Despite the fact that we are living through an unprecedented crisis, NYU seems to think that students can — and should — continue to adhere to normal expectations. Around the world, the communities to which students have returned after being evicted from dorms are being upended by sickness and death, economic strife and rapidly declining standards of living. Many students have returned to pre-existing disadvantages such as inadequate internet access, unsafe home environments and resource instability, making the transition to online classes near impossible. Nevertheless, students are expected to submit assignments in an orderly and timely fashion, circumstances beyond the classroom be damned.
A number of student organizations, including the COVID-19 Coalition and the First Generation/Low Income Partnership (FLIP) student union, have already voiced their concerns about continuing to grade students amid a global pandemic. A change.org petition for Universal Pass circulating the NYU community has reached 1,850 signatures and counting. As written by the FLIP student union, “NYU must recognize [that] a large group of their student body simply does not have the same ability to focus on their academics as … other students do.”
NYU’s administration must weigh these extraordinary circumstances against the expectation of normalcy. It is absurd to demand anything now of students and staff beyond their survival. This is especially important considering remote instruction has proven to be subpar for many. Tisch students, for example, have said that Zoom isn’t conducive to music courses, and that performance work is difficult to do online. Now is not the time for grammar drills and quizzes, but rather for taking stock of the human condition and providing any aid we can to our friends, families and neighbors. Worst-case scenarios are colliding with material reality, and it would be a mistake to sit quietly in our lifeboats and watch the ship go down. If the university has taught us well, then this is the time to step back and allow us the university education to orient ourselves in this rapidly changing world, and to leave grades out of the picture.
The opt-in pass/fail measure used by some schools, and implemented in the interest of allowing students to choose whether or not their grades are weighted, does not go far enough to protect those in need. Where there is a choice to remain on the standard grading scale, there remains a stigma against those whose situations do not allow them that luxury. Universal Pass, which I believe should include a note on each student’s transcript detailing the purpose of the measure, removes this stigma and removes the pressure to compete with others in the same situation. Any class a student is currently enrolled in would also be given full credit and factored into their GPA as such.
Currently, there aren’t any major universities that have implemented Universal Pass. The New School has implemented something similar, having recently updated their grading policy to consist of only an A / A- or a W. However, it would be significant for NYU to become the first to establish Universal Pass. It would mean paving a path for others across the country when so many students groups have advocated for the policy.
Though mandatory pass/fail is another alternative to the opt-in system, it is needlessly harmful to fail any student during the COVID-19 crisis. The university cannot possibly appraise the disparities in student circumstances and decide on a case-by-case basis which failings are legitimate and which are circumstantial. A failing grade in any other time is a tragedy within itself, but a tragedy which occurs within a closed circuit, where basic needs are met and stability is — at the very least — providable. Too many variables are at play right now and this uncertainty will make it impossible to determine which failings are valid and which are not. The only means of resolving this is to remove the possibility of failure altogether.
Universal Pass is not the answer to all of our problems, and it is not the final means of assisting students in need. But for those who cannot maintain their grades in the face of a global pandemic, and for those who worry about the future implications of opt-in pass/fail, Universal Pass is a means of loosening the constraints of normalcy in a situation that is anything but. I hope the administration sees this as a chance to free students and their instructors from further unnecessary pressure and that it will trust in their ability to simply do the best they can.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 27, 2020 e-print edition. Email Andrew Lusk at [email protected]