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Decentralized PDF grading policy sparks debate over fairness

<h6>Photo courtesy of © Richard Trenner ’70</h6>
Photo courtesy of © Richard Trenner ’70

In the past week, students have been gradually finding out which classes they can take for a grade and which classes they cannot — whether by Blackboard post, email, or casual mention over Zoom. Some are still waiting on concrete answers.

On March 19, Dean of the College Jill Dolan announced that the University is “expand[ing] the use of the [Pass/D/Fail] option” to cope with remote learning amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. Students may choose PDF grading for any course that offers the option instead of adhering to the usual limit of one per semester. Electing to take courses PDF in the spring of 2020 “will not limit [one’s] ability to choose the PDF option” in future semesters. The University also pushed back the deadline to select the PDF grading option to May 1, which coincides with the final day of spring term classes.


Dolan’s email left grading policies at the discretion of individual professors, departments, and programs. The University “urged” faculty to include the PDF option, “encouraged” faculty to consider PDF-only grading, and “expect[s]” departments to accept the PDFs for departmental requirements and prerequisites, but these decisions will ultimately be made by faculty.

Unlike the University, most Ivy League institutions have adopted university-wide policies on whether and how to make classes Pass/Fail in response to COVID-19. Columbia University and Dartmouth College both adopted full Pass/Fail-only measures for the remainder of the academic year, while Cornell University, The University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University each announced they would extend the Pass/Fail option for all classes. At Brown University, students already have the option to take any class Pass/Fail by default. Harvard University has not announced a change in University-wide grading policy.

The Daily Princetonian contacted senior leadership from each University department and program and independently received information on grading policies from 25 of the University’s 36 departments and 27 of over 50 certificate programs. Each indicated that it will accept courses taken as PDF toward degrees and certificates, a non-traditional measure. Still, policies and their communication are fragmented.

Of the 25 departments that responded, 18 are mandating that all professors allow students the option to PDF classes. The other seven all operate by the discretion of individual professors. Within the latter category, guidance from departmental leadership varies from “strongly encourag[ing]” professors to offer the PDF option in the Department of East Asian Studies to “le[aving] the matter to individual faculty” for the Department of Philosophy.

COS 375: Computer Architecture and Organization is offering the PDF option but, should students stay on the conventional grading scale, what would conventionally be marked as a B will now be recorded as an A. Students may earn as low as a numerical equivalent to a C+ and still receive an A- on their transcript.

The Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering (ORFE) originally announced that it would require concentrators to take any of the department’s core classes for a standard grade, before deciding to allow the PDF option a few days later. Students in JRN 447: Politics and the Media — Shaping the Debate on International Issues received an email on March 26 requesting that they notify their professor if they choose to take the class on a PDF basis.


All spring writing seminars, in which around half of first year students are enrolled, have been converted to PDF-only.

CHM 202: General Chemistry II will not offer the PDF option to its 146 students, while the 71 students enrolled in Foundations of EGR 153: Engineering — Electricity and Photonics will be graded by PDF-only.

ECO 100: Introduction to Microeconomics, a 341-person class, was PDF-only for about 24 hours. After receiving feedback from students, it switched to PDF-optional.

“When I made the announcement that the course would be PDF only, the students were very upset,” ECO 100 Professor Kelly Noonan wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’. “Many students have worked very hard for the first half of the semester and want to continue working hard (it can be a great distraction). For these students, PDF-optional is a great choice.”

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It is not clear how grading will take place within courses which are cross-listed across departments with differing policies. Among programs, many of which utilize courses administered by departments in the course load required for certificates, there is similar uncertainty.

Some programs which do not run their own courses, and instead require a combination of courses run by University departments, as in the case of the Program in Values and Public Life, have no power to shift grading policy.

Others have a set of independently listed classes and therefore maintain the agency to change grading policy as they see fit. The Program in Theater, for example, is “offering students PDF in all classes” and “will certainly be grading more generously and offering extensions” to students wishing to receive a letter grade, according to program director Jane Cox.

No department or program has mandated that its faculty enact a PDF-only policy as a consequence of remote learning. Both the economics department and the German department initially announced or encouraged a department-wide, PDF-only standard, before changing their policies a few days later.

The means of communicating such changes with students appears equally fragmented. As of Thursday at 10 p.m., the website of the Office of the Registrar had not been updated to reflect changes in grading policy.

Ilyana Kuziemko, Professor of Economics, took to Twitter to voice her disapproval of the policy.

“Ugh, we (Princeton) are leaving it up to the professor. I have moved to P/F & some students are unhappy,” she wrote. “I really wish we would make it a university-wide policy and have a clear disclaimer on transcripts (what MIT & Columbia, among others, are doing).”

Kuziemko's department is recommending professors go the optional PDF route. Elizabeth Bogan, a Senior Lecturer in Economics, is one of the main supporters of this decision.

“I strongly [believe] that the harm to students who will be using their transcripts for many years in applying for jobs or graduate school of not having good grades in their key courses will put them at a serious disadvantage,” she wrote in an email to The Daily Princetonian. “I find it bordering on fraud to deny the students who want the grades from getting them, especially for those who worked so hard and did so well in the first half of the course.”

Bogan wrote to the ‘Prince’ she believes the grades she received at Columbia University when its economics department chose to go PDF-optional during the Vietnam War helped her get a job at the University 23 years later.

Other instructors have decided to let their students vote on the grading system, sending out surveys and encouraging students to send emails voicing their preference.

