In Defense of Pass/Fail


“Same pandemic, same challenges.”

“This should be a no-brainer.”

“The burnout of the past two semesters is only building up.”

“The school needs to stop pretending that we don’t need support.”

These statements make up only a tiny sample of the numerous comments that my petition for the reinstatement of the College of William and Mary’s pass/fail policy has received since it was posted on a mere three weeks ago. In that time, 2,135 students have loudly voiced their support for this policy, which is hardly a revolutionary one — after all, the College has implemented some form of expanded pass/fail for the past two semesters. 

Many commenters expressed their surprise that a petition was even necessary. Why? Because nothing has changed. It is abundantly clear that students in spring 2021 face the exact same challenges posed by online learning that emerged in 2020. Many classes continue to meet virtually, campus facilities remain restricted and surges of COVID-19 cases among the student body serve as an additional stressor. This is, of course, not to mention my classmates who are immunocompromised or international and are therefore forced to take their classes from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Also worth mentioning are those who have had their lives uprooted by the pandemic, whether that be financially or medically. It is patently obvious that reinstating the pass/fail policy would relieve a great deal of stress on both these groups as well as the entire student body, just as it did in both spring and fall 2020. 

After reading the email sent to students on the morning of Mar. 29, 2021, it is apparent that the College administration is completely unaware of the problems facing its own students … or they just don’t care. To put it plainly, the decision to deny expanded pass/fail to undergraduates is not only a slap in the face to those of us who are struggling, it is flat-out nonsensical. Let’s take a look at the Provost’s rationale for saying no to pass/fail.

The first reason College Provost Peggy Agouris gives for refusing to expand pass/fail is that spring 2021 was intentionally left unshortened, unlike fall 2020, and the administration has ever so graciously given us “wellness days” as a substitute for a normal spring break. I’ll be straightforward — every student reading this knows that “wellness days” are a laughing stock. They are by no means any sort of substitute for a real spring break, and, what’s more, most students are forced to spend the entirety of these days hard at work due to the heavy course load that gets dropped right back on them the following day. 

The Provost then goes on to say that they made this decision in accordance with “many of our peer institutions across the state and country,” conveniently ignoring the fact that the University of Virginia, probably the institution most commonly associated with the College, has been committed to expanded pass/fail for many months now. In addition,George Mason University, another peer institution of ours, is offering expanded pass/fail, and so are many of the most highly acclaimed institutions in the entire country, including Georgetown University, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University.

This is followed by what is probably the least comprehensible reason for refusing students pass/fail: that it would somehow hinder students’ chance at graduate school admissions. This is ridiculous for two reasons. First, a mere 15% of the College’s graduates go on to attend graduate school in the first six months after leaving the College — it makes no sense to punish the vast majority of students solely because 15% might be somewhat inconvenienced. Second, the last I checked, pass/fail is entirely voluntary. With that in mind, here’s a suggestion for students who think that pass/fail might handicap them somewhere down the line: don’t use it! I trust that the students of the College are intelligent and forward-thinking enough to not need to be coddled into making what the powers that be believe is the right choice.

As a commenter on my petition noted, re-implementing the pass/fail policy of fall 2020 is a no-brainer. It helps the entire student body at absolutely no cost to the administration and alleviates a lot of the stress that we have been placed under due to the acute educational disadvantages that are sadly a necessary side effect of being a student in 2021.

Provost, I believe that I have thoroughly responded to the argument that you laid out in your email to the student body. If you can find any legitimate reason not to implement pass/fail, I encourage you to inform me of it.

John Dietz ’24 is an intended public policy major and music minor. He is a member of College Socialists and the Stairwells A Cappella group, writes for Vinyl Tap, and has a weekly show on WCWM. Email John at


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