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Petition to make satisfactory/unsatisfactory an option for classes receives more than 2,500 signatures

Editor's note: Undergraduate classes will be graded on a default satisfactory/unsatisfactory scale, Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, told The Chronicle March 18.

A petition to let students choose whether they want their classes recorded as satisfactory/unsatisfactory or on a letter grading system has surpassed 2,400 signatures within the past three days.

Junior Michael Castro said that for many Duke students, moving classes online poses challenges that may threaten their academic success this semester, so he created a petition on Change.org. 

In the petition description, Castro noted that many courses “do not properly translate to an online environment.” He also mentioned that while Duke professors are “unbelievable forces in their fields,” many do not have the proper experience to teach and oversee online courses.

“It is much more fair to students that graduate schools and employers see "P's" on students' transcripts than potentially risking students getting grades well below their GPA potentially negating all the hard work they have done (and will do in the future), destroying their employment and graduate prospects,” Castro wrote in the petition.

Duke has not yet announced a decision regarding class grading. Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, wrote in a Tuesday afternoon email to The Chronicle that he “hopes to have more to say” about the issue Wednesday.

Due to the spread of COVID-19, the University mandated that all classes will be shifted online for the rest of the semester.

Some of the petition’s signers shared their reasons in the comments for wanting to make satisfactory/unsatisfactory an option.

“It's the only decision that makes sense, but you cannot trust this administration after their decision on housing for international students,” sophomore Seth Allen wrote on Change.org.

Allen also mentioned that he believes satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading should be mandated, not just an option for this semester. 

“Having P/F as an option treats this semester's grades as legitimate when given the circumstances of the semester they are at best half legitimate,” Allen wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

He also discussed how curved classes will now be rendered unfair for many students. While curved grades compare a student’s performance to that of their peers, this is not a fair comparison now that “individual circumstances are going to vary dramatically across the Duke student and employee population during this time,” Allen wrote.

Allen noted that some students are in inconvenient time zones or high-risk COVID-19 regions, while others will have the opportunity to hire tutors for the semester while not fearing their own health being compromised.

Junior Marina Kennedy also commented on the petition website that it would be “simply unfair to expect that students perform at their usual abilities” during this time.

“If this is truly [an] emergency severe enough to force so many of us off campus, it must also be treated as severe enough to enact a policy that ensures the academic success of Duke students in such difficult times,” Kennedy wrote.

Other students agree that focusing on academics during the pandemic would be a difficult endeavor for many.

“I could foresee this raising additional challenges to students in demanding circumstances that don’t allow them to focus as much on academics, and I don’t think it would be fair to hold that against them,” first-year Sawyer O’Keefe wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

Castro told The Chronicle in an email that he was inspired by students at other peer institutions demanding the same thing.

On March 14, Georgetown University gave students the option to take their Spring 2020 courses pass/fail. Students created a similar petition to Castro’s just two days prior to the decision.

Castro also wrote that he struggled with some virtual classes in high school, an issue he believes will be “worse at the college level.”

He is “not pursuing a field where GPA really matters,” so after initially posting the petition and noticing some concern, he later clarified that he wanted satisfactory/unsatisfactory grades to be optional for students rather than mandated.

Many students are in favor of making satisfactory/unsatisfactory courses optional and disagree with a blanket policy, noting the importance of timing in the decision.

“I believe students should be given the option at the end of the year rather than forced to choose ASAP [because] it's too early to tell how students will adapt to the online curriculum and it will encourage some kids to try rather than slack off knowing they can pass with minimal effort (if a blanket pass fail policy is implemented),” sophomore David Xian wrote in an e-mail to The Chronicle.

Xian stated he would choose to keep his classes graded regularly because his grades have been better than in previous semesters.

O’Keefe also mentioned that while supporting the option of satisfactory/unsatisfactory, she would not use it for herself because she is “counting on the GPA boost that my easier classes this semester will hopefully offer.”

Other students find that they would not opt-in to the satisfactory/unsatisfactory system because there is no threat to their academic success.

“I am lucky in that most of my classes are lecture and reading based, without too many hands on components,” first-year Sophie Johnson wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “I also think I have far fewer distractions being back home and sadly, a lot less to do, so I’ll have more time for class.”

A different petition demands that every course be graded as satisfactory/unsatisfactory and students be given a “Universal Pass.” After the course’s completion, the petition demands, students should be allowed to change their grade to the letter grade they received for the course if they so choose.  

Despite varying circumstances, Castro wants to make the situation as easy as possible for all involved.

“I just want to find a system that benefits every student in such a unique, difficult situation,” Castro wrote to The Chronicle. “Every day there is something new, and I think something like this can help students relax a little bit.”

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