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Students express mixed opinions on temporary grading policy, advocate for alternative systems

Supporters of current policy emphasize idea of choice, opponents back policies such as Universal Pass, mandatory S/NC

Reflecting on notions of equity, choice and transparency in the context of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, students expressed mixed reactions to the temporary academic policy implemented by the University that will allow students to change their grade options from April 13 to May 1.

While the academic policy originally gave students from April 13 to April 17 to change their grade options to decide whether to take courses for a letter grade or for Satisfactory/No Credit evaluation Dean of the College Rashid Zia ’01 announced an updated policy April 3 that pushed the deadline to May 1, The Herald previously reported. The updated policy also established that no student's academic standing would be negatively affected by coursework for the Spring 2020 semester.

Students interviewed by The Herald who expressed support of the updated system emphasized the importance of choice and were generally satisfied with the extended deadline. Some argued that the deadline could be pushed back even further to better meet students’ needs.

In explaining the updated academic policy, Zia said that because students’ course grades may be uncertain a month prior to the end of the semester, making the decision to change one’s grade option “might be really tough, and we don't want people to be overly stressed about this decision. … That's why (we extended) it back as far as we could to the last full week of instruction so that students can have some certainty at that moment how this semester is going to wrap up."

For Ingrid Ren ’23, the extended deadline for students to change their grade options is a “positive action, but insufficient.” While the later deadline is an “improvement,” moving the deadline to after students receive their final grades “would be reasonable," she wrote in an email to The Herald.

But Zia told The Herald that the end of the last full week of instruction, May 1, is the latest deadline possible due to practical difficulties in addressing both the needs of graduating students and the academic obligations between faculty members and students. He added that extending the deadline to after final grades are released would also make the decision to change grade options "more about grades than any of us would like."

Harry Chalfin ’20 discussed the notion of choice in his support for the current grading policy, adding that he believes it was "incredibly gracious” of the University to extend the grade option deadline. “Free choice is really in the spirit of Brown,” he said. “Free choice in being able to choose what's the best option for me in this particular situation and not having to worry about the University making the decisions for me about what's best for me."

Aryana Javaheri ’20, who wrote a March 24 Op-Ed against a mandatory Satisfactory/No Credit system, said that “marginalized students or disadvantaged students in general” would be able to receive the most individualized support if given the choice to determine their grade options. Before the updated policy was announced, Javaheri organized a petition to extend the deadline for students to change their grade option.

A March 30 community-wide email from Zia about the University’s grading policy also prompted student backlash on Dear Blueno, a student-run Facebook page that solicits and posts anonymous submissions. “The words could have been better chosen," Zia said, responding to a question from The Herald about language used in the email. In the email, Zia wrote that he found communications from students who academically overcame previous challenges the “most compelling.” He continued that for those students, the ability to display letter grades this semester “could showcase their resilience in the face of adversity.”

Independent of this email, Javaheri added that individual communications with administrators generally tend to be more helpful for students. While there are areas University administrators could "do a better job on,” she said, “when you talk to them one-on-one … they are more helpful in that setting.”

Students opposing the current grading policy have organized campaigns and petitions advocating for alternative systems.

The Universal Pass at Brown campaign urges the University to adopt a grading system in which all students would receive a grade of “Pass” or “Pass with Distinction" in their courses this semester, according to the campaign’s Facebook page. In a summary of its efforts, the campaign argues that marginalized students who are most acutely affected by the pandemic are “the ones most pressured” to take courses S/NC over a grade, which, under a non-universal system, would place them at “an additional disadvantage.” A Universal Pass system, the summary states, “guarantees that students will pass their courses while indicating to future opportunities that students did not elect to take their classes pass/fail.”

Students in support of Universal Pass suggested that the system is more equitable than other policies and that the updated grading policy with its extended deadline does not address the central concerns of the Universal Pass movement, which emerged after the University first released its temporary academic policies.

Nina Wolff Landau ’20, an organizer of Universal Pass at Brown, said that "this false idea of choice is not really a choice for so many students who are dealing with such a wide range of really challenging circumstances" prompted by elements such as familial responsibilities, limited access to Internet connection and academic resources, differences in time zones and mental and physical health concerns. "Students are really struggling, and so this idea that giving students freedom of choice … is something that just increases educational inequity," she said.

Wolff Landau wrote in an April 4 email to The Herald that over 2,400 undergraduate students and 41 professors had signed a petition in support of Universal Pass.

The University’s response to reactions to the grading policy has been disappointing to some student activists. Some supporters of Universal Pass further noted a lack of transparency and communication between University administrators and the student body in deciding the academic policies.

"If the University disregards the student activism that is happening right now, then I think there's something fundamentally wrong with their decision-making process,” said Emilia Ruzicka ’21, who wrote a March 24 Op-Ed in support of a mandatory Satisfactory/No Credit system that allows students to petition for a letter grade. “Student voices need to be respected and considered in University policy changes," she said.

Silver McKie ’22 added that “the students that are most affected are the students that can't give feedback.” They said that students most acutely affected by both the pandemic and leaving campus may be less able to reach out to administrators to express their needs.

Universal Pass was also endorsed by the Executive Board of the Undergraduate Council of Students, The Herald previously reported. UCS President William Zhou ’20 discussed the executive board’s decision to endorse Universal Pass, noting the influence of board members involved in organizing the movement. "We come together as an (executive board) and bring in different perspectives,” he said. "Having someone (on the executive board) who is very involved and knowledgeable about the UPass movement was very helpful in helping us understand the nuances of the different policies."

Several students agreed that there is no one policy that would address every person’s concerns.

To David Gao ’22, that means students need to determine the right grade options for themselves. "It's right that many people are thinking in this situation (that the University) shouldn't be giving grades because people have such different circumstances,” he said. “These are just hard questions that people don't have an agreement on. … People don't agree on what the answer is, so they need the choice."

Maddie McCarthy ’23, who wrote a March 22 Op-Ed in support of a mandatory S/NC grading system, also noted that there is no perfect policy. "Everyone is going to come from something different,” she said. “We need to honor that as best as we can.”



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