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The ivory tower is not immune to pandemic

Graduate School
The Graduate College, with Cleveland Tower. 
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

In recent weeks, the University has not hesitated to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with decisive action. From calling off Reunions, granting extensions for independent work, and sending students home, Nassau Hall has adopted drastic but necessary measures.

Despite such swift, coordinated action, the University has failed to set a consistent and equitable grading policy. On Thursday, Dean of the College Jill Dolan released new undergraduate grading guidelines, which will apply for the rest of the semester. Among other provisions, students may now elect to take an unlimited number of courses pass/D/fail (PDF) and have until May 1 to do so.


Those steps notwithstanding, the University has not mandated that PDF be made available for all classes. Rather, the University has “urged faculty to change the grading basis for their courses to include the P/D/F option.” Professors, then, may withhold the choice.

Furthermore, it remains unclear whether all departments will accept PDF courses to fill requirements. In her email, Dolan wrote, “we expect departments to accept the P/D/F.” Why would the University expect, rather than require, such a step?

By allowing professors and departments to set their own rules, the University has sanctioned arbitrary discrepancies in students’ academic circumstances. Instead of ameliorating the inequities that have resulted from the pandemic, this new policy only compounds them.

Responses from professors have covered a wide range of opinions. Some have been thoughtful and accommodating, switching their classes to optional PDF or adjusted grading scales so that more students can earn higher grades. A few have even switched their courses to PDF-only. 

Others, however, have discouraged students from choosing PDF, insinuating that doing so would indicate poor performance to future employers or graduate schools. These messages pressure students to take graded classes at the expense of their wellbeing. 

Taken together, these individual policies contradict one another, only further confusing students looking for guidance in this time of extreme turmoil. They serve as evidence of the flaws inherent in forcing professors to make individual policy decisions that should be made on the University-wide level. In creating such a convoluted policy, the University may have disadvantaged students planning to apply to graduate school. Citing the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 crisis, graduate programs, including Harvard and Stanford medical schools, have in turn announced that they will “accept pass/fail grading for spring 2020 coursework provided it is the policy of the college/university to only award pass/fail grades,” meaning premed Princeton students will be forced to take their classes graded while their peers at other institutions will not.


In a contrast to previous messages rightfully emphasizing student wellbeing, Dean Dolan’s email exhorted students to focus on their studies, claiming, “our collective goal should be to continue our academic work as effectively as possible.” As the COVID-19 pandemic throws the world into medical and economic crisis, pretending that classes should, much less can, be graded as normal flies in the face of reality. Already, multiple faculty members and students have tested positive for COVID-19. Many more are likely to follow.

In an opinion published earlier this month, the Board concluded that universal PDF was the only course of action that would ensure academic equity. In recent days, peer institutions, such as Columbia, MIT, and Wellesley have adopted universal pass-fail systems. UNC Chapel Hill has suspended academic honors and plans to mark all transcripts in recognition of “the major disruption this pandemic has caused to the academic experience.”

The Board still recommends this action, holding hope that the University remembers that policy isn’t set in stone. Days after initially establishing an optional credit-no credit policy, Harvard Law School adopted universal credit-fail grading. In its email announcing the change, the administration urged students to devote their “mental and emotional energy to something other than worrying whether to opt into CR/F [Credit/Fail] for the semester.” 

We commend Harvard Law’s decision. Optional PDF sends the wrong message, as it fosters an unfair competition for grades. It disproportionately allows students who have returned to comfortable home situations to inflate their GPA. In this time of uncertainty, distress, and turmoil, students, regardless of their background, should dedicate their attention to issues more pressing than whether to PDF.

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We applaud Princeton’s previous decisions to revise policy when confronted with the realities of the pandemic and encourage similar action before the disparate effects of the current grading policy become even more self-evident.

It is confounding that in the midst of COVID-19, the University clings to pretenses of normalcy. The ivory tower is not immune to pandemic. We commend the professors who have already adopted equitable grading standards and urge the University to reconsider its grading policy this term.


Zachariah W. Sippy ’22


Benjamin Ball ’21

Shannon E. Chaffers ’22

Rachel Kennedy ’21

Kate Lee ’23

Madeleine Marr ’21

Jonathan A. Ort ’21

Elizabeth Parker ’21

Emma Treadway ’22

Ivy Truong ’21

Cy Watsky ’21