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Some advice for the University, from Basil Moreau

| Friday, March 27, 2020

It bears repeating: We’re in uncharted territory. It feels trivial to discuss grades at a time like this, but as colleges and universities across the country move to remote learning, their administrations must wrestle with digitizing the vibrancy of a campus learning environment — and ensure equity in accessing it remotely. As I write this, our University is likely in deliberation about adjusting grading policies to make education more equitable in the transition to online learning amid these chaotic times — perhaps taking cues from Harvard and Cornell for an optional pass/fail model or from MIT and Columbia for a ‘universal’ pass/fail. I fear I may be too late to contribute.

Nonetheless, there’s more at stake in this deliberation than mere letters on a transcript; Notre Dame’s educational philosophy will be put to the test. How shall the University exercise “a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression” made manifest in this pandemic, a sensibility the University seeks to cultivate in its students and that lies at the heart of its mission statement? What could the legacy of Blessed Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross and whose teachings serve as the pedagogical foundation for academic life at Notre Dame, tell us in a time such as this? The answer, in short, is that the University should unequivocally adopt a universal pass/fail system, one that requires all classes to move to a pass/fail grading system.

Before delving into the philosophical justification, I must address the practical one. I am certain these concerns have been raised in any official deliberations about adjusting grading policies, and I admire all those professors who have already made clear the accommodations they will make for their students in these situations. Remote learning inherently disadvantages certain students who do not enjoy a living situation that mimics the Jeffersonian “academical village” of the American college campus, a relatively cloistered environment like Notre Dame that serves as an incubator for academic life. The reality of remote learning, especially for low-income students, is anything but idyllic.

Fast, reliable internet connectivity — the kind needed for the Zoom conferences upon which the remote learning system depends — is not a guarantee. Private spaces to video conference, collaborate with classmates on assignments and study may be nonexistent. Students with younger siblings may need to look after them during the day (and ensure these siblings are keeping up with their own remote learning duties), especially as many parents must now work from home and lack their regular childcare services. Ailing grandparents and family members with immunodeficiencies need particular attention during this pandemic. Students undergoing remote learning are not foremost ‘students,’ as they often are on campus, but are once again integral family members. They are needed for much more than their minds.

The optional pass/fail model has gained traction in colleges and universities across the country. Though it has taken on different forms, optional pass/fail generally allows students to elect certain classes as pass/fail rather than graded. This model certainly acknowledges the inequities of remote learning and the anxieties of the times, but I fear it may only amplify the problem it seeks to solve. For students of elite institutions vying for prestigious job, service and graduate school opportunities, GPA relative to peers can be more important than GPA in its absolute form. An optional pass/fail system would inflate the grades of students who, due to their living situation at home and/or isolation from the effects of this pandemic, can more easily take classes for a grade. Taking a class for a grade would effectively itself become a mark of privilege, enhancing these students’ prospects for future employment or postgrad opportunities. Though a universal pass/fail hinders students who hoped to boost their GPAs this semester, under the present circumstances, the gain of these students would effectively be a loss for their disadvantaged peers. A Yale student advocating for universal pass/fail put it best: “Vulnerable students will face a double-edged sword: Suffer the future consequences of electing Pass/Fail, or drain themselves just to stay afloat.”

Though the practical considerations should warrant sufficient justification for a universal pass/fail, the University must also weigh heavily the philosophical justification that gets to the heart of a Notre Dame education. Measures that may earlier have been deemed draconian responses to the COVID-19 outbreak have now become reality, as states from New York to California have issued stay-at-home orders to over 80 million residents in an attempt to contain the pandemic. The inherent inequities in remote learning (that I hope need no further expounding) take on additional weight as students will increasingly feel the effects of the pandemic firsthand.

Here, I believe, is where Moreau would weigh in with the pedagogical cornerstone of our Catholic university: “The mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart.”

In the coming weeks and months, the hearts of students will be cultivated in unimaginable ways. The trajectory of the pandemic suggests the worst is still yet to come. Anxieties around the virus’s spread will heighten as students think of their family members who may be at higher risk. The economic livelihoods of students’ families may be uncertain right now as businesses close their doors, companies begin laying off employees and retirement plans collapse. Many students will be part of these financial discussions with their families and try in earnest to contribute solutions.

Students with family members and loved ones working in healthcare, those on the frontlines of treating the ill and containing the virus’s spread, will go to bed each night praying their loved one’s temperature doesn’t spike in the morning. I pray my sister’s intensive care unit in Manhattan does not run out of personal protective equipment for her and her fellow nurses. And as I write this, I hear my mother’s worsening cough downstairs and pray it soon subsides so that she may continue to work healthily in her hospital’s laboratory. I fear some — and may it be very, very few — students’ hearts will be educated in caring for their family members and loved ones at their most vulnerable; that is no easy cross to bear.

In any other time, any one of these concerns would be enough to grant a student extraordinary accommodations. Adopting a universal pass/fail would allow all students — without fear, frustration, or anxiety — to give the fullest of their hearts to those around them.

Let those students whose hearts are weary find relief in the cerebral retreat of their studies. May they approach their assignments not with the worry of securing a certain letter grade to protect the results of hard work from semesters past, but with the comfort of a distraction from their temporal concerns. Let their academic education be a world in which their hearts can rest.

And to those students less impacted by the pandemic, whose hearts are less in need of space and time to cultivate (and may there be many), I echo Tom Naatz: Throw yourselves at your online classes. A universal pass/fail semester would not be a time for “skating by” in your classes, as I’m certain some professors fear may be your temptation, but instead an opportunity to embrace education in its purest form — an intellectual pursuit void of external validation from letter grades. Shielded from the stress of grades and (thanks to social distancing) free of the many typical distractions from academics, may their education, as David Brooks writes in “The Road to Character,” be a process of love formation. May their studies in this radical learning environment sow the seeds of new things to love — a cultivation of the heart as well as the mind.

Times such as this require radical action; a universal pass/fail system offers radical compassion. I trust Notre Dame’s deliberations on this matter are infused with a deep commitment to the well-being of its students — the cultivation of both their hearts and their minds.

Chris Hayden


Mar. 22

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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