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McCarthy ’23: In the age of COVID-19, we must consider inequality: make classes mandatory S/NC

As the majority of students depart from campus, entering into new environments with new routines, I fear that remote learning will amplify the inequalities among our student body. The University must take action to mitigate the challenges that remote learning will have on those who will face real, complex and insurmountable obstacles during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some have suggested extending the deadline for students to change their courses to S/NC, but this solution does not go far enough. The only way to achieve real equality is to put students on an even playing field. To accomplish this, the University should make all courses mandatory S/NC.

When we are on campus, Brown works to ease the burden that less privileged students face in innumerable ways — from emergency funds, to elimination of loans in the form of University aid, to prioritizing students with demonstrated need for summer funding and some jobs, just to name a few examples. These efforts are still imperfect, but there is no single and complete fix to challenges that stem from one of the country’s most pressing issues: the unequal opportunities that result from income inequality. We work, as a University community and collectively as a nation, to find ways to reduce the inequality gap, and just as importantly, to reduce the opportunity gap.

Now, during one of the most consuming pandemics in modern history, we cannot stop working to provide fair and equal opportunity. All of my classmates, especially those with less privileged backgrounds, need the resources to be able to complete the academic year with minimal disturbance to their academic standing and minimal additional stress; mandatory S/NC courses would mitigate both academic disruption and assessment-related anxiety.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Smith College have already switched to a mandatory pass/fail policy, and students at several of our peer institutions are advocating for the same policy. Regardless of what graduate schools and employers think about Brown’s normal S/NC policy, I suspect they will understand why Brown among many other schools took such a drastic measure during this unprecedented pandemic and will not hold the policy against applicants from Brown.

Above all, if the University does not change its policy, certain students will be forced to fall short of their own academic standards and expectations by circumstances beyond their control — and will pay for it on their transcripts. As we grapple with this pandemic, we can’t leave anyone behind — and less privileged students are no exception.

At this point, we must consider all of the options, weighing the benefits against the harms and taking into account all students in our community. For example, a policy to make all classes optionally S/NC would exacerbate the inequality gap. I can imagine that many less privileged students will be under greater pressure outside the virtual classroom from the pandemic — having to work to support their families, or serving as full-time caretakers for younger siblings or ill relatives — and they will have no choice but to take the majority of their courses S/NC. Conversely, I can imagine that more privileged students could thrive in a remote learning environment, and they wouldn’t need to take any of their courses S/NC. This could put less privileged students at an unfair disadvantage when grad schools and employers compare them to their classmates.

Some students might argue that, in the wake of a mandatory S/NC policy, the effort they put into their classes during the first part of the semester would go to waste. I disagree with this belief. Since these extenuating circumstances are unlike anything we have dealt with before, we should honor the hardships and unforeseen issues of remote learning by responding in a way that we haven’t before.

And the mandatory S/NC policy would not just benefit students. Our professors have been hard at work to adapt their courses for remote learning. They face many challenges in figuring out how to evaluate students fairly. A mandatory S/NC policy would most certainly take some of the pressure off of them, while allowing them to experiment with their classes in novel and creative ways. With mandatory S/NC, Brown professors would have the opportunity to lead the way in innovative teaching and scholarship.

Brown has been committed to scholarship and academic rigor even in the most tumultuous of times, which has become more and more evident throughout the pandemic. But we must also remember Brown’s unyielding spirit of inquiry and the value we place on leaning into and dissecting the world’s most pressing issues. We need this more than ever — and changing to a University-wide mandatory S/NC policy would cut out the distractions of grading, equitably giving us the space to focus on learning while honoring our educational and institutional values.

This pandemic is a global, all-encompassing issue. Let’s look out for everyone — and while we are doing it, let’s think about what else we can do for our families, our communities, our country, our world and our futures.


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