Credit where it’s due: Activists push UVA to go easy on grades during the pandemic

UVA activists successfully lobbied for a credit/no credit grading system during a 
pandemic-altered semester. PC: Jack Looney UVA activists successfully lobbied for a credit/no credit grading system during a pandemic-altered semester. PC: Jack Looney

By Sydney Halleman

Very little at UVA resembles normal academic life these days. Many students are taking their classes entirely online, and those who returned to Grounds wear masks outdoors and are not allowed to congregate in groups of more than five people. Recruiting events for clubs and Greek life are held via Zoom.

Last spring, when COVID-19 forced all classes to go online, the university adjusted its grading system, giving students the option of taking their courses “credit/no credit.” (CR/NC is different from traditional pass/fail because classes for which credit is earned can qualify toward major requirements.)

Heading into the fall, however, the traditional A-F system returned.

That policy prompted students like Abel Liu and Ellen Yates, the Student Council president, to campaign for a return to the CR/NC grading system, which they say is beneficial for student mental health, especially those with higher barriers to education.

Last week, the university administration acceded to the organizers’ demands, announcing that the semester would be graded on a credit/no credit scale. Student activists are hailing the move as a significant victory for activism at UVA.

Student Council began by circulating a survey to gauge interest in the proposed new system. Two thousand five hundred people responded, with an overwhelming number favoring the CR/NC option.

Yates explains that this semester is the hardest yet because the pandemic wiped out more jobs in the summer and confined students inside for online classes.

“The lack of peer-to-peer contact is difficult, and it wears on you in ways that are insidious,” Yates says. “You wouldn’t recognize how impactful it is to be alone in a room for potentially eight hours.”

For lower-income students, the burden has been even heavier. Liu and Yates collected 14 pages of student testimonials in support of a CR/NC option. Many of the testimonials come from low-income students who are struggling to achieve good grades and juggle other responsibilities.

“I am a fourth-year full-time architecture student who has to work to pay my bills. I had three jobs in the spring semester and was laid off of all three due to the pandemic,” wrote one student.

“Keeping up enough money to pay bills while maintaining a full course load (as my scholarships all require) is incredibly difficult…I was considering dropping out,” wrote another.

The testimony goes on: “I used to be an attentive student but with online school it is asking the impossible.”

“I am currently in a mental health crisis and have struggled to actively participate in class over Zoom.”

“I live with younger siblings and an autistic brother, the combination of the two makes my studying extremely difficult.”

Keeping the traditional grading system, however, is important to the university and some students: UVA often touts grades and related metrics to lure prospective students and maintain its status as an elite academic institution. And a high GPA is also fundamental to those whose grades are major selling points in graduate school applications.

Yates thinks these counterpoints aren’t a concern (under the new system, students can still opt to receive grades), and she urges the university to be more empathetic toward its students.

“We have a lot of vulnerable people in our community right now who need help,” Yates says. “They need the university to prioritize their well-being and their health over academic competitiveness or national academics.”

Liu thinks the alternative grading policy is a natural extension of progress the university has already made. At the beginning of the semester, UVA announced that it would suspend the coveted Dean’s List in light of the pandemic.

“We take that as an implicit admission from UVA that normal measures of success are not valid or adequate right now,” Liu says.

On Friday, the student activists got their wish when Provost Liz Magill sent a school-wide email announcing a CR/NC option for all students. Magill directly cites student organizing in her email, writing that the admin “decided to revisit our grading decision after many exchanges with students, student leaders, and faculty and staff who work most closely with students. They reported high levels of stress, anxiety, and personal and family challenges among large numbers of students, and all encouraged both the deans and me to consider flexible grading options this semester.”

Students have until November 6 to opt in to the alternative grading system.

“The fact that we had changed their minds is, in my opinion, a sign that student self governance is fundamentally about the collective bargaining power of students,” Liu says.“That’s really what it boils down to.”

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