Since the Spring Semester of 2020, Fairfield University students have been able to designate a certain number of classes as pass/fail. Yet, this emergency policy is coming to an end, with the ability to declare a course pass/fail for the 2021 Spring Semester expiring at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, May 4.
Now the faculty and academic administrators are currently trying to see if there’s a need for a permanent policy to be established on campus, and if so, what this policy would look like. To decide this, in the fall of 2020, the Academic Council tasked the Undergraduate Curriculum Committee, specifically a Pass/Fail Subcommittee, with formulating a pass/fail option to then be passed on back to them and established as a permanent fixture of academics at Fairfield.
This discussion has highlighted that though the majority of faculty and administrators believe there’s a need for a permanent system, what should be included and how this system should be operated is a conflicting point.
“The COVID-19 pandemic required the University – its students, faculty and staff – to adjust our processes and policies across many aspects of University life, notably teaching and learning” stated Christine Siegel, provost of Fairfield University.
She went on to say that, “Last spring, the pandemic brought to our awareness that, unlike other similar institutions, Fairfield University did not have a policy or process by which undergraduate students could petition for a pass/fail grade in a course.”
For the 2020 – 2021 academic year, students could elect for their academic performance to be evaluated on a Pass/Fail basis in up to two courses per semester. Further, students could not choose the Pass/Fail option for courses numbered 2000 or higher that are in the major. But, they were able to choose the Pass/Fail option for electives, courses to fulfill University/Magis core requirements, and/or minor requirements.
“I am in favor of the system as it was intended – as a relief valve during this stressful, tumultuous time, to be used sparingly for those who are in danger of lower grades and who need to put their limited energy and resources into other classes,” stated Jerelyn Johnson Ph.D., chair of the AC, in an email to The Mirror.
In this frame, the UCC’s passed plan decided to shift away from continuing the use of a Pass/Fail policy and instead called to move over to a Credit/No-Credit Policy.
In the Pass/Fail system a “P” or “F” shows up on the student’s transcript without the grade the student actually received in the class.
“[Students] have to remember that a “pass” signals a wide range of academic performance, from outstanding work to poor work,” said Mark Ligas, Ph.D. who is the vice provost for undergraduate excellence and marketing professor in the Charles F. Dolan School of Business.
He continued to say that an issue with the current pass/fail system is that anyone who reviews the student’s transcript may interpret the grade as less than what the student actually received as a letter grade.
In the new proposed Credit/No-Credit system, the student’s final grade will still be listed in the transcript. If they receive a “passing” grade, the credits are added, if they fail the course and receive a “No-Credit” then the credits are simply not added, but neither affects the student’s GPA.
The UCC’s proposed plan added a number of additional stipulations the earlier emergency plan lacked. Only students who had received 60 credits (traditionally the Junior and Senior class) could declare a class as Credit/No-Credit. Students only had until the add/drop period to designate a course “Credit” or “No-Credit”, but could reverse their decision at any time upon consultation with the faculty member instructing the course.
Further, though the earlier version of the pass/fail policy included the ability for students to declare classes within the Core Curriculum, including the Magis Core, as pass/fail, the UCC’s new Credit/No-Credit policy did not have this ability.
As found in the “Rationale for the Credit/No-Credit proposal”, it’s stated that this decision “is in line with peer institutions, and sends the message to students that the several Cores and their majors are equally important for their education.”
Yet, as the UCC passed their version of the now Credit/No-Credit policy in February of 2021, the plan is now for the Academic Council to edit and pass with their own stipulations.
It is during this process that certain aspects of the possible Credit/No-Credit policy have been brought into question.
Published in the Academic Council’s meeting notes from March 8, Susan Rackowitz, Ph.D., member of the Academic Council and Secretary of the General Faculty, brought up the idea that if the goal of the core was academic exploration then they should also be allowed to be designated as “Credit” or “No-Credit.”
She reiterated this concept in an email to The Mirror stating that the ability for students to take a small number of courses Pass/Fail or Credit/No-Credit, “is to encourage intellectual exploration and risk-taking.”
Professor William Abbott, Ph.D. stated that “It is my fervent hope, however, that the permanent policy will not (as the present policy does) permit Magis Core courses to be taken for pass/fail.”
He went on to say that he disagreed with Rackowitz’s claim that “intellectual exploration” is the only goal of the Magis Core.
“Such exploration, however, is not the only goal of the Magis Core, which, according to the University, is intended to emphasize ‘excellence’ in writing, critical reasoning, synthesis of solutions, communication, and an understanding of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of associated human behaviors,” Abbott said.
He continued to say “Such ‘excellence’ surely suffers when students are told, via this policy, that the academic rigor expected of them in Magis Core courses is not, and should not, be as high as that expected in their major ones.”
In the minutes from the March 1 Academic Council meeting, it was discussed that core courses should be able to be designated as Credit/No-Credit.
“To let a student performing at 65 percent earn the same Pass grade as a student performing at 85 percent makes a mockery of Fairfield’s claim to academic rigor,” Abbott says.
He goes on to say that though he understands the learning disruption faced by students, he believes that it was on the professors to grade any “underperforming student more generously, using the pedagogical expertise for which they were hired.”
Robert Epstein Ph.D. and a member of the AC remarked in the March 1 minutes, that the policy to not take into account the effect on grading and planning for departments that teach heavily in the Core.
Johnson, in an email to The Mirror stated that “My biggest concern with the implementation of a pass/fail system would be that students would not use it as an opportunity for intellectual exploration, but, instead, to apply it to a core course they have no interest in taking in the first place, but do just to satisfy a requirement.”
