Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

As classes transition online, the University's decision to push the S/U deadline has garnered mixed reactions from students.

April 6, 2020

Students Express Frustration, Satisfaction Over Extended Opt-In S/U Grading

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Facebook profiles adorned with “Universal Pass” filters and contentious squabbles over changing to a universal S/U grading scheme occupied Cornell’s student body for weeks. The issue even made its way up to the Student Assembly and Faculty Senate.

Now, the grading debate has effectively ended, leaving some students disappointed and others satisfied with the outcome.

On Sunday, Provost Michael Kotlikoff announced that opt-in S/U would be extended to May 12, the last day of classes. Universal S/U was no longer a viable option for the spring semester.

Tomás Reuning ’21, the Student Assembly LGBTQ+ liaison at-large, was frustrated with the University’s decision to not adopt universal S/U.

“I am disgusted,” Reuning said in a message to The Sun. “This institution disgusts me. I genuinely regret choosing to come to Cornell.”

Reuning had previously written a blistering email to the Faculty Senate, after it voted against a universal S/U resolution on Thursday. In the email, Reuning wrote, “A record 10 million Americans applied for unemployment this week. It is a privilege to have been able to sit there and discuss something as frivolous as grades in the midst of a global crisis.”

On the other hand, Big Red Choice — a movement that supported extended opt-in S/U until after finals — organizers saw Kotlikoff’s announcement as a victory.

“Collectively, we are all satisfied and happy with the decision, that they decided to extend the deadline to opt-in for S/U,” said Big Red Choice co-founder and organizer Sareh Ghadersohi ’21. “We believe that it allows more flexibility and it accounts for unforeseeable circumstances, and that the goal of the campaign was to ensure everyone’s voice was heard and accounted for.”

Kotlikoff’s announcement came after the S.A. passed a universal S/U resolution whereas a similar resolution failed to pass the Faculty Senate, signifying a compromise between the diverging votes.

Some didn’t see Cornell’s new grading policy as a compromise.

“I am both disappointed and shocked,” said Cindy Dou ’19 grad. “I didn’t know this could be worse, but the provost and vice provost made it worse.”

The provost also wrote in an email to the Cornell community that transcripts will include “a notation that explains the anomalies associated with the spring 2020 semester.”

At the Faculty Senate meeting, Prof. Risa Lieberwitz, labor relations, law and history, argued that the validity of grades given this semester would be diluted due to the unprecedented circumstances surrounding them. However, some students expressed a need to keep grades for graduate school programs or to maintain external merit-based scholarships.

Alex Gutierrez ’20 — who was an organizer for Big Red Choice — advocated for an opt-in option after experiencing a slew of health issues in past semesters that hindered her ability to academically perform at her best, especially because she is looking to apply to graduate programs in the future. With the latest decision, Gutierrez said that there were pros and cons to both grading schemes.

“By taking away the semester, that would really do a disservice to the students who did not start at Cornell with the right footing,” Gutierrez said. “However, I will admit that it is a disadvantage for students that do come from a low income background, a minority background and are extremely affected by the pandemic currently.”

Other students derided the University’s decision on Twitter.

Roland St. Michel ’22 said he mentally prepared himself for this outcome.

“I was kind of expecting it,” St. Michel said. “After the senate vote, it was kind of like, ‘Alright, this is what’s going to go through, nine times out of 10, probably’ … Either way, I’m going to have to deal with whatever decision gets made.”

One of the biggest points of contention during these past few weeks was if such a grading system was the most beneficial for low-income students who may not have proper internet access to online classes or resources.

On Facebook and Reddit, students who identified as low-income or first-generation argued over which grading policy would benefit them the most, with some saying that they had a lack of resources at home and others saying they needed the grades for a GPA boost after an uneasy start to college. Students with difficult home situations also told The Sun contrasting viewpoints on the issue.

There was no consensus.

Both Big Red Choice and Big Red Pass believed that their campaigns benefitted Cornell’s most disadvantaged students.

“It was always about just providing a voice for students who believe in different ways of solving this super nuanced and complex issue,” said Big Red Choice co-founder and organizer Amelia Ng ’21.

“We started this movement with the interests of students and we end it with the students in mind,” said Big Red Pass founder and organizer Ahmed Elsammak ’21. “I really apologize to the people who trusted this movement to accomplish eliminating letter grades this semester. These are real people who will be harmed by not having a universal grading system.”

Despite the divisive discourse over grading, both campaigns repeatedly expressed no ill will toward one another after Kotlikoff’s announcement.

“I have no malice or resentment or anything against people who supported Big Red Choice, Elsammak said. “I think many of them really did believe that an opt-in policy is the best way to protect marginalized students. I’m not going to pretend that I really didn’t disagree with their arguments or think that they were wrong.”

“We do empathize with Big Red Pass and their cause,” Ng said. “Our formation was never about competing with [Big Red Choice]. It was never us versus them.”

As classes have now resumed on Zoom, students have mostly come to terms with extended opt-in S/U.

“We kind of need to start classes back up, just to actually have a semester,” St. Michel said. “I do wish that the grading decision was posted more than a day before, but at least it wasn’t posted on the day of.”