LETTER TO THE EDITOR: A Case Against Universal Pass At Scripps

The following opinion was sent to the Editors of the Claremont Independent by a Scripps College alumna who wishes to remain anonymous.

 

Recently, many discussions are happening around the Universal Pass/Fail policy without the option of letter grades. As a concerned alumna from Scripps, I wish to express my thoughts on this matter and communicate with you how I see the adoption of this policy negatively impacting the Scripps community as a whole.

As an international student who had an extremely turbulent educational path at Scripps, I was able to complete my credit requirements for graduation primarily because of the support and understanding my professors extended to me; without them, I would not come out of those years stronger and more resilient. Having been dealing with family legal issues and their repercussions throughout the past six years, I had experienced major depression and anxieties that were often so overwhelming that I’d be paralyzed throughout the night, sitting in Frankel’s courtyard, and waiting for the sun to rise. There were many days when my emotions were so crippling that I could not even come to class, let alone complete my assignments. Without my professors’ support, including conversations, encouragement, and academic accommodations, I would not be able to pass many of my courses. Though I finished college with a struggling GPA, the lessons I’ve learned from my professors—lessons that go beyond the classroom—as well as the care they extended to me have made me a truly independent woman who is able to support those she loves and make a real impact on our world, even during the worst of times.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents unprecedented challenges to us all, and I cannot say I am not one of those who are privileged enough to be the least affected. I, however, understand the extent to which the faculty is willing to help. The policy that allows students to opt for their preferred grading policies is fair in that it ensures students to make decisions according to their circumstances. Speaking from my experience, many professors can also use their discretion to provide students with an “incomplete” status on their transcript, which would allow students the necessary time and space to complete their work. I would like to emphasize this discretion particularly, for professors are the ones who are closely working with their students and are in a better place to decide and discuss with students the best course of action. For students with extremely extenuating circumstances, more extreme measures may be discussed on an individual basis that involves the administrators, including the option of masking the grades (particularly for courses that require a presence on campus and extra equipment, such as dance and art courses), as many other schools have adopted. This masking is not a blot on your resume. In fact, let us consider the following situations:

  1. Those who struggled with their grades previously and are still struggling this semester: the opt-in letter grade policy would ensure that their cumulative GPAs are not impacted by this semester’s performance.

  2. Those who struggled with their grades previously and are making progress this semester: the opt-in letter grade policy would ensure that their cumulative GPAs can be boosted.

  3. Those who had stellar grades previously and are struggling this semester: the opt-in letter grade policy would ensure that their cumulative GPAs are not impacted by this semester’s performance.

  4. Those who had stellar grades previously and are doing well this semester: the opt-in letter grade policy would ensure that their cumulative GPAs are either unaffected or boosted this semester.

  5. Those who need to devote their energy to look after themselves and their families and friends rather than to their studies: the opt-in letter grade policy would ensure that their GPAs are unaffected, and they are free to take an incomplete that would offset the consequences of a direct fail.

Leaving the option to students instead of enacting a sweeping policy does not decrease students’ future prospects. In fact, adopting a sweeping policy would have the consequences of discrediting the effort of those who fought hard to maintain their grades despite the hardship they are tasked to face. Indeed, COVID-19 does not affect us all in equal ways, but the opt-in letter grade policy makes sure that those who are most impacted are going to be the least impacted academically. We also should not overlook those who have demonstrated great perseverance despite the hardship they face and have managed to maintain their studies and grades, which may be crucial to students’ prospects and social mobility, and we should not overlook the myriad factors that affect students’ performances. Many of those influences cannot be equalized by the Universal Pass policy. Not to mention, the kind of equity the Universal Pass is advocating for is logically similar to asking those who, for whatever reason, got the better end of the deal to relinquish it. But, it is never a feasible plan to simply strip people of their property, jobs, mental health, personal relationships, in order to make them “stop taking advantages” of others. China and the Soviet Union have done so before. The results were far from equity.

