March 29, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Grading Schemes Aside, the Administration will need to make a Compromise

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Cornell students have been fighting the wrong battle. Although the current conflicting discourse on opt-in and mandatory S/U grading exists between students, the actual negotiation that must occur should be between students and the University administration.

Before we talk about alternative grading policies, we need to ask ourselves: what is a grade and what is its impact?

Transcript grades represent a student’s understanding of their subject material with relation to their peers. At the same time, a grade bears the underlying assumption that all students in that class are given standardized learning resources and conditions. However, this assumed standardization is no longer valid once students are sent home. As a proposed solution, the idea of a universal pass policy was conceived.

Although this policy seems at first glance to be the most fair, it fails to resonate with the majority. To understand this contradiction, we need to look at the power and influence of a letter grade. In a society where success is often determined by your last name or your family’s financial background, grades are a representation of individual achievements and a tool for our disadvantaged peers to create for themselves a successful career that improves their socioeconomic status. On a broader level, grades, as a measure of individual successes, are among the factors that enable upward social mobility. Most of us want our individual achievements recognized in order to climb the social ladder, and this capacity for upward mobility would be removed if a universal pass policy were in place.

As a result, neither the absence nor the presence of letter grades work in favor of the students, and it is the students that will have to compromise either way. This conflict, however, can be resolved by the University administration.

The University has two primary options — continue or cancel the semester. If the semester were to continue, the University should make its best effort to equalize students’ access to learning resources and ensure that the essential technology is in place for every enrolled student at home. This is not a radical proposal — the Learning Strategies Center has already provided tablets for its tutors to improve distance tutoring. On the other hand, if the University chooses to cancel the semester, it should refund or roll over this semester’s tuition. This not only makes sense in the context of a pandemic that has affected businesses and services nationwide, but enables Cornellians to utilize this time to grow in ways outside Cornell’s academic sphere.

The proposed resolution does require the administration to make compromises as well, the most immediate of which are financial. Both providing technological support and refunding this semester’s tuition will take money out of Cornell’s pocket. It is understandable that Cornell has its long-term investments and operation costs. However, with millions of dollars of endowments received by Cornell every year, it is reasonable to ask the administration to re-evaluate the University’s endowment distribution for the betterment of students’ personal and career success. What will the  administration’s priorities be, and how will it weigh its values and compromises? Not only does this decision have immediate consequences, it will also impact how Cornell’s soon-to-be alumni view their alma mater’s choices and priorities during this chaotic time.

All in all, I would like to remind my fellow Cornellians that negotiations regarding grading policies should not be between students, but rather between students and the administration. Ultimately, any solution expects one party to give up their benefits. If the administration is not making a concession, the students will have to.

Fengrui Zhan is a junior in the College of Engineering. Comments can be sent to Guest Room runs periodically this semester.