Duke may be keeping its default satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading policy for now, but that does not mean undergraduate student debate about it has stopped.
Student discussion intensified, following the decision of several of Duke’s peer institutions—including Harvard University, Dartmouth College and Columbia University—to implement mandatory systems of pass/fail or satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading for undergraduate courses. Duke sent an email to all undergraduate students March 18 announcing that it will transition all Spring 2020 undergraduate to default S/U grading, but will still allow students to opt in to receive a letter grade.
Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, wrote in a March 30 email to The Chronicle that Duke recognizes the “wide range of grading policies” adopted by other universities. He wrote that the decision for a default S/U policy with an option to receive a letter grade was made after robust discussions and that the University is not currently planning to change the policy.
“No grading policy is perfect or will satisfy the interests of every student, and we have heard from those who support the universal plan as well as those who are relieved by the prospect of having a letter grade option,” he wrote. “Our hope is that students will use the next several weeks to connect with advisors and mentors to discuss their options.”
The original email announcing Duke’s current policy cited widespread anxiety, social and geographic disruption and lingering uncertainty caused by COVID-19 as reasons for their “bold action.” The goal of the decision is to maximize students’ curricular engagement, while easing the necessary transitions into online classes, administrators wrote.
Although some are happy with the policy as it currently stands, others think that Duke should be doing more. Students have released petitions advocating for alternative, “universal pass” policies, which no colleges have implemented yet, and Duke Student Government released a survey Monday through social media platforms, like Facebook and GroupMe, to all undergraduates in an attempt to gauge which type of student-proposed grading policy is most preferred across the student body.
An imperfect system
Junior Michael Castro started the first petition to create a pass/fail option for classes. It has gotten more than 3,000 signatures online as of April 1.
Castro wrote in a message to The Chronicle that he started the petition after seeing peer institutions enacting similar policies. In it, he called for an optional S/U system and for all classes to count towards curricular requirements—conditions which were satisfied in Duke’s March 18 undergraduate grading policy.
Castro noted in the message that he specifically called for the policy to be optional because that “was the worry of those who did not like the petition.”
Senior Tommaso Babucci said that Duke’s current default S/U system is definitely needed, given that many students’ learning will be affected differently by the coronavirus. As a senior applying to graduate school, Babucci said it is in his best interest to choose letter grades, but he is grateful that the University is still letting students have a S/U option.
However, he noted that he would have liked the University to provide more guidance on how they recommend people applying to graduate and professional schools to act. He said that as of now, he has been reaching out to professors and advisors on what to do, but he would have preferred more University guidance “on how to read the situation.”
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Indeed, many pre-professional students have been confused and seeking advice on how to proceed. Brittany Morhac, assistant director of health professions advising, wrote in an email that Duke’s Office of Health Profession Advising was contacted “a fair amount” by students seeking guidance about the policy.
She wrote that medical schools and other health professions graduate programs have not fully come up with a united answer about whether they’ll accept S/U for this semester, so the office has been monitoring and advising students to do the best that they can in case they need a grade, but not to make any decisions until April 22.
Babucci added that even though he thinks the S/U option will generally help reduce student stress about grades, in his experience, some professors “are not taking this seriously” and have been unresponsive or non-communicative in student emails. He said that this inconsistency makes deciding whether to choose between graded or S/U “even more confusing” for him.
Instructor of Theater Studies Hye Won Kim, who teaches the courses “Globalization and Theater” and “Intro to Performance Studies” wrote in an email that she supports the University’s decision to transition to an optional S/U grading system.
“The extreme circumstance that students and faculty are experiencing should be taken into consideration; we should acknowledge that it will be hard to put all of the coursework into perspective,” she wrote. “Some students still offer the option of letter grades because they have put in so much effort and time to the course, and some need to raise their grade-point averages to qualify for graduate school.”
She assured that no student will be failing her courses, and she has asked them to do the readings and assignments “for their own good” and to have fun class discussions and intellectual interactions, as she tries to create a hopeful and supportive online classroom space.
To choose or not to choose?
Some students, however, believe Duke should implement a universal S/U policy with no option to switch to graded. Sophomore Olivia Reneau wrote in a message to The Chronicle that she prefers universal S/U because with the current policy, and students now have to “act strategically, which defeats the point.”
Sophomore Rachel Ji echoed Reneau’s proposal for a universal S/U policy. She wrote in a message that although there is not one perfect system, it is clear that some people benefit over others with the current opt-in graded system.
She noted that any optional policy will stratify students based on resources. A student who goes home to a healthy family, free Wi-Fi and comfortable home environment has the opportunity to accomplish their goals and raise their GPA in a way in which students without those privileges do not have. For example, she wrote that as an international student now in New Zealand, all her classes are between 3 a.m. and 8 a.m. (NZST).
First-year Lauren Howard wrote in an email that although she understands the logic behind support for the universal S/U policy, she thinks a better solution would be to maintain the current opt-in grading policy and provide accommodations to students experiencing difficult or extenuating circumstances.
“From my experience, professors are working extremely hard to be very understanding, and would likely take serious extenuating circumstances (ex. abusive home, no access to internet) into account when grading,” she wrote. “Similarly, I think that employers understand the extent of this global crisis and will not penalize applicants for choosing to utilize pass/fail, if it is needed.”
She added that although she recognized the efforts and good intentions of students advocating for a universal S/U policy, they cannot speak for every student. There are many students, she wrote, who would prefer or need letter grades this semester for various reasons.
So while she is glad Duke is giving those who prefer or need it the option to choose the S/U option, the choice should ultimately remain in students’ hands.
