The message below was sent to Columbia College students on March 21, 2020.
I write to you at the end of what I know was a tumultuous week, in which the majority of our undergraduates acted quickly, in partnership with staff, to depart campus and travel home or to another destination. Thank you for your patience and partnership in making this Herculean effort possible. I am thinking of you from here on campus, as you all embark in the process of re-establishing a new homebase for the remainder of spring semester.
By now you will have likely read the message from President Bollinger, conveying the decision to suspend classes for three days next week and to resume online coursework on Thursday, March 26. This additional time will allow faculty to continue their work in adapting their coursework to a fully online environment for the first time, so that the remote learning experience will be as effective as possible for our students.
The President has also confirmed that all courses offered this semester will be uniformly graded on a pass/fail basis. Please note that this grading system is not an extension of the usual pass/d/fail policy that our undergraduates know; all faculty will be evaluating students solely with either a pass or a fail. I want to share more detail about the basis for this decision, so that as a community of learners, we can collectively embrace this approach as we move forward together.
At a special meeting called this week to consider questions of grading in our new environment, Columbia College - General Studies Committee on Instruction considered a variety of options before coming to a majority consensus that a mandatory pass/fail system was by far the best option. This recommendation was then shared broadly with faculty for their feedback, and again there was strong support among the Directors of Undergraduate Studies and many of their faculty colleagues for a mandatory pass/fail system. This support for mandatory pass/fail grading was offered while the President was deciding on a course of action for the University.
The faculty members who endorsed this decision stressed that our normal system of evaluating student work and assigning letter grades is predicated on the assumption that our students have equal access to the normal methods of instruction and the supporting structure of a residential college environment. Those shared conditions no longer exist, and many faculty feel that they cannot fairly judge student work when there is still so much we need to learn about the online environment in which we teach and about the personal circumstances of the students whom we teach. We must therefore create a new set of shared conditions that must apply to us all as a community.
I want to share here some of the most important points that were raised in the many discussions that we have had this week:
- With the activity of this last week, and the majority of our undergraduates now off campus, some students are now in locations and situations in which they do not have adequate resources (e.g., computer equipment, internet bandwidth, books, study space) to participate as actively as they can when on campus. Many students are also now located in different time zones, which could make it difficult or impossible to participate fully in classes that are still being held during their normal meeting times.
- Students and faculty can no longer be assumed to have equal access to course materials — whether texts on reserve, laboratory spaces, art works displayed on classroom A/V equipment, live performances in class or in NYC, or library materials; and academic support in the form of office hours, tutoring, study groups, and an immersive academic experience are also altered in this new world.
- Students will be experiencing varying social conditions in terms of their access to medical care, housing, food, social support, and familial challenges that may impact their ability to fully engage in their studies. For students who already were living in precarious conditions, it is expected the COVID-19 crisis will only exacerbate this situation.
In sum, our students and faculty are currently experiencing a psychological and social burden brought on by abrupt moves off campus into disparate environments, a complete change in academic structure, and a global pandemic that continues to spread quickly and to disrupt all aspects of our lives. It takes time to adjust to this new reality, and I believe, also requires a new set of shared conditions for our entire academic community. It is for this reason that the Columbia College - General Studies Committee on Instruction advocated for a delay in the resumption of classes after spring break, so that we have time to support our community in the drastic adjustments that they are making.
Given the level of uncertainty that students and faculty are facing in their personal circumstances, the inequities that they are encountering in their academic environment, and the unfamiliarity that many have with online learning, Columbia strongly feels that the academic community would best be served if all courses are evaluated on a pass/fail basis, with no exceptions. While some students and faculty may feel that the usual awarding of letter grades would be desirable for individual reasons, the imperative in this time of global crisis is to do what is best for the entire academic community so that the playing field is leveled for all. Students who have been performing well cannot know whether they will experience a negative impact of this global pandemic during the next several weeks, and students who are not able to engage with their academics fully because of this global pandemic should not be penalized.
Courses in which a “P” is earned this semester will still fulfill requirements for general education requirements (e.g., the Core Curriculum) and requirements for a major or concentration or other program of study. Student transcripts that show Spring 2020 will also have a clear notation that clarifies to any audience that all courses in the term were graded solely on a pass/fail basis. This means that we will provide context of this semester to medical schools, law schools, business schools, other graduate schools, and any other organizations who require the review of a transcript, and we believe that, especially given the global nature of this pandemic, they will be appreciative of and sympathetic to this context. If you have questions or concerns, please reach out to your advisers to further discuss this change.
As I look around campus and think of you all — some still here but many of you scattered around the country and globe — what comforts me most is the hope that we can continue to be united in our objectives of learning, debating, and exploring ideas and that we can do so in a way that invites as much participation as possible.
I know there are many questions still about other aspects of the spring, including virtual community building, resources and support for students and the disappointing news about the cancellation of Commencement and Class Day. I commit to sharing more updates about school plans for these important questions in the coming days.
There is much for you to focus on now as you settle into new rhythms, reconnect with family and loved ones or re-calibrate here on campus. I know how challenging this time has been and all of us at Columbia College continue to be here in support of you, should you need it.
James J. Valentini
Dean of Columbia College and
Vice President for Undergraduate Education