In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the major challenges that students are facing because of this crisis, many Wesleyan students have been asking a similar question: What can I do to help? Students have created a First-Generation Low-Income (FGLI) GoFundMe, mutual aid spreadsheets, and a variety of other community organizing efforts as they work to bring students together and provide assistance in a time of physical isolation and economic crisis.
One such community organizing effort looks to change Wesleyan’s grading system during this semester in order to mitigate the impact that the coronavirus is already having on students’ lives. After researching other universities that have implemented a Universal Pass/Fail (UPF) system of grading and working closely with a coalition of students from a variety of backgrounds, Bryan Chong ’21 and Maya Gomberg ’22 wrote and posted to Facebook a petition asking that Wesleyan administration move to a UPF system. Much to the surprise of Chong and Gomberg, the petition which was met with considerable backlash.
“The way that it happened is that [Bryan] brought it up to me as an idea, and then I ended up convincing him it was the right idea,” Gomberg explained. “It was pretty clear to me that right now we’re in a situation that’s so unprecedented, so it seemed totally unfair to grade students as though it was normal.”
The petition was formed based on discussions with a coalition of about 10 students from a variety of backgrounds. One of the students who was involved in these discussions, Virginia Sciolino ’21, raised concerns about continuing to use an A-F grading system during a global crisis because of the accessibility issues posed by online classes, especially for FGLI and international students.
“Grades function by creating a hierarchy among students in order to identify who is the most ‘successful’ or ‘high performing,’” Sciolino wrote in an email to The Argus. “I wanted to petition for Universal Pass/Fail because at this time privileging high performers also means discriminating against students who aren’t able to cope. Members of the Pass/Fail group also reached out to other students who felt similarly and we ultimately agreed that this pandemic is a unique situation, and letter-grade systems would not convey that.”
Though Elizabeth Ouanemalay ’23 was not a member of the coalition advocating for the petition, she was involved in discussions with Gomberg as she and Chong helped to draft the letter. Ouanemalay said she experienced mixed feelings about a UPF system at first and decided to reach out to her peers in the Questbridge Scholar Program at universities that had adopted a UPF policy to find out more.
She found that most of her contacts at schools that switched to a UPF grading mode, namely Carleton College, Stanford University, and Harvard University were fairly happy with the change, although there were certainly members of the student body who disagreed.
“At the universities that have decided to adopt a UPF policy, I feel like that was a good move on their end, and I can’t say that would be a good move for Wesleyan, just because it’s really different on how students feel personally, and what the administration decides,” Ouanemalay explained. “The situation’s very nuanced, and it’s hard to put a one shoe fits all in terms of grading, but would [a UPF system] make things more equitable? These other institutions have said yes that would, but I don’t know in terms of Wesleyan.”
Ouanemalay added that the most convincing argument in favor of a UPF system, for her, is that it would take the pressure off students to worry about their grades.
“I guess for me, my opinion on the UPF is very much mixed because of how Wesleyan students are,” Ouanemalay said. “For me personally, I just find it upsetting how much people are really stressed out about grades. I’m not sure if Universal Pass/Fail is the right decision, but I think we should reevaluate the conversation of how much grades matter. I just feel like during a time like this it’s upsetting that people have to be so upset about earning a grade.”
One of the major reasons that Gomberg and Chong favor a Universal Pass Fail system is that some of the graduate schools and grant programs surveyed by advocates of Yale University’s “No Fail Yale” campaign indicated that they would only accept “Pass” credits on a transcript if the university had transitioned to a UPF grading mode; in other words, choosing to take a course pass/fail could ultimately hurt a student’s chances of acceptance.
Chong said that he advocates for a UPF system as a way to combat the power dynamic that graduate schools and employers create, in which students will have very little control over how they are evaluated.
“What I’ve seen at Wesleyan and other universities we’ve talked to, it really seems like student bodies are very prepared to defer to grad schools, to defer to employers, to give them the power to see what is appropriate moving forward from this crisis, which I think is discouraging and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, given what I’ve said about how nobody really knows what is going on and nobody knows what is appropriate,” Chong explained. “I think that given how much power these institutions historically hold over students, and particularly disadvantaged students, there is really no reason for us to preemptively seed this ground in policy when there is a vacuum. Why are we keeping a system that stratifies people in an unfair way?”
