Dear Dean Dolan,
I hope you are staying safe and taking care in these trying times. I am aware that by now you must have received countless emails about this topic, but in light of my situation and the situation of many others, I’ve found it necessary both for the sake of argument and for my own peace of mind to express my thoughts. First, thank you for all of the work you and other administrators have been doing to ensure that students, faculty, and staff are safe. These precautions have led to difficult decisions and quick action that you and your colleagues have been forced to take these past weeks, and I am aware this has been unprecedented and overwhelming. I do not wish to add to this source of stress. Thank you and your colleagues for the work done. I do not wish to adopt a tone of insensitivity. However, I do feel the need to provide a student perspective.
The University declared earlier that they would leave it up to departments and course instructors to determine the grading policy. They recently updated the policy to make the pass/D/fail option available for every class, letting professors choose to make their classes PDF-only. While this solution seems like a viable compromise, this policy has caused many inconsistencies across departments and even within departments themselves. While the change is an improvement, I still worry a PDF-optional policy affects the quality of learning and the experience of all students, particularly those who are coming home to conditions of hardship and disadvantage.
Despite the policy being set for the rest of the semester, I believe that there is still a chance to enact a more equitable policy, especially as the situation with COVID-19 worsens in the coming weeks. A pivoting move like this has been adopted by institutions such as Harvard Law School, which initially announced an optional credit-no-credit system before switching to a universal one. Many anticipate other peer institutions to do the same, and Princeton should not let the fact that policy has been released to hold them back from adopting a policy that will help more students.
Peer institutions such as Harvard, Columbia, MIT, and Wellesley have adopted universal pass-fail systems, and many others are anticipated to make similar moves. I am one of many students who believe that a consistent grading policy — rather than leaving it up to each instructor — would be most beneficial to ensure standardized teaching and learning experience and quality and to prevent some students from gaining advantages or disadvantages when some of their courses are made PDF and some are not. More information about this stance can be found in this rather strongly-worded editorial by The Daily Princetonian, which you may have read.
With the current university policy in place, many students have emailed professors who set mandatory PDF policies to revert them. Many of them were successful. This not only exacerbates an atmosphere of inconsistency and organizational chaos, but it enables a few privileged students who can afford to prioritize academics in a time that is of critical difficulty for others to disregard the needs of their peers and harm their academic experience in the process. I am not someone to make arguments of class often, but I am afraid that due to the disproportionate number of students advocating for an option to have a letter grade being students from stable, affluent backgrounds, who gets a good grade and who doesn’t — or who chooses to PDF — is going to become an issue of class. Not exclusively, but for the most part.
While all students now have an option to PDF, the fact that this measure is optional will enable countless graduate programs, employers, fellowships — anything requiring a transcript — to favor students who didn’t PDF, reasoning that they “toughed it out,” even if “toughing it out” is largely an issue of privilege. Some graduate programs, such as both Harvard and Stanford Medical Schools, have said they will only accept PDF grades if it was a mandatory policy.
For those students coming home who are ill or taking care of ill relatives, contributing to a struggling home in times of crisis, or worrying about family vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, this will severely diminish their chances of graduating from Princeton with the opportunities they would normally have under our usual, equitable environment for learning.
I do not see this benefiting the University, as this could impact and diminish the number of graduates that make it to prestigious programs and fellowships. The move the academic community is taking toward universal PDF is something Princeton needs to contribute to if we wish for an aftermath of this crisis where students and their opportunities are protected. The University is a national leader, and whatever example it sets is extremely visible, prompting other institutions to follow suit.
If Princeton does what many view as the right thing and mandates a universal PDF system, it will not only benefit the well-being of Princeton students, but its integrity among other institutions and the well-being of students in those institutions as well. Princeton gains no advantage by maintaining an inconsistent policy that affects students with great disparity. Universal PDF is also imperfect, but it is, in terms of teaching and learning quality and repercussions on students, the most equitable option.
To speak from experience, as an international student from Venezuela, I am unable to go home. I was fortunate enough to be granted permission to stay on campus, but as a friend of mine was able to host me, I decided to stay with him to possibly give my opportunity to someone else who needed it more than I did. Even though I am comfortably living in his suburban New Jersey home, my whole family is still back in Venezuela. The country has been struck with the pandemic, and our healthcare system is absolutely unable to deal with it if it spreads, so the most drastic lockdown and quarantine measures are being taken.
Both of my parents are 60 years of age and vulnerable to the severe and possibly lethal effects of the coronavirus. Communication to home has not been easy, as internet services have decreased in quality due to the crisis. This situation, along with the uncertainty of my future amidst this pandemic, is putting considerable pressure on me and my mental health. I don’t know when I’ll see my family again, and I have no certainty that they will be safe in a country that, on top of rampant violent crime, now deals with a deadly public health crisis that they cannot contain.
Many other students close and not so close to me have similar situations. Many have gone home to abusive households that have been exacerbated by the crisis. Many have lost their jobs and are struggling to provide for their families. Many others suffer from numerous mental health issues, and the coronavirus crisis and the uncertainty surrounding the state of the world makes them unable to focus. Even for the students that are able to focus on classes and learn for a letter grade, the experience with online classes will simply not be the same, and they will not have the same learning opportunities that would normally be warranted to obtain those grades. Therefore, maintaining some classes with letter grades would not be beneficial for their education.
These are times of global crisis, and it’s necessary for us to acknowledge that. Part of that acknowledgement is accepting that we cannot maintain the same quality and conditions of teaching and learning, and therefore, we cannot maintain the same grading scale.There are numerous problems arising from online classes, such as professors who have little experience using these new platforms. For classes that simply cannot be the same without an in-person experience, maintaining the possibility of scaled grading is unrealistic. However, allowing some to adopt policies while others don’t will not do anything to solve this issue.
In many more cases, it will actually exacerbate the disparity.
In this crisis, we have to prioritize getting through it, and while some people can afford to worry mainly about academics, a vast majority cannot, and the desires of this minority should not prevent us from adopting measures that alleviate those most affected by this situation.
If the university acted swiftly and firmly to send all students home, implement distancing policies and cancel events like Reunions, the same kind of resolve can be used to apply a universal, consistent, equitable, and compassionate PDF-only policy.
One of the qualities of good leadership is the ability to acknowledge times of crisis, accepting that things cannot be the same, and adopting the necessary measures to protect the most vulnerable swiftly and with resolve, even if they require sacrifices from a privileged majority. Adopting the universal PDF measure will demonstrate Princeton’s commitment to not just creating smart leaders, but empathetic leaders, who prioritize their communities and vulnerable populations in times of need.
Once again, I thank you for your work in these times of crisis and acknowledge that while it doesn’t fall solely upon you to make this decision, I urge you, on behalf of myself and many more, to please fight for this measure, the only responsible action to take if we are to continue this University’s mission in times like this. I worry about how Princeton and its students will be remembered when this is over. Princeton can do better, and I urge you to please help us achieve that.
Thank you for your help.
Editor’s note: This column has been adapted from an email the author sent to Dean of the College Jill Dolan.
Juan José López Haddad is a sophomore from Caracas, Venezuela. He can be reached at email@example.com.