The Universal Pass/Fail policy without the option for letter grades (the “Universal Pass” for short) is a step too far. For one, given my extensive experience working with professors throughout the Claremont Colleges, including those who are reputed to be hard graders, I trust most, if not all, professors have already provided accommodations to students (whether sweepingly or on a case-by-case basis) who found themselves in extenuating circumstances. Secondly, I believe that students’ rights to choose the form of their grades must not and need not be forsaken for us to support those who are underprivileged. The questionable dichotomy established by the prevailing narrative—calling Universal Pass the “equitable grading policy” and thereby implying the opt-in letter grade policy inequitable—is far from the truth. The benefits of a Universal Pass policy, such as giving students who wish to pursue graduate programs certain leverages are, to begin with, difficult to assess. Such leverages, or advantages, are attained by preventing the allegedly more advantaged students from getting good grades to level the playing field. Not every college in Claremont adopts the Universal Pass policy, and not every college adopts it either, so the putative leveling effect does not achieve its ends once we look at the entire college population: many would still come out with letter grades and would reportedly gain more advantages over those who did not.

On the other hand, to what extent would graduate programs and employers look at students’ transcripts more leniently if the Universal Pass policy is enacted? For those schools and employers that do look at students’ transcripts leniently, they are most probably looking at the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on students’ education, not the Universal Pass policy per se. For those schools and employers that do not factor the pandemic’s impact on students’ transcripts into consideration, it seems that little can be achieved with the Universal Pass policy, and those who are forced to adopt P/F on all of their courses would become victims of a policy that does not yield much.

This reality leads to another concern of mine: the putative benefits of the Universal Pass policy are far outweighed by the harms of denying students the liberty to exercise their own discretion in choosing what benefits the individual the most. Many students can depend on this semester’s grade to boost their overall GPA, including those that are facing hardship yet struggled to maintain their performance. This dependence can be particularly crucial for third and fourth-year students, who may have underperformed at the beginning of their college career but are much more well adjusted now to work efficiently. In and of itself a coercion, the Universal Pass policy would not only deny a substantial amount of students the right to their grades, but also threaten the academic integrity of colleges, where progress can be lost and injustice can breed. Indeed, not every Fail is due to extenuating circumstances, just like not every A can be entirely earned on merits. A sweeping policy would overlook all these nuanced contexts and details inherent in each individual’s approach to schoolworks, and an egalitarian academic result reflects not solidarity, but totalitarian abuse.

Even if the majority of a community votes for the Universal Pass policy, it is also important to consider the consequences of ignoring the voice of the minority, particularly given how one of the very ideas upon which the republic is founded and flourishes is liberty; in our case, it is the liberty to choose (P/F or letter grades) in a manner that does not jeopardize others’ liberty to choose the best course of action, which is, to a certain extent, guaranteed by the the opt-in letter grade policy. By upholding the opt-in letter grade policy, colleges are making sure that each and every student is given the choice to do what is best for them without impacting those who find themselves in different circumstances, whether better or worse, and for those who are going through a more difficult time, such as those who are facing academic probation and dismissal, conversations can be conducted on a case-by-case basis. Should the opt-in letter grade policy be revoked and the Universal Pass policy installed, many would be coerced into a form of solidarity that is effectively extortion, which would break the bonds that have held us together for long and emaciate the community as a whole. Indeed, what is done in the name of solidarity may well break that solidarity we all hold dear. Discussions among students during the past weeks can already attest to that.

Many supporters of Universal Pass, both on and off the Scripps campus, argue that they do not wish to obtain a better future by sacrificing that of their peers. That line of argument, though heroic, is sensational rhetoric for the following three reasons:

  1. According to the current policy, students can and are encouraged to opt for P/F should they feel they are unable to attain better grades

  2. Professors have the discretion to provide the incomplete option for those who need extra space and time to work

  3. Assuming all those who are attaining better grades is because they are more advantaged is as naive as assuming all those who are attaining lower grades is because they are more disadvantaged. This assumption is not disputing the fact that COVID-19 impacts certain students far more than others, but rather to question the sweeping style the Universal Pass policy comes in, thereby neglecting the nuanced influences that impact each and every student differently. 

These reasons indicate that the Universal Pass policy has questionable benefits and definitely harms. Additionally, I invite you to consider the factors that play a role in students’ academic performance. From mental health to wealth, from parenting styles to personal relationships, from access to softwares and internet to the pace of studying one feels comfortable with, too many things can influence how one performs in college. The influence of these factors does not cease just because a student is living on campus. In fact, to what extent must we relinquish the comparative advantages we enjoy currently, so as to proudly claim that what we have is not attained by means of robbery? When we look around, do we give up playing varsity football because a friend did not have the means to play football prior to college to level the playing field? Do we give up graduate programs because our admission means others are not getting them?  I mean not to make a case here, but to remind you that all the factors that influence our academic performance, in combination, do not yield clear and predictable correlation to our performance, and living on campus is far from an equalizer. 