With these concerns in mind, Gomberg and Chong posted their petition advocating for a Universal Pass Fail system to WesAdmits Facebook groups on Wednesday, April 1. The petition outlines the accessibility issues that make it very difficult for some students to participate regularly in classes, the concern that graduate schools might penalize students for choosing to take a course pass/fail, and a clause suggesting that students who are relying on A-F grades for this semester can petition the dean in order to receive permission to take classes graded.
Almost as soon as the petition was posted, it was met with backlash from students who had serious concerns about the effects of adopting a UPF system. One of the opponents of the petition was Shirmai Chung ’22, who emphasized the reliance of some FGLI students on grades as a way to distinguish themselves in job and graduate school applications.
“For many FGLI students, we have faced tremendous economic and social disadvantages when it comes to competing on these platforms,” Chung wrote in an email to The Argus. “However, our academic preparedness is one of the few relatively level playing fields that allow us to distinguish ourselves. These qualities are mostly reflected in our academic records when our applications get sent to employers and recruiters for university and scholarship foundations. Because of this, to implement a [UPF] policy would be to deny us of this chance to distinguish ourselves.”
Chung said she was involved in early forums and discussions about petitioning for a UPF system and raised her concerns to the organizers, but felt that her voice was not heard.
“I was surprised and frustrated when I woke up to a Facebook post from the organizers announcing the launch of the campaign, without any amendments or considerations of the implications which I have made aware to them,” Chung wrote. “The organizers dismissed my concerns, citing that their reasons for doing so was because my opinions seemed to have been an ‘outlier’ among my peers at the time.”
Chung also pointed out her frustration with the dismissal that FGLI communities often face.
“I am very frustrated to see how it has come to a point where FGLI folks have to be airing out their concerns and showing their vulnerability in public to be heard,” she wrote.
Chong and Gomberg said they were aware of the reality that many FGLI students experience in which they rely on grades to set themselves apart from competitors who might have access to more resources, but they pointed out that not all FGLI students will be able to maintain their usual academic performance this semester.
“Grades inherently stratify,” Chong said. “That is a feature and not a flaw of a system that has all these grades. The matter of fact is, there will be FGLI students, just within any community that is on the whole disadvantaged by society—a grading system will stratify within this group. If you are an FGLI student who is currently in a situation where you can pursue academics to reasonably high quality, that’s amazing, but there are a lot of FGLI students, and students period, who don’t have that.”
In her email to The Argus, Chung also suggested that students focus their campaigning efforts beyond Wesleyan, toward the institutions that will ultimately be evaluating grades from this semester.
“Rather than advocating for a [UPF system] at Wes, why don’t institutions partner up to petition grad schools to accept all P/F grades for Spring 2020?” Chung proposed. “That way, a level playing field will be given to everyone, not just institutions that have implemented a universal P/F policy.”
Chung was not the only one to suggest that students focus their campaign efforts elsewhere. In a post to WesAdmits, Laura Pérez Maquedano ’20 expressed that she feels as though classes are one of the most stable components of her life right now and hopes that students will think about supporting their FGLI peers in other ways.
“I think that in these times, it is counterproductive to try to help students with grants that can’t, for some reason or another, make the effort to take classes graded,” Maquedano wrote. “Rather, I think the best way to help is to ask those students, why do they feel like they can’t take classes graded? I am sure if you ask this question you will find the problems that need to be fixed, or at least, ameliorated: housing insecurities, mental health, lack of loved ones….”
Many students also said that they felt a blanket decision to switch to a universal grading mode would be inadequate to address the problem at hand. Gad Licht ’20 expressed frustration at being lumped into a category based on his personal background.
“I’m going to speak on my own behalf, being a disabled student, autistic, dyslexic, ADHD, neurodivergent and from an abusive household who has long advocated various reforms in education or our community,” Licht wrote in an email to The Argus. “You can’t speak for all of us, and we need flexibility. For some of us online courses can be easier due to the school environment not being the best and this being more flexible, for others it is torture as we deal with stress and disease and family. It can be on a very case by case basis.”
