In late March, a petition began on Change.org to allow pass/fail classes at Tech. The author of the petition, “George Burdell”, cited five reasons why the university should move to a pass/fail option: students’ mental health, “willy nilly” class syllabi, unequal access to online learning, other schools’ policies in favor of pass/fail and disparate difficulty between classes.
The author stated, “I do think it is not fair to grade us amidst a virus outbreak that nobody could have anticipated.” As of early April, the petition is nearing two thousand and five hundred supporters. The comments reveal a diverse range of signatories, from current students and concerned parents to fellow students from other universities.
While a few stragglers used the opportunity to troll, several students commented with deeply personal concerns. One student brought up her ADHD, writing “I have now been forced to learn in a manner that is exceptionally difficult for me.” Another student signed, “Let our grades be a reflection of our ability, not our privilege this semester.” A similar petition at UGA gathered about nine thousand signatures.
Despite this, the University System of Georgia (USG) elected to not shift to a pass/fail option. On March 30, a spokesperson for USG said, “We trust our faculty to teach and grade students effectively. In times of adversity, we should reach higher, not lower.”
In solidarity with student sentiment, on March 31, the undergraduate Student Government Association (SGA) passed a resolution in favor of pass/fail. “I hoped to add another vital voice behind the movement to move to P/F grading scheme,” said Tolga Ustuner, chief author of the resolution. Echoing Tolga, Noah Shirk, another author of the resolution, added “The ability to opt-in to Pass/Fail also protects students who may require that classes be taken not Pass/Fail for scholarship eligibility, graduate school requirements, or other purposes.”
The resolution, which passed unanimously, stated that since Georgia Tech moved to a distance-learning format on March 23, there were many reasons to support pass/fail. Many students did not have access to a fast, reliable internet connection. There was an “unfair burden on the students … to work through the communication barriers imposed upon them.”
Out of state and international students face the added difficulty of variable time zones. According to the authors, these circumstances would have unfair repercussions on students’ academic performance and mental health. Furthermore, the “trauma of having to move out,” and travel home while being socially isolated and fearing illness negatively impacted students’ well being.
Like the petition, the resolution also noted policies at other engineering institutions, stating that forty seven out of fifty institutions had allowed students to choose between a pass/fail or letter grade option. The authors pointed out that while changes were being made to syllabi, the expectations to succeed in courses had changed substantially and students no longer had access to the same support essential for successful learning. With this in mind, the undergraduate SGA urged the Tech administration to allow a pass/fail option and engage with USG on behalf of its students. Among others, the resolution was distributed to the president of Tech, the USG Board of Regents and the chancellor of USG.
The fifty peer schools referred to in the SGA resolution above were compiled via a collaborative Google document developed by students. According to the document, all top fifty schools in U.S. News’ Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs have implemented some sort of pass/fail policy, with Tech being the sole exception. The anonymous authors of the document state, “Why do you stand by a USG statement that reeks of privilege, disregards underprivileged students, and calls it reaching higher, not lower? We deserve better than this.”
With both students’ and faculty’s lives being thrown into turmoil this semester, many are calling on President Ángel Cabrera to put his foot down and appeal to the USG Board of Regents. A student on Reddit writes, “When the needs of disadvantaged students at every single peer institution are being met, but those specifically at Georgia Tech cannot say the same, his silence is not acceptable.”