• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Harvard Gonna Harvard

Rejecting pass/fail in a pandemic?

March 31, 2020
 
 

As regular readers know, I don’t generally give much column space to whatever’s going on at Harvard at any given time. It already occupies far more of the popular discourse on higher ed than it should, and anyway, my beat is community colleges.

That said, The Boy got a text from his pre-med advisor at UVA today offensive enough for me to break my rule. In its entirety:

I am sorry to be the bearer of irritating news, but I learned over the weekend that (at least some) medical schools have adopted a course-recognition policy that you should be aware of. Several medical schools, including, e.g., Harvard, are NOT accepting pre-requisite classes that are taken pass/fail (credit/no-credit) when the student has the option of taking it for a grade.

That is, if you are enrolled in a medical school pre-req class and take it P/F, as is our University’s default, then the medical school will NOT consider that class. In other words, if you take, e.g., GenChem or Intro Bio this term P/F, then you will need to take it again for a grade for the medical school to consider your application. If the university does NOT offer a graded option, then the medical school WILL accept the P/F version.

I have asked our Provost to consider this issue in developing the University’s grading policy for this semester, but I have not yet heard back from her. I’ll let you know when I hear anything. For the moment, however, it appears that medical school pre-req classes that are taken P/F at UVA will NOT be acceptable to medical schools.

All the best, [name of advisor]

TB forwarded that to me, noting afterward, “Why do they make it so hard?” I won’t share my response here, as this is a family website.

This is just sadism.

This semester is forcing everybody to scramble. TB is comparatively lucky, in that he has a safe and secure home with good Wi-Fi. But even with that, he and his classmates are suddenly compelled to deal with very difficult material in a format they didn’t choose, in locations they didn’t choose, with faculty whose facility in the new medium is uneven at best. Presumably, that’s why his university availed itself of pass/fail at much larger scale. It’s the same set of issues behind my state’s community college group petitioning the four-years to accept grades of pass in transfer this semester. With so much swirling, this is not the time to be cutthroat.

And yet, here we are.

TB can be stoic when he needs to be. But he shouldn’t need to be.

Look, I understand that medical schools get far more qualified applicants than they have slots, so they’re always looking for excuses to exclude people. In normal semesters, I don’t take issue with that. But this is far from a normal semester. A decision like this will work to filter out students with children, students who worked (and lost) part-time jobs and are scrambling to support themselves, and even students whose professors did less-than-terrific jobs of switching formats midstream. To what end?

I know that the Ivies didn’t get to be the Ivies by being nice. I get that. But there’s a level of arrogance that really deserves to be called out by name, even if that involves invoking a name I usually try not to invoke.

Honestly, Harvard. I would expect any competent medical school to understand what a pandemic is. I grade your response as a fail.

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