A variety of students also took to the comments section of the post on Facebook to voice similar concerns regarding their need to distinguish themselves, desire to continue taking graded classes for stability and continuity purposes, and questions about how graduate schools would respond to opt-in Pass/Fail systems as opposed to UPF. Above all, students expressed frustration at being generalized and voiced their personal reasons for supporting or not supporting a UPF system.
Gomberg said that she was surprised at all the negative feedback, given the support for a UPF system from the FGLI and international students in the coalition that worked on the petition and other students who reached out to her.
“It’s been a little frustrating because publicly there’s been a lot more criticism, but I know that the emails in my inbox have been showing a lot of support,” said Gomberg. “People are actively reaching out to say that it is a relief to them that someone is advocating for this possibility.”
In response to some of the backlash that the petition has faced, Chong pointed out that he and Gomberg were never working on the petition independently and felt that they did their best to include as many other student voices as possible.
“Because of the way that certain students are characterizing this campaign online and off, there seems to be the impression that these are just two upper middle class liberal arts college kids trying to do what they personally think is best for FGLI students,” Chong said. “I just want to come out and strongly dispel that impression, because the entire time we have been in active conversation with a significant portion of people that hopefully a policy like this would help the most. This is a policy that we hope would help all students, but given disproportionate impact it would disproportionately help some students.”
Though Chong and Gomberg said they were disappointed with lack of student support for a UPF model, they recognize the need to seek an alternative solution to help make grades this semester more equitable. After a series of discussions within the coalition, they decided to put out a survey that asked students their opinion about the best way to approach grading modes.
Chong added that their main goal is to make grading more equitable—not to force any one solution on students.
“I do want to stress that a big part of the campaign is not only just proposing the UPF policy, but also the underlying concerns that make this campaign happen,” Chong said. “We acknowledge that UPF may not be the only solution at all or the best solution at all, but we saw it as a solution that was workable and fit into other parameters that we were thinking about.”
Gomberg also put into words the dilemma that she and Chong have faced as they attempt to advocate for people who need help the most during these times, without entirely drowning out their individual voices.
“Obviously we want to be lifting up FGLI voices, and to make sure that they are heard on issues that most affect them, and at the same time there is a growing frustration among FGLI students that they shouldn’t be the only ones advocating for themselves, and other students should show some solidarity and camaraderie and help those causes,” Gomberg explained. “We’re trying to figure out a way that the responsibility to advocate doesn’t fall solely on the backs of FGLI students while making sure that their voices are the ones that are most heard and valued very highly.”
Sciolino acknowledged that the UPF petition ultimately did not accurately represent the viewpoints of all Wesleyan students but hopes that the survey, which she posted to WesAdmits, will provide guidance for where the campaign should go next.
“Ultimately, we published the petition with a skewed dataset, believing that more students supported it than we knew,” Sciolino explained. “Since then, each one of us has read the Facebook comments. We discussed those for hours over Zoom and decided to publish a survey in the hopes that the survey could take a more accurate temperature so that we’d know whether or not to continue our campaign.”
Sciolino also shared her personal thoughts and worries in the Facebook post she created to share the survey.
“I’m worried about my housing situation, my family, my mental health, my finances,” she wrote. “On top of that, being worried about the consequences of choosing credit/ungraded has been too much. I knew that the current system just wouldn’t work for me. I never intended to alienate or anger any of y’all. To those who felt misrepresented by the petition, we are sorry.”
Although they have redirected their campaign, Gomberg and Chong said they do not plan to stop advocating for students and helping others in their community, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose new difficulties.
“I really want all students to know that if they are bored, if they have more time on their hands, if they are in a comfortable situation right now and feel even the tiniest urge to help people out, now is the time to do it,” Chong concluded.
Chung said that though she feels the petition is an improvement as far as advocacy efforts, she’s still not sure that grading mode is the most important place to focus.
“Also with only a few weeks left until the end of the semester, I feel that changing the grading mode now, I’m afraid, will be too late, and will disrupt many peoples plans and expectations for the semester,” Chung said. “I think they’re better off advocating for individuals who need accommodations for this semester. For example, we on the [Wesleyan Student Assembly] have asked the school to attach a description detailing the circumstances this semester on our transcripts.”
Licht also weighed in on the creation of the survey, and added a concern.
“I definitely think this moves on the right track, but it should have been done before the petition and that huge blow up,” Licht said. “Now I am worried about turnout.”
Emma Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.