• Moon Mythbuster

Despite student petition efforts, RMU declines to add sweeping pass/fail option

by Christian Johnson



Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, Robert Morris and most other universities sent their students home and switched to online classes for the rest of the semester. Now students are petitioning to make classes pass/fail, but RMU is sticking to the traditional system, an official said Thursday.


Some students say the sudden move to online has affected their ability to learn and professors’ ability to teach. In an attempt to mitigate the coronavirus’ spread, colleges have eliminated most social interaction by cancelling events and moving online — but RMU student Xiara Long says her school shouldn’t stop there.


Ms. Long created a petition after hearing her classmates say they’re feeling stressed.


Times ahead portend more uncertainty as parents get laid off while the pandemic closes non-essential businesses. With the combination of a new learning environment and a potential recession around the corner, students are gearing up for the worst — and are asking their college to let them scrub failing grades.


Ms. Long and other students believe the best way to balance the last-second venue change is to offer a pass/fail grading system.


“I created the petition hoping that it would bring our concerns to RMU’s attention and that we could possibly make this time a little easier on everyone,” Ms. Long said.


But VP of public relations Jonathan told The Moon Mythbuster Thursday that the university has decided not to add the pass/fail option.


“We believe this is more beneficial to students,” Mr. Potts said.


The petition references MIT’s temporary grading policy and says some students’ circumstances justify the move.


“Some of these circumstances are: different time zones, financial struggles, limited access to internet and quiet study spaces, and unexpected family responsibilities (jobs, taking care of family members, etc.),” the petition says.


Other Pittsburgh-area schools like Carnegie Mellon and Pitt have switched to a pass/fail grading system to better reflect the realities of the students. Ms. Long’s sentiments were echoed by signee Charlie Bossong.


“With such a sudden switch of the learning environment, the ability of the students to perform is not accurately reflected in the current grading system,” Mr. Bossong said. At publishing time, the petition has 434 signatures, which reflects nearly 10 percent of the student body size.


Mr. Potts said the university is extending the withdrawal deadline but won’t add a sweeping pass/fail option.


“We realize that many of the measures we have taken over the past several weeks to help stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have been stressful and disruptive,” Mr. Potts said, but the university is sticking to the current system for several reasons.


“For one, extending the withdrawal deadline protects students in jeopardy of failing a course,” as a withdrawal won’t affect a student’s GPA, according to Mr. Potts.


In addition, pass/fail grades might not satisfy course prerequisites and may conflict with certain professional licensing requirements. Plus, pass/fail “grades may also conflict with many of the university’s academic accreditations, which enhance the value of an RMU degree and ensure instructional quality,” Mr. Potts said.


Provost Mary Ann Rafoth had sent all students an email Wednesday announcing that the course withdrawal deadline will be extended to April 27, “in recognition of disruption caused to the academic semester by the transition to online and distance instructional methods.”


UC Berkeley students posted a similar petition, designed to bring attention to the same issues RMU students face.


Read the university spokesman's full statement below:


"RMU is allowing students to withdraw from classes up until the end of the semester (April 27) several weeks after the normal deadline, rather than giving them a pass/fail option. We believe this is more beneficial to students for several reasons.


"For one, extending the withdrawal deadline protects students in jeopardy of failing a course by preventing an “F” or a “No Credit” from appearing on their academic transcript. Withdrawing from a course will not impact a student’s GPA.


"Secondly, pass/fail grades may not satisfy prerequisites for courses which require specific letter grades in prior courses, jeopardizing a student’s ability to complete their degree requirements and graduate on time. Pass/fail grades also penalize students who would have otherwise received an “A” or “B.”


"Finally, pass/fail grades conflict with many professional licensure requirements, and could unduly penalize students pursuing careers in those disciplines. Pass/fail grades also conflict with many of the university’s academic accreditations, which enhance the value of an RMU degree and ensure instructional quality.


"We realize that many of the measures we have taken over the past several weeks to help stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have been stressful and disruptive, and even though students are learning off-campus, they can still access tutoring and other forms of academic assistance through the RMU Center for Student Success."


- Vice president of public relations Jonathan Potts

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