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Glickman '23: What the Grade Option Debate is Really About

As spring break comes to a close and we resume classes this week, the fervor around the grading option debate continues to increase. The three options most widely debated amongst students at Brown are implementing Mandatory S/NC, extending the grade option deadline (as the University recently affirmed it would do in an email to students), or implementing Universal Pass. Advocates for each largely root their reasoning in the principles of equity. 

Supporters of Mandatory S/NC and Universal Pass point out that many students face barriers at home that put them on an unequal playing field. Grade choice defenders rely heavily on the backlash that could await post-graduation, backlash that would disproportionately affect already disadvantaged students. So why is there such a discrepancy between the two groups? In the end, who are the true guardians of equity and champions of the underserved for our university? Could both views be right?

As I see it, all strong beliefs about which path is correct are based on individual predictions of the future. One’s view of what will be equitable for the future must rely on assumptions of what the norms will be after the pandemic subsides. But our norms are ever changing — particularly in the wake of upheavals like the one we are living in now — so shouldn’t a decision like this one be predicated on the norms we want our future to hold? In this vein, I urge the University to reconsider its rejection of Universal Pass. 

If you believe that our current norms will survive this period of turmoil, I think you will likely find yourself in the grade-choice camp. Surely, you may say, graduate schools, post-graduate programs, professional tests or higher education law will continue their typical practices of penalizing students who don’t take a class for a grade or look like they are challenging themselves. Perhaps society will not adjust beyond this period of crisis.

If you see that society is already changing and that even more change, in all walks of life, is inevitable, you are far more likely to view Mandatory S/NC or Universal Pass favorably. How can we be expected to act as if everything is normal, when life is anything but normal at the moment? Higher education is trending towards becoming more compassionate and forgiving; maybe this is just another push along that road. In any case, how can a medical school penalize a student for a grading option out of their control, during an epoch of intense emotional and physical turmoil?

So which claim has more merit?

During great moments of change in society — the Great Depression, the World Wars, 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis — no one would deny that norms and customs, from family life to race relations, shifted measurably. In all of these moments, our hardest workers, those given the least support and privilege by society, were hit the hardest. But the intensity of each transient period eventually encouraged changes that, to this day, provide those same people with stronger protections than they had before. The New Deal gave us Social Security and unemployment insurance. After World War II, Congress passed the GI bill. The aftermath of 9/11 provided first responders more medical protection. The Great Recession brought about controls on predatory lending. Already during COVID-19, we’ve heard heightened discussion of universal basic income and universal healthcare, elevating issues that people have been attempting to place on the national agenda for years now. 

This is not to place a value judgement on the effects of any of these intense and chilling events. It is to say that change is inevitable; the University is demonstrating immense hubris by acting as if we will be exempt from it. 

While it seems safer, more practical and easier to rely on our old norms to guide decision-making during this exceedingly stressful time, it feels foolishly cautious. Our systems are changing before our eyes. Brown has an opportunity to guide and lead that change. If we allow this moment of transformation to pass us by, we miss an opportunity to make a more equitable and caring learning environment — not only for Brown students, but for our peers at other institutions.

Right now, there is still so much that is uncertain. What will happen in our political system or in the 2020 General Election? How will COVID-19 affect the climate?

But we do know one thing. When people and institutions take action, our norms change, particularly in moments of volatility.

Our administration should not attempt to weigh claims of equity or morality. It is a futile task. Every side has merit in that respect. If the norms did remain the same, having choice is equitable. But if the norms change, which I believe they will, they’ll surely accommodate for new grading policies.

I urge the University to choose between change and complacency. While the administration has already released an official statement about its course of action, and reaffirmed that decision in a March 30th email, I am urging the administration to reconsider a Universal Pass system. 

COVID-19 has underscored a point that we already knew to be true: our system is broken. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening. From college students without consistent access to a steady internet connection, to low-income workers being the first to lose their wages, the disadvantaged are inadvertently targeted by crisis management. This does not have to remain a truth in society. Let us actively shape what we want to be an equitable future, not simply capitulate to what has always been.

Noah Glickman ’23 can be reached at  Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to


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