GSG members add their voices to outcry over UMD’s decision against pass/fail

The University of Maryland's Miller Administration Building. (Julia Nikhinson/The Diamondback)

University of Maryland Graduate Student Government President Dan Laffin and 15 of the body’s representatives have added their voices to the widespread outcry over the school’s announcement last month that it will not be implementing a pass/fail grading system for undergraduates this semester.

In a letter sent Friday to university President Darryll Pines, Provost Mary Ann Rankin and graduate school Dean Steve Fetter, Laffin and the representatives criticized administrators for offering an extended withdrawal period as an alternative to implementing a pass/fail grading system, calling it an “empty gesture that displayed the University leadership’s disconnect to students’ needs.”

They pointed to a petition signed by over 7,000 students, advocating for the policy, as “one of the numerous reasons” the school should have granted the same pass/fail grading option it offered last semester. 

“When that many students outwardly express their need, especially in a time of unprecedented emotional exhaustion, anxiety, and physical illnesses, it is irresponsible for those with power to ignore,” the letter reads. “And yet, despite the petition and activism by an array of student leaders, it appears that is exactly what happened.”

According to data obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request, almost 80 percent of undergraduates at the university took at least one class pass/fail last semester, 44 percent took at least two classes pass/fail and 24 percent took at least three classes pass/fail.

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Since the university announced its decision against pass/fail grading for the fall semester in November, the Student Government Association and the Residence Hall Association have both passed resolutions urging administrators to reconsider. Students also lambasted the school’s decision at a town hall and have launched a survey to capture student perception of how the school has responded to the coronavirus pandemic and addressed their needs and concerns.

However, in the midst of this backlash, Pines told The Diamondback on Monday that the school’s decision not to implement a pass/fail grading system was final. He said the university “listened to all stakeholders,” including students, before making this decision, further adding that he and other administrators have heard from some students that the university’s announcement was “favorable” to them.

In the email announcing the policy, Rankin told students the university had decided against implementing a pass/fail grading system because doing so could leave students unprepared for higher-level coursework or put a wrench in their post-graduate plans.

But other universities — including some in the Big Ten, such as the University of Michigan — have amended their grading systems in light of the challenges posed to students by the pandemic, GSG members wrote in the letter. 

Students are currently facing increased degrees of financial uncertainty and dealing with family health crises and mental health struggles, the letter notes, arguing that it is “expressly dangerous to compound those issues with unnecessary academic stress.”

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GSG members wrote that they are especially concerned for students from low-income backgrounds, who are more likely to be living in environments not conducive to learning, and students of color, who are facing additional stress due to “current events surrounding systemic racism,” as well as students with learning disabilities and developmental disorders, who are more likely to be negatively affected by the virtual learning environment.

The letter adds that some GSG members serve as instructors and teaching assistants, who have seen firsthand how the pandemic has negatively affected students.

And though the students who signed the letter recognized that it is “all but certain” that they and their graduate student peers would use the pass/fail grading option at a lower rate than undergraduates, they labeled the university’s rejection of the option as an “issue that transcends to all students.”

“The University had the opportunity to help students in their time of utmost need, and failed to do so,” the letter reads. “We hope that leadership at the University of Maryland enters the spring semester with student needs at the forefront of their conversations and acts to that end.”

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