“I know students in the low-income student association that worked extremely hard this semester and are counting on it as a GPA boost to apply for grad school scholarships,” she wrote. “There are also many pre-med students (including myself), who are counting on this semester to boost their science (or regular) GPA and show improvement in a certain subject. Having our hard work reduced to a ‘P’ devalues the effort put into those classes.”
Babucci added that personally, he would prefer to maintain the option to switch to graded because he is close to qualifying for a Latin Honor and not receiving letter grades this semester to count towards his GPA would not allow him to qualify.
In addition to Harvard, Dartmouth and Columbia, other undergraduate colleges such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University have implemented universal credit/no credit policies.
Students speaking up for a universal pass policy
A petition advocating for a universal pass policy was put together by a group of students March 17. The group came together while working on other issues such as pressuring Duke to remove Palantir from on-campus recruiting events, wrote sophomore Chris Sheerer, a member of this group, in an email. He noted that although the group was pleased that Duke made some changes to its grading structure, they “were not at all satisfied with just an option to pass/fail.”
In the petition, the students request a universal S/U grading basis with an automatic “satisfactory” grade given to all students for all classes to count for all graduation and departmental requirements. Consistent with the current policy, they also called for the ability to change their courses to graded, in order to ensure that both students in unstable situations and students who need to maintain or raise their GPA for scholarships, graduate schools or employment would not be penalized.
The petition added that the current, default S/U system is “discriminatory and dangerous” because it requires all students to complete remaining coursework at a satisfactory level. If Duke were truly dedicated to its core values of inclusion and safety, the petition stated, the University ought to implement a Universal Pass system.
“For neurodivergent students, those thrust into caretaking positions, or those who do not have access to the internet, safe housing, food, and/or a stable income, this will cause an undue burden, disproportionately affecting Duke’s most vulnerable,” the petition reads.
The petition has received around 430 signatures as of March 31.
An anonymous petition also surfaced on March 29, similarly advocating for a universal pass (UP) system for all Duke courses, including major/minor distribution, pre-medical and Honors requirements, but without the option for students to switch to graded classes.
The petition called this the “only equitable grading policy” that ensures that no student is penalized for factors outside of their control and has gained more than 800 signatures as of April 1.
“We ALL deserve the right to continue our academic pursuits and passions this semester without worry of the potential slipping or falling of our grades,” the petition read. “A UP system not only benefits students of differing socioeconomic status but the student body as a whole. We believe UP is the most equitable response as it allows students to prioritize their health and safety above all.”
It referenced Harvard Medical School, which recently announced that the school would accept pass/fail grading for Spring 2020 coursework “provided it is the policy of the college/university to only award pass/fail grades.” If other medical schools follow suit, the petition noted that Duke’s opt-in grade system would “directly and permanently” disadvantage students due to their socioeconomic status.
On the other hand, Howard wrote that a “universal pass” system seems counterproductive and would “disincentivize learning.” As a result, she wrote, the students who continued to put in a high level of effort would not be rewarded, minimizing the difference between these students and those who may use universal pass as an excuse to neglect their work.
Junior Sam Chan wrote in a message that while he doesn’t know the circumstances of many Duke students, he personally believes the proposed universal pass system in the anonymous petition would cause “more harm than good.”
He agreed with Howard that universal pass fail would be a disincentive for students to learn—or even try—in their classes, since everyone is guaranteed the same satisfactory grade. He wrote that the policy would also negate months of students’ hard work and effort already invested into their classes and would hurt students on scholarships or other programs who may need to report grades.
He added that he would support other equitable grading policies that would not pose these same problems, such as a universal S/U policy or the universal pass system with the option to choose grades—as proposed by the group with Sheerer. Universal S/U for example, would at least encourage students to try and help out those applying to medical or graduate schools, he wrote.
“In my own academic studies this semester, I had been doing actually ok prior to the pandemic outbreak, and would slightly prefer a graded score above a S/U,” Chan wrote. “However, I would rather find an equitable solution that can work the best for the greatest amount of Duke students, while ensuring those with extenuating circumstances are not unfairly harmed.”
DSG steps in
Amid student petitions and diverging student opinions, first-year Andrew Weatherman, a senator on academic affairs, wrote in an email that representatives from multiple DSG committees launched a survey Monday night to collect student feedback on three types of student-proposed emergency grading policies—Duke’s current default S/U and opt-in for a grade policy, a universal S/U policy and a universal satisfactory policy.
The petition additionally asked students to highlight any environmental or personal stressors that may affect their spring semester academic performance.
Weatherman wrote that the survey was “proactively conducted” by DSG, especially after the administration revealed that it was not planning to change its current grading policy.
“With rapidly changing policies at several peer institutions, DSG wants to ensure that Duke academic administration has immediate access to a centralized source of student feedback, so that student voice is heard and well represented, whether they decide to revisit the grading policy or not,” he wrote.
Although the option proposed by Sheerer and his group—universal S/U with the option to opt for grades—was not included as one of the three choices, Weatherman wrote that the DSG committee would review the alternate policies proposed in the “other” section after the survey closes. If it is apparent a certain policy is favored by a large number of students, DSG would send out an additional survey to source student feedback, he wrote.
He added that DSG would share the results of the survey—which has received more than 1,600 responses as of Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.—to the administration when the influx of responses slows.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that Harvard, Dartmouth and Columbia had universal pass systems, when they in fact have universal pass/fail systems. The Chronicle regrets the error.
Mona Tong is a Trinity senior and director of diversity, equity and inclusion analytics for The Chronicle's 117th volume. She was previously news editor for Volume 116.