College announces interim grading policies, students petition for ‘Universal Pass’

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GRAPHIC BY ETHAN BROWN / THE FLAT HAT

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak’s impacts on student welfare, the College of William and Mary announced Friday, March 20 that undergraduate students will now be able to opt into pass/fail grading for all spring semester courses. This policy change mirrored moves made by higher education institutions across the United States, including the University of Virginia, and was made public shortly after student-run petitions were created within the past week to address perceived flaws in the College’s original grading policy.

Since the College suspended in-person classes last week, the administration has pursued several academic policy shifts designed to improve accessibility and lighten burdens placed on students and faculty. Monday, March 16, Undergraduate Dean Janice Zeman announced the College’s initial decision regarding pass/fail optionality, which permitted undergraduate students to take one additional pass/fail course beyond the quota traditionally allowed by the College’s Registrar. This original policy restricted academic freshmen and sophomores to one pass/fail course and allowed academic juniors and seniors to take two pass/fail classes. In her email, Zeman reiterated that pass/fail classes could not be used to fulfill major requirements or COLL proficiencies.

However, College Provost Peggy Agouris changed this initial decision March 20 and announced that students would be able to receive credit for all classes on a pass/fail basis, regardless of academic class. Agoruis said that students who choose to opt to take a pass/fail course will still be eligible to receive major, minor and COLL credits.

Agouris noted that the policy adjustment originated from the College’s commitment towards helping students complete graduation requirements despite challenging circumstances.

“In recent communications, we have emphasized that despite the disruption caused by Covid-19, William & Mary is committed to ensuring that students complete their course work this semester and continue their progress toward graduation,” Agouris said in an email.

“In recent communications, we have emphasized that despite the disruption caused by Covid-19, William & Mary is committed to ensuring that students complete their course work this semester and continue their progress toward graduation.”

Students can select pass/fail grading for their courses until May 29. Agouris said that the College’s Dean’s List criteria will not change alongside the interim pass/fail policy and will continue to require students’ enrollment in 12 credits.

The College’s implementation of the new pass/fail policy follows the creation of several online petitions that opposed the administration’s initial decision to allow undergraduates to opt into only one additional pass/fail course. Phillip Sheldon ’20 drafted a petition through Change.org Wednesday, March 18, that advocated for allowing students to opt into pass/fail grading for all courses, not just one or two depending on their academic year as was originally proposed in Zeman’s announcement.

Sheldon’s petition, which obtained approximately 1,650 signatures online, also sought to remove the College’s prohibition of pass/fail courses counting for major and minor credit. This specific proposal aligned with Agouris’s comments on pass/fail courses now counting for major and minor credit in her updated announcement.

“Students have a choice to choose the standard letter-grade system or pass/fail,” Sheldon said in an email. “Moreover, the pass/fail deadline being extended to May 29th is advantageous to both professors, who are still uploading grades and adapting to new lesson plans, and students who can now make informed decisions about the trajectory of their semester based on evolving information.”

Some students wished to see the College go further in their support for students during the COVID-19 outbreak. Alongside other student organizers, Patrick Canteros ’20 created a petition calling for the College to implement a “Universal Pass” policy, which would automatically mark all current courses as a “pass” on students’ transcripts. Canteros said that the Universal Pass proposal seeks to minimize the academic consequences faced by students negatively impacted by COVID-19.

Canteros noted that the current policy of allowing students to opt in or out of pass/fail grading and receive standard letter grades during this crisis would be a university-sanctioned expression of privilege, since students with certain resources would be disproportionately capable of committing to a more demanding academic workload in the coming weeks.

“… I personally would ask students asking for the opportunity to boost their grades to reflect on the circumstances and privileges that allow them to do so,” Canteros said in an email. “Do you live in the same time zone as William & Mary? Do you have stable housing, access to food, or high-speed internet? Is your family healthy and financially stable to practice social distancing? Now imagine all of these privileges were taken away. Imagine yourself as the primary caretaker of disabled or immunocompromised parents. Imagine you are homeless. How unfair would it be that others can get ahead simply by having the socioeconomic ability to do so.”

“… I personally would ask students asking for the opportunity to boost their grades to reflect on the circumstances and privileges that allow them to do so. Do you live in the same time zone as William & Mary? Do you have stable housing, access to food, or high-speed internet? Is your family healthy and financially stable to practice social distancing? Now imagine all of these privileges were taken away.

In calling for the College to reevaluate its new pass/fail policy, Canteros said that some graduate schools may only accept credit for pass/fail classes taken at universities that implemented a Universal Pass system and not through an optional pass system. Since the College’s proposed system allows for students to choose whether to take their classes on a pass/fail basis, he vocalized concerns about students having to balance academic demands with difficult family and financial situations during the pandemic.

“Harvard Medical School earlier today recently announced that they would only be accepting P/F classes if that is applied universally by the school, not optionally …,” Canteros said. “As a directive from a premier graduate degree-granting institution, this policy will likely be adopted by other peer medical institutions and other professional degree-granting institutions. What this means is that for undergraduate students on a pre-professional track debilitated by our national health crisis (especially those without access to housing, internet, food, etc.) are immensely disadvantaged by our school’s recent announcement of an optional grading policy. Action must be taken now for an equitable grading policy and that is Universal Pass.”

While Universal Pass is a core component, the petition also strives to secure housing and dining refunds for students, calls for the suspension of parking enforcement and demands hazard pay compensation for the College’s employed and contracted workers. Canteros also noted one of the most time-sensitive aspects of his petition, which is the need to support students in advance of the College’s directive to close residence halls by March 25. Given the College’s recent flexibility in altering pass/fail policies, he argued that the College should be flexible with their directive and extend the deadline to April 3, giving students an additional chance at securing off campus housing.

“International and housing unstable students are at a tailspin right now figuring out what to do regarding housing after the school’s directive to close residence halls by March 25th,” Canteros said.

In Rowe’s most recent message to the campus community, she reiterated the importance of resilience as students and faculty continue to tackle academic and housing issues in the coming weeks.

“William & Mary has faced profound adversities before and flourished,” Rowe said in an email. “Since our founding in 1693, our history has been one of creativity and resilience in the face of daunting challenges … Your goodwill, care and spirit of partnership are this university’s strength.”