ECO 301: Macroeconomics, which is taught to 105 students, has gone through every step of this process. Course instructors announced a PDF-only policy on Sunday. On Monday, they sent out a poll, in which 42 students requested a PDF option, 41 requested PDF-only, and two listed “No Preference.”

On Wednesday, after explaining her reasons for going PDF-only in lecture the day before, Professor Wenli Li announced a shift to optional-PDF in accordance with the department’s recommendation — saying that different courses implementing different policies within the department would “potentially put 301 students at a disadvantage relative to their peers (at other schools and within Princeton).”

“As I mentioned before, my preference is for the mandatory policy,” she wrote in a Blackboard announcement to students. “However, the fact that this is not a uniform policy implemented university wide by the Dean of the College leaves students (and professors) in an awkward position.”

Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures Chair Michael Wachtel expressed similar sentiments when describing his department’s un-finalized policy.

“I cannot at this point give you an official statement because our policies are in flux. My sense is that we will be giving a PDF option in every class,” he wrote in an email to the ‘Prince’. “To be honest, I personally am hoping for a university directive, because it is very complicated if every department is supposed to go its own way.”

Professor's Discretion vs. Department Mandate.JPG
Harsimran Makkad / The Daily Princetonian

Some students have also expressed concern with the lack of an overarching University policy.

Anna McGee ’22 started a petition demanding universal mandatory PDF before the University’s announcement. She still pushes the University to reconsider.

“The University's grading decision — wherein professors have the choice to make classes either become optional PDF or mandatory PDF — individualizes a policy that should be standardized,” McGee wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’

McGee is a Chief Copy Editor for the ‘Prince.’

She argued that the University’s policy allows students from more privileged backgrounds to cherry-pick which classes to PDF to “stack their grades” from the comfort of their homes. Meanwhile, students facing financial uncertainty or concerns about their physical or mental health are left to struggle with choosing grading options. 

Violet Gautreau ’22, said she favors the PDF-only system for similar reasons. 

“Everyone keeps talking about the fact that we’re young and even if we get corona [sic] it would just be a couple of days of cold symptoms, but that’s really not true for all of us,” she wrote in a message to the ‘Prince.’ “I have an autoimmune disorder so if I caught it I would take double the time or more to recover, and it would generally hit me harder. I’d be out of commission for a lot of class.”

Another student, Pooja Parmar ’22, thinks that many of her classmates will not choose the PDF option, even if they want to, out of concern about how others will view their decision.

“I think that mandatory PDF is the way to go because no matter how much professors claim that we should not adhere to the stigma of not choosing PDF, if there is an option, people will think about the stigma,” she said.

In response to these concerns, McGee is joining other student leaders and petitioning to form a group called Princeton Students for Universal PDF. The group is circulating a submission form to collect students’ stories of how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting their academic work; the group is also working with student groups at other Ivy League universities to achieve grading reform this semester.

“I am proud to be a Princeton student, and I'd like to believe that if we truly can come together, making individual sacrifices for the greater good, the University will change their grading policy,” McGee wrote. 

As resistance from McGee and her coalition continues, other students are accepting the University’s decision. Vincent Pagano ’22, who had started the petition supporting an optional PDF policy, told the ‘Prince’ he found the University’s decision “somewhat admirable” because it indicated the administration was “choosing not to pick sides.”

According to Pagano, optional PDF is the “least bad option” because it allows students to continue following their academic plans with the regular grading system, if they choose to. He said other students feel the same way.

“Based on the statistics of my petition, a significant portion of the student body is in fact opposed to the mandatory PDF policy,” Pagano said. “As such, there is no unanimous source of support for an [sic] specific alternative policy, which diminishes the odds of convincing the University to modify their policy.”

As of March 26, 8:38 p.m., 910 students have signed the mandatory PDF petition and 705 have signed the optional PDF petition.

McGee and Pagano’s disagreement is playing out on a wider scale at Universities across the country — which have responded to the COVID-19 crisis in very different ways. While some schools, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard Law School, were quick to reveal their amended school policies, other universities are still undecided.

MIT was one of the first to announce a Pass/Fail mandate for all full-time undergraduate and graduate students, arguing that “[This] is the grading system that recognizes and responds to the significant disruption that impacts all students and our entire shared academic endeavor,” and “will best mitigate current and future stress and anxiety of students.”

Following MIT’s philosophy, the list of colleges adopting a mandatory Pass/Fail policy has grown to include Columbia University, Dartmouth College, Bowdoin College, Duke University, Smith College, Wellesley College, Harvard Law School, University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Stanford Law School.

Smith College went further creating an optional Pass/Fail policy and requiring instructors to also maintain a record of letter grades. According to the college’s website, “because letter grades will be recorded, it will be possible for students to request an official letter attesting those grades should that be necessary.”

Meanwhile, a number of other U.S. colleges are adopting optional Pass/Fail grading systems. Cornell University, The University of Pennsylvania, Yale University, the College of William and Mary, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are just some of those schools.

Additionally, Carnegie Mellon and Bowdoin are giving students seven days after final grades are released to decide whether a class will be graded Pass/Fail, while the College of William and Mary is accepting a “Pass” for any grade of D- or higher. 

It is unclear at this point whether administrators are considering implementing a University-wide policy.

For now, the University has nothing to add beyond Dean Dolan’s original announcement, University Spokesperson Ben Chang wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’

Editor’s note: No reporters or editors associated with The Daily Princetonian’s Editorial Board contributed to the writing or editing of this story.