By: Sruli Fruchter  | 

YU Deans, We Need a Universal P/N Policy

When rumors began to spread about approaching announcements of YU’s new Pass/No Credit (P/N) policy amidst the coronavirus pandemic, we were excited. After garnering over 1,000 signatures for the petition that requested these changes, we were ready for the administration to alleviate our stresses and even the playing field.

Then, we received the new P/N policy, and its failures became glaringly clear.

The Sy Syms School of Business (SSSB) was the first to inform their students: a maximum of two courses are eligible for P/N, excluding any major or minor requirements. The Katz School follows those guidelines, too. Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women, however, allow students an unlimited number of P/N courses, but the policy cannot be applied to major-related courses. 

While the new P/N policy was well-intentioned, it fails to fulfill the needs of all students. Since this pandemic began, disproportionate and arbitrary variables have been the greatest factor in determining many students’ grades, as opposed to their normal academic aptitude. 

On the basis of time zones, students living in places like Austria or Los Angeles are facing inevitable disadvantages, as they must either watch pre-recorded classes or take classes on a different schedule than their tri-state-based counterparts. Forgoing geographical variations, substituting our classrooms for our bedrooms has implicitly introduced our living conditions into our grade assessment, making completing assignments and studying less than optimal, to say the least. Additionally, familial obligations may ensnare students from low-income families or parents needing assistance, detracting mental and physical energy and time traditionally devoted to academics. Students, their friends or their family members may even be plagued with COVID-19, undoubtedly incapacitating their academic abilities. These few examples clearly demonstrate the imbalanced factors that make the standard letter-grading system ineffective in distinguishing students’ academic performance from their pandemic conditions. 

The YU administration acknowledges these hardships engendered by the coronavirus, as they did introduce a P/N policy to address the situation. However, their policy has significant drawbacks.

At the base level, every course must be eligible for P/N, without any exclusions. If a student would decide to P/N his elective “Principles of Economics” course because of circumstances beyond his control, it would follow that said circumstances may also affect his “Programming Languages” major course; in the case of the latter, however, this student would be unable to do anything. Moreover, students with a course-load of mainly major electives or requirements are practically unaffected by this policy and cannot rely on this “safety net,” as Dean of the Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences Karen Bacon characterized it. A similar caveat is found with the two-course limitations imposed by SSSB and Katz, as administrators cannot confidently say that the coronavirus will only affect a students’ performance in two courses. This policy further states that students wishing to P/N a course “must have declared a major in one of the undergraduate Schools before the end of the Spring 2020 semester,” limiting any benefit that students who have not yet declared their major can receive.

Nevertheless, even if a student does choose to P/N a course, he is inherently placed at a disadvantage. As Dean Bacon told students in her announcement email, “choosing P/N is a serious academic decision with implications beyond YU.” Similarly, SSSB Dean Noam Wasserman’s email to students capitulated, “[Taking P/N for a class] can have negative effects when applying for graduate school and applying for jobs, and is a factor in the academic awards process.” Regardless of this P/N policy’s details, many students are left utterly helpless in this crisis; they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. 

Ultimately, these pitfalls point to one solution: a universal P/N grading system for all undergraduate students, an approach already implemented by universities like Columbia, Harvard and Yale. In this model, all students would be graded on a P/N scale, and transcripts would indicate the extenuating circumstances of the situation; students affected by the coronavirus would therefore not be indirectly penalized. 

When I emailed Dean Bacon about my aforementioned concerns of this P/N policy, she assured me that professors are “exceeding[ly] aware” of students’ challenges and are doing their best to be flexible. Additionally, she maintained that the current P/N policy allows students to receive the “rewards of high performance,” but still allows a “safety net” for matters beyond their control. Regarding Dean Bacon’s first point, the sensitivity of professors is very kind and well-appreciated, but to be frank, subjective determinations of flexibility and support by professors cannot substitute the need for an institutionalized measure to remedy the situation. In terms of Dean Bacon’s latter point, I would contend that it is only the privileged students, those practically unaffected by the coronavirus, who can actually enjoy the “rewards of high performance.” 

Understandably, others have argued that some students, like those on the pre-med track, for example, need letter grades on their transcript, so it would be unfair to impose a P/N grading policy. However, I believe that point is moot when considering that students are no longer operating in equal learning environments, and by allowing an opt-in for letter grades, the administration enables the disparities brought about by the Coronavirus. Furthermore, pre-med students are immediately discounted from an optional policy, as medical schools sternly frown upon a student who chooses to P/N a course.While one student may have the resources and environment to enable their usual academic abilities, another student can be crippled by them. 

We are in wartime, and we need an equitable and uniform P/N policy that is sensitive to the plethora of issues facing students in this disproportionate climate. This is not about us choosing to “commit ourselves” or trying to leverage grades as incentives for hard work; we are college students trying to survive the rising tide of global coronavirus deaths without sacrificing our futures after college.

It goes without saying that YU’s deans care about and are deeply invested in their students. If all this article amounts to is a “bashing session” on the administration, then it has been egregiously misunderstood. This is a call for a P/N policy that is equitable and fair for every single student at YU, and we need our deans to partner with us in bringing about this essential change.

Photo Caption: Wilf Campus
Photo Credit: The Commentator