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pass-fail-01
Credit: Isabel Liang

On Monday, Penn’s undergraduate deans released a joint advisory statement recommending that students think “very carefully” before deciding to take general requirement or major courses pass/fail in the spring 2021 semester. They reminded us that Penn is “in the minority” in offering a requirement-satisfying pass/fail option and that choosing to pass/fail courses may result in a “lack of documentation of compelling academic achievement” thereby “compromising future applications to jobs, professional schools, and graduate schools.” Thus, the deans of all four undergraduate colleges “strongly advise” that students only choose to pass/fail these courses under “extenuating circumstances.”

The deans and, by extension, Penn, not only fail to acknowledge the truly unprecedented circumstances of the global pandemic, but also stigmatize a perfectly rational and reasonable decision to decrease stress in the most stressful of times. The deans define extenuating circumstances as including significant family responsibility, personal illness, lack of resources, time zone differences, and/or housing insecurity. They fail to include the 1,792 deaths caused by COVID-19 that occurred the same day as the email, the psychological impact of the racial and socioeconomic inequities pervasive in our healthcare system, or just the loneliness and isolation many are facing as they continue to adhere to COVID-19 restrictions. Put simply, this email suggests that the pandemic is a mere footnote on the semester, the pass/fail option given only as a pity concession to those deemed most in need.

In reality, the pandemic is worse now than it was almost a year ago when Penn first sent students back home. Hospitals remain overrun. Social distancing guidelines continue to be flouted. Though the approval of some vaccines and the ushering in of a new Biden administration are reasons for hope, there is no reason to act as though the pandemic is over. It is not. Expecting students to adhere to pre-pandemic norms is not only unreasonable, it is unfeeling. With this email, the deans reminded us of their commitment to “solid achievement” and “quality of student’s academic work” as though the existence of the pass/fail policy decreased it. In fact, the pass/fail policy demonstrates not only a commitment to academic success but also to mental health and wellbeing. With the appointment of Dr. Benoit Dubé and recent efforts to emphasize wellness on campus, Penn would do well not to forget the importance of such initiatives.

That is why the creation of the pass/fail policy stood out as a beacon of support in the first place; it reflected an administration that understood the unique stressors facing students these past few semesters and intended to support its students in any way possible. Penn’s pass/fail policy, though “in the minority,” should be something to be proud of and an example for peer institutions to follow in order to best support their students. This email subverts all of these efforts. 

The fact that the deans felt obliged to publish such an email reflects poorly on our administration and on our institutions which have made it seem that grades and “future applications” should be prioritized above all else, even in the midst of a global pandemic. This email unfairly deters students to pass/fail courses who may actually benefit from such a policy and, in discussing potential ramifications, pressures students to make decisions based on grades rather than health and wellbeing. Nothing should ever be prioritized above the health of students. Penn, please withdraw this email and support your students; we are in a global pandemic after all.

AGATHA ADVINCULA is a College junior from Brooklyn, N.Y. studying Health & Societies and Computer Science. Her email is agathaa@sas.upenn.edu.

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