Administrators, Faculty Governance Committees Decline to Endorse Universal Pass

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences David Kamitsuka and Dean of the Conservatory William Quillen announced to the Oberlin community Thursday afternoon that administrators and faculty-governance bodies had declined to endorse a Student Senate-led petition advocating for a Universal Pass grading system. The petition, drafted in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, had been co-signed via Google Docs by more than 1,300 current students.

“Student Senate sees it as being imperative that our grading system reflect the unprecedented situation presented by the current COVID-19 pandemic,” College third-year and Chair of Student Senate Henry Hicks wrote in an email to the Review. “Given the inaccessible reality of online learning, the disruption experienced by students returning to unsafe home environments, and those assuming additional responsibilities in order to financially support their families, our grading system must reflect our college’s commitment to promoting equity, even in the midst of our darkest periods.”

Kamitsuka and Quillen’s message was accompanied by a direct response to the petition co-written by the members of the College’s Educational Plans and Policies Committee and the Conservatory’s Educational Policy Committee. Each body is a faculty-governance committee charged with curricular oversight in their respective academic divisions.

“A universal pass would place faculty in a position of giving passing grades to students who have not met basic course requirements for passing,” the statement read in part. “A passing grade on a transcript would thus be a violation of academic integrity, as well as a failure to measure whether learning outcomes have been met.”

EPPC and EPC also expressed concerns about students whose majors require a vertical curriculum, especially STEM majors. They maintained that, “If students receive a passing grade without having learned the material, they will not be able to retake the course.”

The statement outlined the adjustments to grading policies that have already been enacted for the remainder of the semester in response to the outbreak. 

On March 17, Associate Dean for Academic Advising and Registrar Liz Clerkin announced in an email to all students that the deadline to declare a Pass/No Pass grading option or withdraw from a course, previously April 6, had been extended to the end of the semester. Additionally, students no longer need the consent of their advisor to take either action.

Senators did not feel that this action adequately addressed the challenges of remote learning.

“It is Senate’s belief that the current grading system, maintaining the status quo while extending the deadline to declare Pass/No Pass to the last day of classes, leaves room for numerous inequities and does not properly account for the disruptions facing many students transitioning to remote learning,” the petition read.

Students were also quick to voice their disapproval of the statement on social media.

“Oberlin College cannot guarantee that every single student is being given equal access and opportunity to succeed in virtual classes,” College fourth-year Brian Smith tweeted. “The college cannot keep hiding behind the phrase ‘unprecedented times.’ You just set the precedent.”

Many other students and recent alumni tweeted their disapproval with the decision, primarily citing concerns over accessibility and student wellness.

Other colleges and universities across the country have also altered their grading policies in light of COVID-19. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Smith College have both moved to mandatory pass/fail grading; Harvard University and Middlebury College are two prominent institutions that, like Oberlin, have extended the deadline to declare a pass/fail option, while allowing students to receive a letter grade if they desire.

At Yale University, undergraduate students called for a universal pass system like the one that Oberlin’s Student Senate has supported. As of publication, Yale has not approved a shift to universal pass but has extended its Credit/D/Fail option until the end of the semester, meaning that grades of C- or higher are recorded as full-credit (similar to a “pass” at Oberlin), and grades of D+ or lower are entered as normal. Yale has also removed standard limits on the number of courses students can apply this option toward. 

Students at Yale and Oberlin are among many student bodies around the country continuing to advocate for updated grading policies in the name of equity and accessibility.

The joint EPPC–EPC statement maintained that committee members “fully share Senate’s concerns about how this semester will impact student learning.” According to Hicks, Senate is planning to continue advocating for grading policy changes through the end of the semester.

“While I’m certainly disappointed by EPPC’s decision, I am looking forward to working with committee members on the issue further,” Hicks wrote in a message to the Review. “Student Senate still stands for Universal Pass, and will continue to fight for an equitable grading system. It’s during this time especially that Oberlin must live up to its reputation as a progressive beacon within higher education, and support those among our community who are most vulnerable.”

According to Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Laura Baudot, who chairs EPPC, the committee met with members of Senate yesterday to discuss next steps. Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the Conservatory Peter Swendsen, OC ’99, attended to represent EPC. The faculty governance bodies are planning to work with Senators to create suggestions for adjusted pedagogies that better fit remote learning.