In the past weeks, college students across the globe have tuned in to online classes from wildly unequal family situations. A natural — albeit uncomfortable — question arises: what happens to grades, the pinnacle of our society’s meritocracy?
Does it make sense to give grades, which measure students’ learning and effort each semester, during this unprecedented crisis? Should students who lack access to running water be asked to compete with peers who come from more privileged backgrounds? Can universities maintain academic integrity when exam period arrives? I believe the answer to all of these questions is a resounding no.
As this pandemic unfolds, the importance of strong leadership has become increasingly clear. Look no further than to my state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, whose swift and thoughtful leadership has propelled him into the spotlight. Many university administrators, recognizing their role in this crisis, have acted similarly.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology transitioned to alternative grades on March 13. Wellesley College was next. Then, the floodgates opened: Columbia, Barnard, Dartmouth, Williams, Stanford, Harvard and Johns Hopkins all followed with universal grading policies. Decisive leadership, particularly in the face of the unfamiliar and the frightening, strengthens communities. Sadly, Dean Chun has led Yale College down a different path. In an earnest effort to capture feedback from all relevant parties, Yale College administrators have embarked on a dizzying, lengthy and unfinished feedback collection process.
Since mid-March, Yale students, led by the #NoFailYale coalition, have campaigned tirelessly in support of a Universal Pass system, wherein all students would be given P’s on their transcript, in recognition of this semester’s unusual circumstances.
The administration has praised this student advocacy. Still, despite extensive input from students and faculty alike, through a swirl of circulating surveys, reports and petitions, Yale College has punted the decision time and time again.
On Friday, instead of providing the community with the closure it has anxiously awaited, Dean Chun notified students that the final decision would be further postponed until tomorrow. In the meantime, a second faculty survey would be sent out and an “information session” would be held — according to the last email. In a moment of striking irony, in the same message that announced this delay, he assured students that he understood the “urgency to close debate and announce a final decision.”
The Yale community has more pressing matters to attend to than debating grading systems: some faculty have pandemic-related research to contribute to, administrators have New Haven first-responder housing logistics to coordinate and our EMT-certified community members have important work to begin. Students have siblings to care for, faculty members have children to take care of and, frankly, we all have our own mental and physical health to consider.
Our vibrant community has the potential to contribute meaningfully during this universal time of need, and the Yale College administration’s inability to finalize this semester’s grading system has distracted from those efforts. I fear that Yale has stumbled into a dual-fallacy: the belief that more information will always elucidate a perfect answer and that the time spent in search of it is always worthwhile.
The truth is, all grading policies are inherently flawed. Dragging out this process in pursuit of a solution that will satisfy everyone is a practice in imagination. In a pandemic, a day feels like a month. Forcing students to wait in the liminal space of the unknown hurts everyone, regardless of where they stand on the issue.
Yale administrators, I could tell you why I support Universal Pass, but you already know this because I — like so many others — have inundated your inboxes since as early as March 11. As an immunocompromised student living in one of the epicenters of this pandemic, additional stress is not something that I, or anyone else, can afford right now. As a human, I believe that universal standards — for healthcare, housing and grading alike — offer the most equitable path. As a Yalie, I know that excellence is determined not by how many A’s one has on a transcript, but by how much one cares for those around her.
I know that tomorrow you plan to announce your final determination. But I ask that in the future, you articulate that same care for us, your student body, by making policy decisions that respond to students’ needs — and their voices — promptly and efficiently.
Today, we are celebrating sound, decisive leadership across the world. In light of this, Yale College’s inaction is a striking failure.
NICKY BRUSSEL FARIA is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .