EDITORIAL: MU must institute pass/fail grading system to ensure equality

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Employees unable to complete their core tasks at home will be placed on temporary unpaid furlough.

With classes moved online to prevent the spread of COVID-19, some Marquette University students find themselves struggling to balance classwork with family dynamics, mental health struggles, social isolation and distracting environments.

Marquette’s decision to suspend in-person classes exemplifies the university’s commitment to the well-being of its students. Students in residence halls were asked not to return to campus until at least April 10. Those living in off-campus housing were encouraged to avoid campus facilities.

The necessity of social distancing is undeniable. However, the inaccessibility of campus facilities disadvantages students with unhealthy home environments — including strained relationships with family members or lack of support, among other challenges. These students cannot be expected to adapt to at-home learning environments and maintain the grades they were receiving before courses moved online.

It is time for Marquette administrators to recognize the inequality of the traditional grading system during this unique situation. For the spring 2020 semester, Marquette University administrators should replace the traditional grading scale with a universal pass/fail grading system.

Struggling students cannot quickly adapt to at-home learning in environments that breed negative feelings. These students are unable to compete for grades with other students who enjoy the privilege of a balanced home life.

Campus provides an element of equality to the student experience. It evens the playing field. Students are surrounded by resources, social networks and workspaces.

Home is different for everyone. While it brings comfort for some, it brings toxicity, added responsibilities, financial burden and social stress for others.

This decision by the Marquette administration would demonstrate the university’s care for its entire student body. It would embody the university’s Ignatian value of ‘cura personalis,’ a Latin phrase that calls on community members to “care for the entire person.” This value promotes respecting the dignity of individuals, which should include compassion for personal obstacles outside of their control.

Setting certain students up to fail is not a moral stance. University officials should draw on their ethical foundations in making this decision.

Changing the grading system would require students with privileged home lives to surrender potential self-interest in the traditional grading system. It requires awareness and humanity to take a stance that goes against one’s own benefit.

These students would likely benefit from the current system, earning top marks in online courses. Understandably, they may be worried that pass/fail grades do not demonstrate the high quality of their work. They will be unable to showcase high grades to employers or educational institutions that request their transcripts.

Other students may be using the semester to heighten their cumulative GPA, determined to make up for struggles they faced in past semesters.

But our collective values as a Jesuit community go beyond individual advantages of the present. We must come together to support those who are most vulnerable. Not only that, but employers and recruiters from other colleges are likely to understand the rare distress caused by COVID-19, not looking down on students with passing marks.

The university announced Thursday that it would not be tying student feedback about courses to individual instructors. This is likely due to the fact that instructors are being forced to pick up online teaching tools in little time. These instructors did not anticipate leading virtual classrooms when the semester began.

Marquette administrators’ understanding approach toward instructors should similarly apply to students. Students should not be held to the grading standards in place at the beginning of the semester, when campus was accessible to all.

Additionally, students — like professors — are coping with the format of online courses. This can be challenging for students who feel better suited for in-person instruction. Those without prior experience in online courses may especially struggle.

Students who live outside Milwaukee’s Central Standard Time zone can face additional hurdles to success. These students may be expected to make virtual meeting times and deadlines that are not conducive to their current learning environments.

Other universities already transitioned to pass/fail systems to accommodate their students’ needs.

Duke University, a private university in North Carolina, announced Wednesday that it is instituting a pass/fail system. Students who earn a C- or higher will receive a “satisfactory” mark, while those with lower grades will receive “unsatisfactory.” Students can request to receive letter grades for any classes by submitting forms to the registrar’s office.

“This is a moment that has been characterized by widespread anxiety, uncertainty, social, and geographic disruption,” top Duke administrators wrote in the announcement. “As academic leaders of this great university, we believe that bold action is necessary to maximize undergraduates’ curricular engagement.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology similarly moved to alternate grades March 13, providing “PE” marks for A, B or C grades, “NE” marks for D or F grades and “IE” marks for incomplete courses. Like at Duke, MIT students can request letter grades.

Vanderbilt University, a private university in Tennessee, is allowing individual students to opt for pass/fail marks if they wish.

Marquette University should join these institutions as a leader in education during the COVID-19 pandemic. A pass/fail system is needed to ensure equal treatment of all students.

Displacement from campus cultivates injustice. To combat the disparity inherent in the traditional grading system amidst COVID-19, Marquette must act to champion the success of all students.

This story previously incorrectly stated that students were advised not to return to university-owned apartments. The inclusion of apartments was in error. The Wire regrets this error.