She goes on to state that from the perspective of the faculty, it’s “disheartening” and “disruptive to the culture of the classroom” to have students that are “intentionally doing the bare minimum to pass the class.”
In the AC’s March 1 meeting minutes, Siegal went on to say that she found the UCC’s proposed plan restrictive and that the goal was for students to have some self-determination.
In an email to The Mirror she stated that she fully supports the current pass/fail policy, stating, “The policies we currently have in place represent the best of shared governance, whereby students were able to bring forward their concerns, the administration requested action, and the faculty determined a policy to implement.”
She does note that “As we plan for a post-pandemic future, we are looking to learn from strategies that were helpful over the past year. The implementation of a permanent pass/fail or credit/no-credit policy is one example where learning from the pandemic can inform our practices going forward.”
Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Richard Greenwald Ph.D. seemed to echo Siegal’s concerns in the March 1 meeting minutes, regarding the restiveness of the UCC’s proposed plan. He went on to state the option of expanding the option to declare Credit/No-Credit courses to sophomores.
This is a change that the Fairfield University Student Association would seem to agree with, as in the Feb. 2 meeting minutes of the UCC discussing the UCC’s Credit/No-Credit policy, Vice President Tobenna Ugwu ‘22 stated that since most academic exploration happens in sophomore year when students declare a major or minor, sophomores should be included in the policy.
“The pandemic amplified the need for Fairfield to implement a permanent individual opt-in pass/fail policy,” Ugwu said in a statement to The Mirror.
Going on to say, “Our goal in the fall was to work with the UCC and the AC in creating an individual opt-in policy, to ensure that our fellow students have every resource available when navigating through an unforeseen circumstance that may have impacted their school work.”
Last November, FUSA conducted a survey of the students to gauge interest in a student-centered permanent Pass/Fail policy. Those results were then shared with the AC and UCC by President Vincent Gadioma ‘22 and Speaker of the Senate Noelle Guerrera ‘21 in a letter hoping for the two committees to listen to the student body when conducting a review of a permanent Pass/Fail policy.
As stated in the letter, 522 students responded to the survey and 464 stated their full support of a permanent Pass/Fail policy.
“While we wish we had released the survey earlier, the submissions received are consistent with the overwhelming support among the student body to implement a permanent student-oriented pass/fail policy on par with peer institutions as soon as this semester,” Gadioma and Guerrera stated.
“We propose that the existing pass/fail policy shift from a solely faculty centered approach to a student centered perspective as students should be empowered to use their best judgment to strengthen their education,” they added.
They ended their statement with, “Allowing for the utmost flexibility ensures students receive the most out of their liberal Jesuit education.”
The AC Members seem to agree with this statement.
“When not in a crisis situation, a P/F or credit/no-credit policy should be student-determined, meaning that students should be empowered to determine for themselves which courses to take P/F” Johnson stated.
She went further to assert that, “I have heard cases of students using the policy to ‘game’ their GPA.”
But goes on to say that though this is a shame, it is an “unavoidable consequence to what has been a help to our students who are genuinely suffering during this time.
Sophomore McKenna Dolan said that she used the Pass/Fail option once in a history class as her final grade was unknown and she was worried about the impact it’d have on her GPA. But she does agree with the idea that students are “abusing” the system, “because they want that perfect 4.0 that other people work hard for without the pass/fail option.”
“This year has just been so crazy and people are unsure of what to do, but I feel as though it is a good option if you’re putting the work in and not seeing the results you wanted, as I know some professors are being as tough as they were without Covid being a thing,” She remarked.
She continued by saying she agrees changes should be made to the amount of courses students are allowed to declare Pass/Fail and thus force students to only use it as a last resort option.
Ligas states that students who declare a class Pass/Fail, or Credit/No-Credit, “Have to remember that a “pass” signals a wide range of academic performance, from outstanding work to poor work. As a result, depending on who reviews the student transcript (e.g., graduate or professional admissions personnel), the “pass” might not be received/interpreted in the same way as an actual letter or numeric assessment of performance.”
Currently, as Johnson tells The Mirror, the AC is considering that the grade threshold for receiving credit should be a C (a grade of 73 and above).
“There have been some valid concerns made by some faculty about the fact that students might abuse the policy, or use it as a ‘get-out-of-jail-free card. I understand this sentiment, but I think the benefits of this policy on a large population of the student body outweigh the risks,” Ugwu said in his statement to The Mirror.
“While we understand that any policy instituted should uphold academic honesty and integrity, we feel it can simultaneously act as a resource for student needs,” he added.
Siegal stated that FUSA has been a great partner as they have worked with the faculty to bring forward student concerns, and stated that she looks “Forward to continuing to work with the faculty on a permanent policy that encourages students to stretch themselves by taking one or two courses that may feel beyond their reach during their time at Fairfield. I will support the policy that is developed through this process.”
Adam Rugg, Ph.D., the executive secretary of the Academic Council noted that though these views are his own, and not meant to represent the views of the council, “It’s a complex issue and the great work done by the UCC in researching the systems at other universities revealed that there are very different approaches across our peer institutions. So right now the council is taking its time to ensure that if we do implement a permanent system that it is the right fit for Fairfield.”
He reiterates the point that “Nothing has been decided at the moment.”
Students who want to voice their comments and concerns about the faculty’s efforts to establish a current Credit/No-Credit policy can reach out to FUSA through the FUSA Comment Box. Students can also email firstname.lastname@example.org.