AU’s pass/fail policy decision-making process raises concerns among student groups

Students call for more transparency, better communication from administration following the announcement of their spring 2021 pass/fail policy

AU’s pass/fail policy decision-making process raises concerns among student groups

In February, American University announced that students could select any two classes to be graded as pass/fail for this spring semester following students’ demands and calls for a universal pass/fail policy. 

Both courses can now be major, minor, Core, Gen Ed or elective requirements. This is a change from the fall semester when students could take two courses overall pass/fail, but only one could be for a major, minor, Core or Gen Ed requirement. Like last semester, students will still have the ability to view all of their final grades before deciding to change their grade type.

The University’s decision comes after many student activists and campus organizations have publicly pushed for an unconditional pass/fail policy. Members of AU Student Government worked with the administration as part of a collaboration group in fall 2020 to get a sense of the student body’s perspective, including a survey sent out to see what student needs should be met for the spring. 

In fall 2020, AU NAACP started a petition asking the administration “to continue pass/fail for the major requirement classes during the Fall 2020 online semester.” 

At the beginning of the spring 2021 semester, AUSG President Eric Brock joined with groups including the Black Student Union, Black Girls Vote and AU NAACP to develop a solution for the pass/fail policy petition at a meeting with Provost Peter Starr. 

According to Brock, the student leaders were advocating for a universal pass/fail policy, which would give all students the opportunity to change any number of their grade types — regardless of whether the course was an elective or non-elective — after the publication of final grades, if they wanted to. However, the student leaders wanted to meet with Starr to talk about what would be “realistic” in terms of what the Faculty Senate would ultimately approve. After this discussion, the administration’s communication with Brock and these Black organizations faltered. 

“They consulted us, and then they went to the Faculty Senate, and then we never heard anything back,” Brock said. “It was a very secretive process.”

After what Brock described as weeks without contact, the administration told them that undergraduate students would receive the pass/fail option for one elective class and one non-elective class. Brock said that the group was not satisfied with this conclusion.

“Originally we were advocating for universal [pass/fail] and at a bare minimum we were advocating for the same options that were awarded for the spring of 2020,” Brock said. “We wanted that or greater, and what we walked away with was quite less, and they didn’t bring us into the process that was in the Faculty Senate, which is quite odd.”

In spring 2020, the University did offer the universal pass/fail option to students; however, students had to decide whether or not to opt into the pass/fail grade type before seeing their final grades. AU NAACP’s petition asked that the administration extend the pass/fail declaration deadline to three days after the publication of final grades, in an effort to ensure that students could select the grade type that would reflect best on their transcripts.

As Brock and these Black campus organizations were engaging in this series of meetings with the administration, another petition, started by AU’s Public Health Association, began circulating the AU community and garnered over 780 signatures as of mid-April. 

Junior Aena Iqbal, who serves as the communications chair and creative director of the association, said her organization reached out to the administration via email on Dec. 2 to schedule a meeting about the petition. 

By this time, the administration had already decided to allow students to take one elective and one non-elective course as pass/fail, but representatives for the administration responded on Dec. 7 that they would still be open to meeting with involved student representatives to discuss “options available for students with especially challenging personal circumstances.”

“In our minds, we thought nothing could happen for fall, … but there’s clearly hope for spring, so we should meet with them anyway,” Iqbal said. 

The Public Health Association, along with student representatives from AU NAACP, Women’s Initiative and the Asian American Student Union, met with the administration in February to share statements about students’ struggles and personal responses from students who signed the petition. 

“The majority of the meeting we just were pleading our case, basically, and then Peter Starr, towards the end, was like ‘Oh, should we tell them?’ to the fellow dean and she was like, ‘Do you want to do the honors? Should I?’” Iqbal said. “And we were all like … what were they revealing to us?” 

To the students’ surprise, Starr told them that the Faculty Senate decided on the spring 2021 pass/fail policy a week prior. 

In an email to the Eagle, Starr wrote that he “[does] not recall the conversation in that way,” but it is “certainly true that, knowing that undergraduate students would be eager to know how we planned to extend the two-course pass/fail option to all courses (undoing the previous restrictions), we had already taken the issue to the Faculty Senate and had arrived at the compromise policy you know of just a couple of days prior.”

Starr wrote that the administration “[regrets] having had to schedule that conversation for before our meeting with the Public Health Association leadership,” but that they felt that confirming the details of the policy sooner would put the University community in a better position. 

“Because the Senate only meets monthly, we decided that, on balance, waiting another month to provide clarity for both our students and faculty was not in the University’s best interest,” Starr wrote.

According to sophomore Syedah Asghar, a WI representative who was in the meeting, they were not aware that the University had already made its decision.

“I just wanted to make it clear that this was not a student decision or something that we agreed upon or that we collaborated on,” Iqbal said. “Everyone knew that PHA was spearheading this, and I did not want anyone to think that PHA is the reason that we came to this.” 

According to Iqbal, some student representatives also worried that the meeting organized by the administration was used to create the appearance of collaboration with the student body, noting that PHA “felt very used.” 

Starr maintained that the pass/fail policy was developed in partnership with student groups.

“Over the past several months, we have had extensive discussions with student and faculty leaders on this issue,” Starr wrote. “Our policy to allow undergraduate students to take any two courses this spring Pass/Fail, and to only have to designate these after grades have posted, is designed to balance our students’ needs in the face of multiple ongoing crises with faculty concerns around the quality of learning and interaction in their classes.” 

Brock said the University must engage students more in its processes.

“The problem that is a recurring issue here is that the University and the administration is neglecting to communicate that to the entire student body, so then what ends up happening is you have different student organizations, different student movements, all attempting to organize for the same thing but we all get displaced in some weird way,” Brock said.

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