Despite our wish, life isn’t fair and life is unforgiving once we leave the college bubble. Boomers are far more capable of securing wealth and socio-economic status than millennials. Those born into wealthier families are more likely to succeed than those who are born to financially disadvantaged parents. We do not mend those gaps by forcing the older generation to quit their jobs and compete with us for entry level work, just like we do not force the more privileged students to forget what they’ve learned from their expensive tutoring sessions and summer programs. We also do not ask people’s parents to divorce, so as to equalize the influence of divorce on students’ growth. If we can recognize that these aren’t viable measures to address issues of inequality and inequity, we can also recognize that the Universal Pass policy is equally unfeasible. I can also point to you the terrible job prospects many are facing this year. Where are the chivalrous people who’d like to forsaken their offers so that their peers can obtain a job? In another example, many of my Chinese friends graduating this year are facing difficult career choices given the latest executive order issued by Trump, which may halt the processing of their work visas. Where are the people who are willing to give up their work visas or US citizenships? At certain points in our lives, we must recognize the haphazard nature of life; despite our best wish, we are all susceptible to the hard rocks life throws at us and an equalizing tactic can be both naive and impotent. We must do things to address the difficulties our community members are facing, but not through a reductive and questionable equalizing tactic that forces people to be chevaliers.

We’ve all seen what communism in practice looks like. In March, all party members in China were required to donate to fight COVID-19, and the party media proudly claimed that it was able to raise tens of millions of dollars to help Wuhan. For those who understand that good will and coerced charity are two different things, where oftentimes the latter sours the former, we tend to smile ruefully. I wish solidarity at the Claremont Colleges does not have the same irony.

Having experienced a fair share of difficulties during my time at Scripps, not once was I punished for things that were out of my control. This experience is what made my time at Scripps particularly meaningful and transformative, and I believe Scripps will always stand for that. It is also important to consider whether we must care for the more vulnerable members in our community by means of coercion, whose benefits are, again, far outweighed by its dangers.

Additionally, having witnessed and participated in many discussions online, I am disheartened by a couple of things advocates for Universal Pass are doing. One includes identifying an anonymous comment on Instagram that accuses Scripps’ Universal Pass policy for being “communist” as coming from Chinese international students (the said communication was quickly deleted, but the people involved have taken screenshots of the said communication). It did not come from Chinese international students, and the assumption made here is hostile, presumptive, and racist. In another exchange between a concerned Chinese international student and a Scripps Associated Students (SAS) member in a public space, a Chinese student expressed her opinions in an excited and agitated manner, and was advised to look for mental health resources, which is presumptive and passive aggressive. The forum was soon inaccessible, and the Chinese student was later reached out by a SAS member apologizing for the mental health reply, and explained that the shutting down of the forum was an accident—a SAS member was trying to delete the Chinese student’s comment but instead, deleted the whole forum. The motivation for deleting her comment seems unwarranted, particularly if we consider Asians and Asian Americans are often seen as wealthy, hardworking, grades-crushing upper-middle class model minorities who rarely express their anger and opinion publicly. I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt to SAS members involved, but as an international Chinese student, I worry that our already marginalized voice as Chinese and Asians is further ostracized due to racial stereotypes and presumed ideological differences. The hostility of many advocates for Universal Pass is also intimidating many who believe otherwise. One thing is clear, however, that the putative equity of Universal Pass policy remains putative, whose effects remain controversial, and simply by calling Universal Pass policy “equitable” does not change these facts. We can and have the right to disagree on what is equitable.

 

UPDATE: SAS has contacted the Independent informing us that, while a SAS member did respond to the Chinese international student’s question with a comment on mental health, the other members of SAS determined that the comment was unprofessional and asked the commenter to delete her response. Afterwards, they apologized for the original response. According to SAS, there was never any attempt to remove the Chinese student’s comment, nor to delete the whole forum. SAS also claims that technical difficulties forced it to circulate a new link to the same forum in its FAQ in support of universal pass.

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