The Faculty Senate denied the proposal for a universal S/U policy.

Ashley He / Sun Staff Photographer

The Faculty Senate denied the proposal for a universal S/U policy.

April 3, 2020

As Classes Approach, Faculty Senate Rejects Push for Universal S/U

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The Faculty Senate voted to keep A’s and B’s in the spring semester’s grading policy on Thursday.

On Wednesday, the senate met via Zoom to discuss grading policy options and academic integrity. Once voting ended Thursday noon, it was announced shortly after that the universal S/U proposal failed.

The controversial vote signified that as tension rises between supporters and critics of a universal S/U grading policy, faculty are nearly split on whether letter grading is fair.

Other Ivy League universities have passed various universal pass/fail policies, including Harvard University, Columbia University and Dartmouth College. Yale University, Brown University, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania do not have a universal pass/fail policy.

Faculty members raised questions on student agency, implications on graduate school admissions, employer requirements and the needs of marginalized students. Ultimately, 46 voted for universal S/U, 62 voted against and three abstained.

At the meeting, some faculty members seemed skeptical of stigmas attached to opt-in S/U grading, which swayed the vote in favor of retaining the University’s current system.

At a Wednesday Faculty Senate meeting on Zoom, Prof. David Delchamps questioned the stigmas attached to optional S/U grading.

Courtesy of Cornell University

At a Wednesday Faculty Senate meeting on Zoom, Prof. David Delchamps questioned the stigmas attached to optional S/U grading.

“The arguments in favor of a universal S/U, the only thing people brought up that they thought was substantive that an S would be perceived as lesser than a grade,” said Prof. David Delchamps, electrical and computer engineering, at the meeting. “That imputes an awful lot of pigheaded-ness or thickheaded-ness or myopia on the assessors or perceivers.”

Students involved in the Big Red Pass movement — in favor of a consistent grading scheme — have repeatedly said that students would be reluctant to take classes S/U due to fear of seeming academically less capable than their peers.

The Big Red Choice movement — advocates of students’ ability to choose their grading option — did not directly comment on the vote on social media.

However, the vote drew the ire of some students, as many — scattered away from campus — took to social media to criticize the outcome.

After news of the vote broke, it set off a contentious debate on whether the Faculty Senate made the right decision.

Some supported the Faculty Senate decision, including one Reddit user, who wrote “People have been complaining that it “stigmatizes” people who do S/U and puts a ‘burden’ on them. How is it a stigma when so many people are going to be taking courses S/U from multiple universities? How is it a ‘burden’ when the explanation is so simple — COVID-19?”

Other redditors were disappointed, and expressed concern that keeping the current grading policy would harm students who were infected with COVID-19.

“I understand the rationale behind letter grading, but it screws over anyone who contracts the virus or has a family member contract it,” another Reddit user wrote.

Tomás Reuning ’21, the Student Assembly LGBTQ+ liaison at-large, wrote a scathing email to the Faculty Senate after the vote, which was then posted on Facebook.

“We are in the middle of a pandemic and the beginning of a major economic depression,” Reuning wrote. “Grades should be the least of our concerns.”

Courses taken S/U do not factor into GPA calculations, but will now count toward graduation requirements.

Prof. Neema Kudva presented the pros and cons of Cornell's current grading policy, which gives students until April 21 to decide whether to take classes S/U.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Prof. Neema Kudva presented the pros and cons of Cornell’s current grading policy, which gives students until April 21 to decide whether to take classes S/U.

Prof. Neema Kudva, architecture, art and planning, presented arguments for and against various grading policy options, beginning with the University’s current policy of providing an extended opt-in policy for S/U grading for all classes until April 21.

“[The current opt-in policy] doesn’t disadvantage any student that has a merit-based scholarship, that needs a GPA, and it also allays concerns students about admissions to competitive graduate programs,” Kudva said.

Kudva also posited that the current grading system may unfairly burden students who are disadvantaged by taking classes off-campus.

“This is an unusual, fast-changing, difficult time which constrains student agency, and there are many difficult home situations,” she said, who pointed out that alternatives to the current scheme could include universal S/U and universal P/F.

Some students with difficult home situations have expressed support for the Big Red Choice movement to The Sun because they wanted to maintain grades to keep scholarships or raise their GPAs after a rocky start to college.

Lisa Nishii, vice provost for undergraduate education, said at the Faculty Senate meeting that it is unclear how graduate programs will perceive optional S/U grades.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Lisa Nishii, vice provost for undergraduate education, said at the Faculty Senate meeting that it is unclear how graduate programs will perceive optional S/U grades.

Lisa Nishii, vice provost of undergraduate education, updated the faculty on potential changes to graduate school requirements for grades — a major concern raised by the Big Red Pass movement, which has argued that admission committees would disfavorably view classes taken optionally S/U.

According to Nishii, some graduate schools originally announced that they would only accept pass/fail grades if it was due to university policy.

“This fueled a fury, because those most hard hit by the pandemic would be penalized either for opting for an S/U and maybe seeming weak, or opting for a letter grade and not earning a good letter grade,” Nishii said.

However, according to Nishii, some graduate schools have since revised the policy, and conditions are in flux.

According to the resolution, signed by over 50 faculty members, the current opt-in policy fails to accommodate “students experiencing personal and economic hardships such as family job losses, illness, childcare obligations and lack of access to internet technology or difficulty participating from distant time zones.”

Prof. Risa Liberwitz advocated for a universal S/U grading policy and was one of the sponsors of the Faculty Senate resolution.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Prof. Risa Liberwitz advocated for a universal S/U grading policy and was one of the sponsors of the Faculty Senate resolution.

During the meeting, Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, labor relations, law and history, questioned the quality of online instruction for certain topics, arguing that not all courses are suitable for virtual learning, which could impact their validity.

“Some courses will simply be inferior in the way they are delivered. Online is unsuitable for certain courses, and we are doing this in a hurry,” Lieberwitz said.

After the meeting concluded, faculty voted online. In contrast to the Faculty Senate’s decision, the S.A. passed a resolution in support of a universal grading policy in a 16-7-2 vote at an emergency virtual meeting on Tuesday. The S.A. vote, along with the Faculty Senate one, will now make their way to the administration. It is unclear when the administration will announce a final decision on the matter.

On Facebook, Big Red Pass lamented the outcome of the Faculty Senate vote.

“We were deeply saddened by this, especially following the strong support demonstrated by the Student Assembly days earlier,” the group wrote. “But things are moving far too quickly to put much weight on this outcome.”

While the Faculty Senate made its decision, the grading debate is far from settled. Big Red Pass and Big Red Choice are now encouraging their supporters to email administrators, and classes will resume Monday.

The full resolution can be read here.