Academic pass/fail policy in the works in response to student petition

A petition started and signed by John Carroll University students has led to faculty and administrators taking action, resulting in new rules for pass/fail grading that are expected to be announced by the end of the week. 

The petition on, started by Anneliese Preske ‘20 on March 22, requested that John Carroll switch over from the traditional grading scale to a pass/fail grading scale in response to COVID-19. “While this [moving to online classes] is the safest option for the JCU community, it poses a great challenge to students and educators alike. From technical issues to lack of communication with faculty, Spring 2020 has become a semester of educational disadvantages,” the petition states. 

In an update, Preske clarified, “The pass/fail grading scale would be optional. Similar to what other universities are doing, you would have the option of choosing either traditional grades (A, B) or pass/fail.” The petition quickly rose in popularity with over 1,400 signatures.

Student Government Senators Lilian Lebednick ‘21 and Brendan Sieber ‘20 have been working for about three weeks on the pass/fail issue. Both are part of the Academic Continuity Team, which consists of faculty and students. “I worked with four or five different department heads and Dr. [Michael] Martin [Associate Dean for Sciences, Mathematics and Health], and we wrote up a new pass/fail structure for this semester specifically and submitted it to the Provost on Tuesday,” said Lebednick. “It will be up to the Provost to decide if he likes this policy or if he thinks it should change any further.” 

Many students support the idea of a special pass/fail policy for this unusual semester. The transition to online courses creates a new atmosphere for many, one that hasn’t been experienced before. Sophomore Makayla Kampas stated, “Pass/fail options would be great for students at JCU. In my own experience, the transition to online classes has been a challenge for myself and my professors. I definitely learn better in a classroom setting, so the transition to online learning has been tough.

“I believe that the online classes will make it a challenge for students to adeptly perform as they would on campus…Carroll always has an interest in what’s best for its community, so I am confident they will consider the pass/fail option,” she continued.

Housing can be another component that adds stress for students. Sophomore John Slagter explained how varying housing situations may create problems for students. “Each student has a different home situation, and not everyone has the same technology,” Slagter said. “Some students might have a home situation which is harder to focus in, and some students do not have technology that can efficiently or effectively get their work done. The pass/fail system would be the best system to meet each person’s accommodations.”

The fear of the coronavirus pandemic also factors into the stress already created by the normal college workload. “With everything going on I think it would be a good idea,” said senior Josh Buchek. “There’s a lot of real world stuff going on. It makes things hectic.” 

At the general faculty meeting on March 25, a motion passed asking the college’s COVID-19 Task Force to develop a new policy regarding the pass/fail option in response to the major petition by students. 

“There was widespread support among faculty, but not universal support,” said Dan Kilbride, head of Faculty Council and a member of JCU’s COVID-19 Task Force. “There was a vote where someone made a motion that the faculty request that the COVID-19 Task Force design a pass/fail policy.

“The motion passed with something like 40 people in favor and 16 opposed. There was significant support for it, but there was also not insignificant …  ambivalence or uncertainty about that,” he continued.

JCU’s COVID-19 Task Force assesses how the University responds to the pandemic and updates students, faculty and staff. Mark McCarthy, the vice president for Student Affairs, and Garry Homany, director of Risk Assessment and Regulatory Affairs, co-chair the task force and send emails regularly that contain crucial information as to decisions the University has made regarding COVID-19.

The new pass/fail policy was drafted by the Task Force. The goal of the new policy, according to Kilbride, is to give students more flexibility during this uncertain time. “I think originally a lot of faculty felt this was not a good idea, but now they are realizing these are pretty exceptional circumstances so we have to be flexible,” he said.

“I think the current rules in the Undergraduate Bulletin say something like you can only do pass/fail six times. This policy says if you do pass/fail this semester, it won’t count towards those six,” Kilbride said. 

The policy that has been drafted by the COVID-19 Task Force must  be reviewed and approved by the Provost Steven Herbert. Kilbride said that Herbert has looked at the policy and offered feedback on the draft. Kilbride hopes the policy will be approved in the near future, possibly as soon as April 3. 

Although Kilbride said that the goal is for the policy to be as clear as possible, he addressed some questions that students in his classes have raised. 

Students can choose which classes the pass/fail option will apply to. “Let’s say you want to raise your GPA in your major. You wouldn’t choose pass/fail. You’d want those letter grades. If you want to choose a letter grade in three classes and pass/fail in two, you can do that. It does not have to be pass/fail across the board,” he said.

In order to receive the “P” designation, the grade must be equivalent to an A, B or C. If a student gets a letter grade between a C- and D-, that grade will appear on the transcript. If a student fails a course, an F will appear on the transcript. 

Kilbride explained, “I suspect there are some students who think ‘If I get a D, I pass the class.’ That is not what [pass/fail] means. You pass, but with a D. It is very important that students understand exactly what a pass/fail means.” 

Additionally, Kilbride reminded students that pass/fail grades do not count towards a student’s GPA. “Any class you take for a P, they don’t count towards your GPA. Any class that is for letter grade does count,” he said.

He also discussed concerns about how the pass/fail option will affect students applying to medical, law and graduate schools. “In normal times, a medical school may look at a pass in Chemistry and say that is not good. Why did you take that as a pass? I think in 2020 Spring semester will be understood as an exceptional time. I think most places and employers will understand that this semester was a very disruptive one. People should be cut some slack.

“Faculty at John Carroll understand that, and I would hope that admission boards and law and medical schools would take into account what is going on this semester. I understand why students are very concerned about this, but I think it is less of a crisis than people think. We need to understand that we need to be flexible,” he said. 

The new pass/fail policy is expected to be approved and released by the end of the week, according to Kilbride.