growing Support for Mandatory Pass System, Big Red Choice Calls for Opt-In Pass/Fail Grading

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As a growing number of students call for a mandatory pass grading option for the rest of the semester through the Big Red Pass movement, the Big Red Choice movement is also gaining support.

Students behind the Big Red Choice movement worry that a universal pass system could harm them by diminishing their chances to boost their GPAs, earn any external merit-based scholarships or admission into graduate school programs.

“Many students that come from low income or minority backgrounds may not have had as good a high school preparation for a rigorous place like Cornell, and so they may have had a shakier start in their freshman or sophomore years,” said Sareh Ghadersohi ’21, a Big Red Choice organizer.

Ghadersohi said that an opt-in system could also give such students another chance to display academic improvement for postgraduate and scholarship programs during the spring semester, whereas a mandatory pass system would not allow them to do so.

As unemployment spikes amid the pandemic, organizers are concerned that students may be both more reliant on external GPA and grade-based scholarships to pay tuition and unable to access them due to a universal pass policy.

Big Red Choice organizers originally started a Change.org petition to retain Cornell’s current extended S/U option. But after hearing concerns that the University’s current policy was an infeasible solution, organizers decided to call for an extension of the S/U deadline past the end of the semester.

“After hearing people’s concerns about all the uncertainty going on in this pandemic, we thought it would be best to revise the campaign to allow even more flexibility,” Ghadersohi said.

As of Monday, the Big Red Choice campaign called for an opt-in pass/fail deadline, in which students can decide whether to change their grading basis seven days past the end of semester, to support students whose home situations shift over the course of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“This pandemic is not affecting one school. It is affecting the whole nation and the entire world,” said Amelia Ng ’21, a Big Red Choice organizer. “Graduate schools and employers are aware of this and aware that there may be extenuating circumstances affecting different students.”

Some Big Red Pass organizers disagreed with the notion that graduate schools and employers would sympathize with students dealing with the toll of the pandemic.

“It may very well be the case that some post-grad institutions are compassionate and will be understanding. We don’t deny that,” said Ahmed El Sammak ’21, a Big Red Pass organizer. “Still, academic equity should not be dependent on [graduate schools’] goodwill. It should be guaranteed by our administration.”

Big Red Choice organizers believed that concerns about the stigma attached to optional S/U grading can be addressed if the Cornell administration provides a letter in all students’ academic records to discourage discrimination against students that chose pass/fail.

In less than 72 hours, the Big Red Choice movement petition received 709 signatures, while the Big Red Pass movement petition received 1,180 signatures in the last five days.

Big Red Choice organizers said that they faced online criticisms such as allegations that the movement is elitist, but they pushed back on this characterization.

“We are not elitist,” Ng said. “We are trying to fight for our opportunity to work for a grade.”

Unlike the Big Red Pass movement, which emphasizes solidarity across the student community during the coronavirus outbreak, the Big Red Choice movement advocates for students to choose their own academic path.

“As Cornell students, we all know what is best for our careers, for our grades, our academics,” Ng said. “It is important for that choice to remain, so we can make that choice for ourselves.”

Clarification, March 28, 8:51 p.m.: This article was clarified to include that a key component of the Big Red Choice campaign is graduate and postgraduate programs as well as scholarship opportunities.