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Penn recently suspended dean's list honors for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Credit: Max Mester

Students expressed mixed feelings about Penn's suspension of dean's list honors for the 2020-2021 academic year — but student leaders involved in the decision-making process maintain that the move was made to benefit students from marginalized backgrounds.

Some students said that the timing of the announcement, which was made less than two weeks before the end of spring classes, blindsided them, given how hard they worked to receive the award.

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Paul Sniegowski, who announced the suspension of dean's list honors in an email to College students on April 19, wrote that the move was intended to keep academic policy consistent with the previous year, in which the pass/fail grading option was expanded in response to the pandemic.

The University's announcement attributed the suspension of dean's list to the extension of the pass/fail grading policy, but did not mention addressing students’ living situations or academic difficulties, which Undergraduate Assembly President Mercedes Owens cited as additional reasons.

The University typically awards dean’s list recognition for students who have achieved a cumulative GPA of 3.7 in an academic year, given that six or more courses were taken for a grade. All grades must be above a C, and courses must be completed on time with no Incompletes, NRs, and GRs.

College first year Michael Nolan said he was frustrated that the announcement was made late in the semester and after the March 19 deadline to opt in to pass/fail grading. 

“It just felt like a really out-of-left-field thing,” Nolan said. “I feel like, if I had known ahead of time, then I didn’t need to worry so much about that certain notation on my transcript.”

Student leaders, including Undergraduate Assembly President and College senior Mercedes Owens, said that the suspension of dean's list was intended to ensure that students who had to attend classes under adverse learning conditions amid the pandemic would not feel overlooked. Owens said she worked with the Council of Undergraduate Deans, UA, and Student Committee on Undergraduate Education to advise the University's decision-making.

“We really felt that it wasn’t fair to reward students who had access to stable and equitable living conditions while punishing students who were not as fortunate and who were inherently at a disadvantage,” Owens said.

Engineering junior Aidan Young, the External Chair of SCUE, echoed Owens, adding that because the requirements for the dean's list awards included taking at least six courses for a grade, students who took advantage of the extended pass/fail policy this academic year may have been negatively impacted in dean's list consideration.

Although the suspension of dean's list was intended to benefit students, students said they were disappointed that their hard work will go unacknowledged, with some adding that the University could have found other ways to reward students.

Wharton first year Faith Bochert felt that the University could have changed the requirements for dean's list. She said that reducing the number of courses required to be taken for a grade could have been a solution to concerns about dean's list coexisting with the expanded pass/fail grading policy. 

“There are plenty of options here that I don’t even think would be a logistical nightmare,” she said. “It just requires them to put in a little extra effort.”

College first year Charlie Schumer said he felt that it is important to highlight students’ achievements, especially after the difficult year. He suggested that the requirements for dean's list could be amended rather than outright suspending the awards. 

“It seems like it was a decision made without thinking through every possible option,” he said. “I definitely recognize where they’re coming from, but I think students still deserve to be recognized in some way.”

Some students said they wished the University had been more clear about the reasons for the suspension, including Bochert, who said she got the impression that the University was punishing students because of the extended pass/fail policy that it chose to offer.

“I think they forget that we pay them $80,000 a year to go here,” Bochert said. “I think $80,000 warrants a little bit more than a bullet point in an email saying, ‘Hey, we’re not doing this this year, by the way.’”

Students in the Class of 2022 GroupMe chat debated about the suspension on Monday afternoon, with many noting that the policy change is intended to level an uneven playing field among students who do not have equal access to adequate learning environments amid the pandemic. 

Owens said that taking steps to improve mental wellness among students outweighs the distribution of awards like the dean's list. 

“The dean's list is just another arbitrary title,” Owens said. “The title itself is not more important than the mental or physical well-being of the student body.”