NDSU faculty criticize proposal to extend deadline for pass-fail grading option

As pandemic adds stress for students, a survey found students overwhelmingly support an exception.

NDSU is asking students not to go home for Thanksgiving amid the coronavirus pandemic. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — A request by North Dakota State University students to extend the deadline to request a pass-fail grade has met opposition from faculty, with one professor calling the exception unethical.

Student Government approved a resolution in mid-November that would support giving students the option to apply for a pass-fail grade anytime during the semester. NDSU usually sets an application deadline early in the semester — that happened in mid-September.

“We’re not advocating for our students to just ... have pass-fail for every class,” NDSU Student Body President Matthew Friedmann said in an interview with The Forum. “We know for some students, they are in a position where that pass-fail grade option works for them.”

A pass grade would substitute grades A through D. Students would have the option to opt into pass-fail grading, even after they see their final grades, Registrar Philip Hunt said. A pass grade doesn't impact a grade point average, though a failing grade will be calculated into a student's GPA.

Academic departments have the ultimate power to decide if a student can have a pass-fail grade, Hunt said.


Professors called the proposal into question during a Monday, Nov. 23, Faculty Senate meeting. Geosciences professor Ken Lepper said giving students the ability to change their grades after seeing them is unethical.

"If they know their grade, of course they are going to take the pass-fail option" if they are getting a poor grade, he said. “I think that is truly horrible."

Ultimately, the Faculty Senate voted to table the proposal for future discussion. University administration does not need approval from the Faculty Senate to extend the deadline, said Molly Secor-Turner, past Faculty Senate president and nursing professor.

It would be difficult for the school to move forward with the option without faculty support, Provost Margaret Fitzgerald said during the meeting. Administration had not made a decision by The Forum's deadline for the Wednesday edition.

The pandemic forced NDSU to switch to online-only in the spring in an effort to minimize the spread of COVID-19. It moved to a hybrid online and in-person education model this semester, which will continue into spring 2021.

The virus has caused stress in students, and not just with their grades, Friedmann said. Some are worried about family members who have contracted the disease or are at high risk.

“We really see that those have been impacting our students, which then impacts their focus and their attention that they’re able to give in the classroom,” he said.

A survey taken by 2,713 students earlier this month showed overwhelming support for the option, with 76% saying students should have the ability to use a pass-fail grade on a course-by-course basis.


About the same percentage felt their final fall semester grades would be different because the change in educational delivery, results said.

The survey didn’t ask students how they were impacted, or if the impacts were positive or negative. The change in the education delivery hasn’t been bad for all students, Friedmann said.

Some are more comfortable learning from home, he said. However, Fitzgerald said NDSU students also have received inconsistent support.

NDSU expanded the option in the spring after it switched to online-only education. It allowed 2,193 students to use a pass-fail grading system for 8,304 classes, according to the resolution.

NDSU also didn't suspend any students based on their academic performance in the spring, Fitzgerald said in a Nov. 13 memo to the Faculty Senate Executive Committee. Instead, 350 students were put on probation or had continued probation, the memo said.

The University of North Dakota approved a similar grading format for the fall semester this month. Students also showed overwhelming support for the option, UND Student Body President Matthew Ternus said. The pass-fail option is a relief for students, and it may mean the difference between some staying in college or giving up on higher education, he said.

“Some students might be looking at their grades right now, thinking, ‘Maybe college isn’t for me,’ ” he said. “That’s not necessarily on them. That might be on the pandemic and the environment surrounding it.”

Citing policy, chemistry professor Kent Rodgers suggested NDSU can encourage professors to issue pass-fail grades, but the administration can't tell them to do so. He said professors have the academic freedom to decide grades.


Some on the Faculty Senate supported the change during what they called "unprecedented times."

"This is not normal," engineering professor Eric Asa said of the pandemic. He called the coronavirus "an act of God."

Students were allowed to see their grades before they decided to choose a pass-fail grade so they could make an informed decision, Hunt said.

"Unusual times" have been used as an excuse in the past to erode civil liberties, Lepper said, adding that the exception could be seen as an abuse of policy. "Unusual times" should not be used as an excuse to erode academics, he said.

Students should discuss the benefits and downfalls of pass-fail grading with professors, advisers and the registrar’s office before making the move, Friedmann said. GPAs may be used to apply for graduate schools, professional programs or jobs.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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