Mandel announces universal pass/fail grading system for all spring courses in wake of COVID-19 pandemic

Jeongyoon Han

Following deep uncertainty among students and faculty over the past two weeks, President of the College Maud S. Mandel announced yesterday afternoon that the College would adopt a universal pass/fail grading system to assess undergraduate courses this spring semester.

The decision comes two weeks after the College moved to remote learning in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and arrives as faculty, staff and students prepare for classes to resume starting April 6.

Instead of using standard letter grades, all courses – including theses and independent studies – will be graded as Pass (P) or Fail (E), with a grade below a D- constituting a failing mark. Courses will still count for major, divisional, Quantitative/Formal Reasoning (QFR) and Difference, Power & Equity (DPE) requirements necessary for graduation. This decision does not apply to the College’s two graduate programs, which will make separate decisions. 

The decision was made by select administrative staff and faculty with input from various academic committees. The Faculty Steering Committee helped formulate the decision-making process, and the Committee on Educational Affairs, among others, provided a recommendation and endorsement of a pass/fail model. Some peer institutions have made similar decisions, including MIT, Dartmouth, Grinnell and Columbia. Other universities are taking different approaches: Bates is still using letter grades, and Tufts opted for an optional, rather than mandatory, pass/fail system.

The shift to a universal pass/fail model also comes in the midst of growing discussions within the College community regarding what grading system would create a fair academic environment for students and faculty thrust into extraordinary circumstances and exacerbated inequalities because of COVID-19.

In addressing such discussions, Mandel wrote in an all-campus email that with the unprecedented challenges that the global pandemic presents for the College’s learning community, “conventional grading would not work.”

“We felt the focus had to be on learning, not on grading,” she wrote in the all-campus email. “We decided it was unrealistic to apply a grading system designed for people living and working on a rural liberal arts campus to a situation in which teachers and learners are dispersed to homes and locations from where they have to teach and learn in varied settings, while also managing potential exposure to COVID-19 and even the possibility of illness in their households.”

Students and faculty contacted by the Record through a survey and interviews have expressed similar sentiments, and while many feel that the pass/fail system is most equitable, some have advocated for other models, including the optional pass/fail model, under which students could elect to receive grades for none, some or all of their classes, or universal pass, where all undergraduates would receive full credit for their classes.

In a Record survey sent out on Sunday to 500 random student unixes before yesterday’s announcement, to which 328 students responded for a response rate of 65.6 percent, 47 percent favored a mandatory pass/fail model, 36 percent favored an optional pass/fail model, 13 percent preferred a universal pass system and 2 percent wanted all students to continue receiving standard letter grades.

Bojana Mladenović, chair of the Committee on Educational Affairs (CEA), one of the committees that served in an advisory capacity regarding the decision, said she “wholeheartedly” supports a pass/fail model.

“It is in the interest of fairness and taking care of all of our students that we should go towards pass/fail,” she said. The CEA collectively made the same recommendation to the Faculty Steering Committee and Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom on March 14.

Students expressed varied opinions on the merits of a universal pass/fail system. 

For Evan Chester ’22, mandatory pass/fail or universal pass was the best way to ensure equity in times when students could suffer immense economic, material, health and emotional pressures.

“There are so many complicating factors that make it harder to be a student at home [or other settings] vs at Williams,” Chester said, emphasizing how that both material inequities and mental health issues have the potential to manifest.

 “I just returned to Williams after a year off due to anxiety and depression,” he said. “The indefinite nature of social distancing is really exhausting to wrap my head around and it having to be back in a house that comes with memories of a lot of failures and low places in the past year is a lot to cope with day in and day out… And this is coming from the place of someone who is fortunate to have a nice computer, fast internet, a quiet room to work in, live in the same time zone as Williams, and have enough food.”

Daiana Takashima ’20, a pre-med student looking to attend medical school two years after graduation, said that although it would be challenging to have pass/fail grades on her transcript for this semester, having a “unified” system was necessary in order to “not create divisions among the classes and students.”

Owen Foster ’22 emphasized the need to have a grading system that would reflect students’ changing priorities in such trying times — for him, he is focusing on maintaining his health as his specific immuno-conditions necessitate that.

I think it’s a privilege to say that I would want my grades to matter this semester, because not all students can make their grades matter,” Virginia Ontiveros ’22 said. “They can’t make that time or access those resources.”

The Record survey confirmed such sentiments: a majority of student respondents would not be able to perform academically as they normally would at Williams, whether it be because they are taking on extra jobs, do not have access to necessary resources or are in environments not conducive to academic rigor.

Some students have been left frustrated by the decision, including Ryan Rilinger ’20, who faced semesters “far more difficult, distressing, and personally challenging than this shutdown has been or will be,” he said, and because of it, preferred an optional pass/fail system. “It is a student’s right to plan harder and easier semesters, and to snatch away what should have been an easier semester for many seniors is cruel.”

