'No Fail Yale': Ivy League lowers academic expectations amid coronavirus

Harvard students have proposed a grading model that would give all students either an A or an A- for each class.

Students at Yale are taking demands further than before: they call for a universal pass grading basis with no opportunity for failure.

Various supporters of the move cite the “stress” that COVID-19 has placed on students as a motivator for pushing this campaign.

As the coronavirus pandemic’s effects run rampant through nearly every college campus in the United States, university students across the country are demanding new grading systems, and their demands keep growing. 

Ivy League schools are leading the pack as many top universities move to more lax grading systems for the spring 2020 semester. 

Students at Yale University are calling on the administration to move towards a universal pass grading basis for the spring 2020 semester. They argue that an “equal opportunity in education” means grading be taken on a universal pass basis. This means no opportunity for failure. 

The Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun told the campaign that he and his administration have yet to make a decision on the matter as they received an “uncountable amount of emails” in support of the measure. No further announcements have been published.  

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After the announcement of classes being moved online for the remainder of the semester, students at Yale began a campaign now referred to as the No Fail Yale Campaign. The call to action began with a “mass-email campaign” according to a Yale Daily News report. 

The petition evolved into the launch of a Facebook page that has documented the progress of the No Fail Yale campaign. The page launched March 16 and has since mustered up more than 1,400 “likes.” In addition, the official petition form has more than 1,700 signatories, according to the official Facebook page. 

The campaign addresses the importance of implementing universal passing grades over a pass/fail option by citing the requirements needed to be admitted into graduate programs. For example, Harvard Medical School only accepts passing designations on transcripts if they were universal. 

The campaign says, “By creating a system different from Credit/D/Fail we are ensuring that the work done this semester will be counted for majors and for grad schools.” 

The No Fail Yale campaign has documented its support rather well. According to its own documentation, it has acquired more than 40 public statements of support from affinity groups, cultural organizations, and other student organizations. Among these supporters are the likes of the Yale Young Democratic Socialists of America (YYDSA). That group posted its public statement of support on its own Facebook page

“Yale Young Democratic Socialists of America stands wholeheartedly in solidarity with Students for Universal Pass and #NoFailYale,” The YYDSA public statement said. “It is times like the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic that expose the systemic failure of American society. This should show us, now more than ever, that we should not have to wait for a crisis to win a better world.”

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Those opposed to the measure say that equity can still be achieved if students could opt into a pass/fail grading designation while still having the opportunity to earn standard letter grades, Yale Daily News reported

Campus Reform reached out to Jay Mehta, a first-year student at Yale, who said that his A Capella group, Redhot & Blue of Yale, has publicly supported the No-Fail Yale Campaign. The group explained why it says an “opt-in/opt-out” system would be detrimental. 

Redhot & Blue of Yale says, “Opt-in/Opt-out policies would place disproportionate amounts of stress on those of us who have to balance managing financial anxieties, caring for and connecting with their families, managing housing circumstances and environmental stability, and excelling with a full course load.” 

[Related: Northwestern makes finals optional due to ‘incredible stress’ from coronavirus]

Still others believe that implementing a universal pass basis, especially at an Ivy League institution, would send the wrong message to students across the country. 

“Ivy league students in general are among the first to complain about privileged people granting themselves yet more privileges.  When students at Yale demand pass/fail options in courses in which they would normally receive grades, they are doing exactly that,” Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars told Campus Reform, “It would be encouraging for the country if we saw Ivy League students accepting the challenge to do their best under trying circumstances, rather than seeking to duck the difficulties.”

Yale isn’t the only Ivy League institution making these types of changes. In a campus-wide email sent Friday, Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger announced that Columbia administration has “decided that all classes this semester will be graded pass/fail.

”This, of course, does not reflect a reduction in expectations, but rather an acknowledgment of the severe complications of this unusual moment,” Bollinger insisted.

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Harvard Law school has also made the switch to a mandatory credit/fail system for the current term after students demanded it do so. The announcement explains that the decision to require all students to participate is out of concern that the decision to opt-in might present stress in itself.

“At this moment, when you have so much to cope with and deal with, we thought it important for you to be devoting your mental and emotional energy to something other than worrying about whether to opt into CR/F for the semester,” read the announcement. 

Members of the Harvard University Undergraduate Council have proposed a slightly different “Double A” grading system. If implemented, all students would receive either an A or A- in each course, at the discretion of their professors. 

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“While we believe that universal pass-fail is reasonable, we strongly believe that the double A model is the most beneficial solution given the extenuating circumstances,” Council President James Mathew and Vice President Ifeoma White-Thorpe wrote in an email. 

In a Washington Post  op-ed titled “Forget distance learning. Just give every college student an automatic A,” Columbia University English professor Jenny Davidson urged colleges to “strip down work expectations to the bare minimum,” and to “introduce mandatory pass-fail at the very least.”

Davidson argued that an opt-in pass/fail option would “put undue pressure on our most driven students, many of whom already suffer from chronic anxiety and depression.” She also urged educators to simply give all students A letter grades “as a default,” something she said she had already done. 

”The reading and thinking they have done already has been significant, and as a tenured professor, I am in a position to make that decision on my own without fear of consequences for violating administration policy,” Davidson wrote. 

And on Monday, another Ivy League institution, Dartmouth College, announced it too would move to a mandatory pass/fail grading system, The Dartmouth reported

These moves come just days after the Daily Princetonian editorial board advocated for that Ivy League institution to implement a pass/fail grading system for the spring 2020 semester, as Campus Reform  previously reported. Cornell University also implemented a more relaxed grading system, expanding the equivalent of a pass/fail grading system to more classes and to more students. 

On Friday, the Ivy League Institution University of Pennsylvania announced that students could choose to be graded on a pass/fail basis for any or all of their courses, “including courses satisfying your major or general education requirements.” 

”You may take as many of your Spring 2020 courses pass/fail as you choose, and you will have until the end of the day on April 13 to decide whether to take any course on a pass/fail basis,” UPenn said in a message to students.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @cam_deckr