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Cornell students join growing trend, demand ‘mandatory pass’ with course credit for spring classes

Without it, students would “end up draining themselves” to “stay afloat academically.”

Students at Cornell University have joined their peers at other institutions in demanding that course failure not be an option for the spring semester.

Dubbed “Big Red Pass,” the student movement says a mandatory pass system — with course credit — will “prioritize educational equity, student health, and community wellbeing.”

“Since Cornell has continually stressed its commitment to nondiscrimination in education,” the Big Red Pass statement continues, “it is vital for us to demonstrate how graded or pass/fail online courses burden those of us who are uniquely and severely affected by these circumstances, as well as the student body as a collective.”

The students contend optional pass/fail for courses would “stigmatize” Cornellians who don’t have “internet access, stable housing, adequate healthcare, or food security.” Such students would “end up draining themselves” to “stay afloat academically.”

Big Red Pass has been endorsed by Climate Justice Cornell and the Muslim Chaplaincy at Cornell, according to The Cornell Daily SunMovement organizer Ahmed Elsammak said keeping pass/fail optional “is inequitable because the letter grade option still exists.”

Elsammak added that “graduate schools and employers can still see you chose to take a class pass/fail instead of a letter grade.”

From the article:

Elsammak does not believe that letter grades are fair in a time of crisis because the more level playing field of residential college life has been eliminated.

“The campus creates a shared condition. It equalizes a lot of disadvantages students may have by providing us with recreational services, office hours, peer tutoring, libraries, wifi, a safe space,” Elsammak said. “The campus provides a level playing field we wouldn’t have in our original environments. The basis for comparison no longer exists because shared conditions no longer exist.”

Cornell is offering a wide variety of resources to students to alleviate concerns, including the Students Helping Students Fund. However, organizers do not think this is enough.

On the Big Red Pass Facebook page, supporters said they would also face “emotional challenges” such as “escalating mental health concerns” and worrying about relatives vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Nevertheless, a counter-petition was established by Cornell student Rui Zhan which asks the university to maintain the (still-current) optional system. It points out, ironically, some of the same reasons as Big Red Pass.

“Without letter grades, a promise for growth is essentially broken. Moreover, this would have a negative impact on the mental well-being of Cornell students who foresaw their growth and advancement in this semester,” the petition reads.

Like Big Red Pass, Zhan asks Cornell to include “a circumstantial explanation on students’ [spring semester] academic records.”

“No one should be made to conform to a single option,” Zhan writes. “This includes students who have worked hard in hopes of growth, students who cannot afford Cornell without a merit-based scholarship, and students who need graduate school to develop a career.”

Read the Big Red Pass statement, Zhan’s petition, and Daily Sun article.

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 15 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.

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