Marisa Peryer

Citing concerns over equity as Yale moves to online classes for the rest of spring semester, a coalition of undergraduates has urged the University to give grades on a “universal pass” basis — without any possibility of failure for every course this semester.

Days after University President Peter Salovey’s community-wide email announcing the move to online classes, Yale community members have raised questions over the University’s ability to ensure equity among students who are now expected to attend virtual lectures and seminars from their own homes. According to Eileen Huang ’22, requiring undergraduates — many burdened by sickness, hectic home lives or living thousands of miles away from the University — to devote the same level of attention and focus to their classes as they would in the Elm City seems unfair.

The coalition is advocating for a system where students would receive credit for every class — including distributional requirements — and receive a “P” instead of a letter grade on their transcripts. 

“Universal pass is just a very fair grading system,” Huang said. “People come from different circumstances.”

Arguments in favor of universal pass center on the idea that campus is an equalizer. Living away from campus inherently gives some students — those with consistent access to the internet and a stable home life — an advantage, advocates argue. A universal pass system would help level that playing field, at least in terms of grading, proponents say.

Those against the plan, however, argue that those hardships might be better solved through further leniencies in Credit/D/Fail policies or an “opt-in” model, in which students could choose whether to forgo letter grades.

Supporters justify this change by citing problems that can arise at home that arise less often on campus: internet access may not be a given, family care or job obligations can take priority over schoolwork, and in some countries, the video conferencing software Yale expects students to use have been made inaccessible due to national laws.

To spread the word, students began a mass-email campaign Monday night, sending a template message urging a “universal pass” system to hundreds of professors, teaching assistants and directors of undergraduate studies.

But in a Tuesday morning email to the News, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean of Undergraduate Education Pamela Schirmeister pointed to the list of guidelines posted by the Yale College Dean’s Office. She also highlighted the steps the University has already taken to alleviate students’ fears about online classes — namely the extension of the Credit/D/Fail deadline to the final day of classes.

“No decisions have been made about this yet,” she wrote.

Yale College Dean Marvin Chun told the News that he is “in active conversation with the faculty, other deans and administrative officers, and the YCC,” but did not comment further.

In an email statement with the News, Yale College Council President Kahlil Greene ’21 spoke highly of the universal pass movement, which he said shows “student passion for influencing administrator decisions in response to the COVID-19 crisis because, up until now, so many of these choices have been entirely top-down.”

“[The YCC] will continue to do research, but in the end, we will prioritize equity and student well-being in our recommendation. UP/UPF [Universal Pass/fail] are great options because they incorporate both,” he wrote.

This push comes as peer institutions have reworked their academic systems in response to the novel coronavirus. In an emergency change to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s academic regulations on Sunday, the Institute made its version of Credit/D/Fail mandatory for nearly all classes. Some Harvard departments have enabled students to choose a pass-fail basis for two of their classes this semester and still have them count towards their concentrations. And at Northwestern University, provost Jonathan Holloway announced that all finals would be optional — despite faculty pushback.

“We ask that Yale follow suit,” the template message states.

So far, according to a spreadsheet viewed by the News, many of the hundreds of Yale affiliates contacted have not yet responded.

But their message has resonated with many: According to the spreadsheet, dozens of professors have agreed to pass their message along to their colleagues.

“I’m in full support of a universal pass system,” English professor Alanna Hickey wrote in an email to the News. “I’m open to more discussion about this, but at this point I’m convinced it’s the only way to guarantee that instructors don’t inadvertently disadvantage members of our student body who unexpectedly find themselves continuing their coursework away from campus.”

FAS Senate Chair John Geanakoplos said the Senate has discussed the topic but declined to disclose the body’s recommendation. Yet, several senators have publicly and privately voiced their support. He later clarified to the News that while the Senate has advocated for changes to the grading system to help students, he “cannot confirm that [they] have advocated for universal pass as the [message] defines it.”

Proponents said that this universal pass system would still push students to pursue their academic interests, even though there would be no way for a student to fail. Still, some students and faculty members are not convinced. 

Computer science professor David Gelernter ’76 argued that facing the possibility of failure is a part of life.

“If you don’t take risks you aren’t living, you’re just rehearsing,” he wrote in an email.

Some students suggested an “opt-in” model, through which Yalies can decide for themselves if they would be better served with letter grades or a simple “pass.”

Dustin Nguyen ’20 wrote in a Tuesday post that taking such steps for all Yalies would hurt — not help — disadvantaged students. Many, he wrote, rely on scholarships and grants that depend on letter grades. Instead, Nguyen said an “opt-in” model would be more equitable, by giving students a choice.

“For us seniors, it’s our last semester,” he wrote. “Don’t take it away by forcing ALL of us out of a quality education.”

Nguyen later wrote to the News that he has received more support than he had expected from students and professors alike. 

Departments across the University have begun to debate the merits and disadvantages of a universal pass system, several directors of undergraduate studies interviewed by the News said. Political Science Chair Gregory Huber wrote in an email to the News that members of his department are concerned about “equity and hardship,” but also want to deliberate the issue fully before “an irreversible decision is made.”

Huber recommended several other alternatives to the proposed change, like grading based on the first eight weeks of the semester and a wholesale move to Credit/D/Fail.

Each choice has its downsides,” he wrote, “and I am confident that a thoughtful deliberation among the faculty and leadership of the University will produce the least bad outcome.”

Students at several other universities have called for an altered grading system in recent weeks. American University students circulated a petition Monday for a mandatory credit/fail option, which has since reached over 500 signatures.

For YCC Academics Director Sarah Pitafi ’22, an organizer for the universal pass movement, acknowledging the differences in students’ home situations is critical.

“Student movements in support of grade alternatives are powerful ways to ensure that this crisis is handled in a way that is just and ensures that students can prioritize their health and safety as opposed to having to work even harder to overcome incredibly challenging circumstances in order to succeed academically,” she told the News. “We are in unprecedented times, and cannot continue with ‘business as usual’ — now is the time to support one another.”

Yale will move to online classes for the rest of the spring semester, University President Peter Salovey announced last week.


Alayna Lee contributed reporting.