Still, Rilinger wrote, “I understand why as a campus decision this will help some people and for that reason I can’t broadly be against it, but personally, I would still rather receive true grades for my work, so it’s a frustrating situation.”

Megan Siedman ’20 said she does not have access to stable WiFi or quality meals at home, and has to juggle taking classes with supporting her family. She had originally supported a late designation optional pass/fail system in the interest of equity and providing choices for disadvantaged students.

“What if you are a first generation, low-income students who struggled to adjust to higher education? It’s important for … absolutely anyone who had rough semesters at Williams for absolutely any reason to have the option to show their growth over time and have the opportunity to raise their GPA,” she said. “They didn’t necessarily have access to an understanding of what higher education is and they might have had lower grades during their first semesters.”

Siedman, who wants to ensure her GPA meets the cut-off for graduate school scholarships, clarified that she believes that she is not necessarily opposed to a universal pass/fail system.

“I think it still addresses inequity, but … optional pass/fail could have given students who have previously had life circumstances impact their education one more support during this time which would have been nice. What I am definitely against is that this was decided without an organized way for a diverse population of students to share feedback and concerns.”

Andrew Schreibstein ’22 opposed an optional pass/fail system. “When you really think about it and the learning environment we’re involved in at Williams, people are very competitive,” he said. “And what comes with this competitive environment is this idea that people feel the need to take grades in a class that they wouldn’t otherwise because of what other people are saying around them.”

Others would have preferred the College to have gone a step further and implement a universal pass system, which would eliminate the possibility of failure for the semester.

“If you’re going to do pass/fail, you may as well do universal pass,” Sean Fontellio ’20 said. He added that, during a pandemic, students should not even have the potential to fail a course.

“Maybe because it’s spring break, maybe it’s because I’m isolated, maybe it’s because there’s a … pandemic going around, but also, like, when you think about it, I’m like, ‘Wow, are grades really that important right now?’” He said. “Why don’t we go through the semester and focus on each other and health, and then still be able to work and then maybe we’ll find that, wow, students actually tried way harder, or their retention was high, or we’re more academically rigorous because people got a break, or because people retained the information from focusing on what they focused on, rather than just saying that grades enforce and encourage effort?”

Lily Schohn, a teaching associate in French, ultimately agrees with Mandel’s acknowledgement that “no one will ever look at this semester as a normal part of the students’ education.” Still, she said this extraordinary semester could have presented an opportune time for the College to truly dive into the meaning of a learning system with no grades at all — “much like højskoler in Scandinavia, where the notion grades does not exist, but where progress and personal growth are evaluated, rather than capability to adapt to a certain evaluative process.” 

Onyeka Obi ’21 said she thinks the mandatory pass/fail is a minimum acknowledgement of how “unfair” and “broken” the semester has now become, and added that hopefully the system “would still function similar to a universal P in theory.”

She added that, hopefully, “Faculty will take careful and diligent consideration to understand the circumstances why a student might be ‘failing’ their class. … I don’t think it would make sense at all to fail a student in many of these situations, and I think that these extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary empathy on the part of all administrators.”

Gail Newman, chair of the Center for Foreign Languages, Literatures, and Cultures and professor of German and comparative literature, said that above any prioritization for grades, “Faculty would likely be more generous in their notions of what is required to pass a course.” She plans on working with individual students who are unable to finish academic obligations because of their circumstances closely.

Mladenović, a professor of philosophy, voiced a similar desire to care for students this semester.

“We are going to reach out to students who are perfectly well just to make sure that they are doing well in other ways – psychologically, physically,” Mladenović said.

Magnús Bernhardsson, chair of the Arabic studies department and professor of history, said in an email to the Record in addition to his support of pass/fail, “Personally, I am going to put in a lot of energy and work in creating a meaningful learning environment in my courses.”

If anything, Takashima is more ready to invest in academics — particularly as she continues her studies in medicine.

“I think this pandemic has actually strengthened my desire to want to pursue a field in medicine because it emphasized how we lack resources and people in this field if a major outbreak like this were to happen and I would love to be able to be of help during these times,” she said.

Newman said she hopes that especially in the midst of unprecedented times, that colleges should take this time to reassess the meaning of higher learning and academic evaluations.

“Now more than ever, liberal arts colleges should model a shift toward reflection and self-examination, collaboration and solidarity with others–and away from the frenzy of self-optimization and competition that drives our contemporary world,” she wrote. “If we faculty and students can enter into the second half of Spring 2020 with a spirit of humility, Experimentierfreude (joy in experimenting), and a willingness to work together toward, we will be a lot better off.”

For Professor of Chinese Li Yu, learning could even offer an escape.

“During this time of uncertainty, learning, and structured learning might be empowering and give some students a sense of stability and certainty,” she said.

Update: On March 25, Bates announced that it was introducing an optional pass/fail option for its students.