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OPINION: It is unethical for Bowdoin to have a letter grading system in a remote semester

June 25, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the author .

While the world keeps changing every day, and indeed even Bowdoin’s world will change again for the Fall 2020 Semester, it is important to remember that COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon. During these difficult times, we must think of the mental and physical health of students and faculty first. It is unethical of the College to use a letter grading system in a remote semester where not all students have the same access to resources and in which the College warns students about taking the semester off. This is why I support the petition to make all grades for the upcoming remote semester “pass/fail.” The urgency of Larry Kramer’s words, an important AIDS activist, reminding his peers of their reality in 1991 can be useful for our current times: “Plague! We’re in the middle of a f*cking plague!”

I am aware that some students, many of whom are from a systematically disadvantaged background, believe that letter grades offer better feedback and hopes for job outcomes and fellowships in their futures. I also understand that some students may feel the need to raise their GPA this coming semester. For seniors, it will be one of the last semesters to do so. All of this understood, I still believe that it is unethical of the College to hold students to the letter grading system during a remote semester—a setting that no matter how hard the College works to be equitable, will still be unfair to disadvantaged students and give students with certain advantages a “leg up” over their peers. Bowdoin has the reputation to advocate for students after graduating, and could let students’ future employers and graduate schools know that during these unprecedented times we chose to be equitable instead of prioritizing letter grades. I am sure that many students who worry about raising their GPAs will have no trouble in their future if they have the support of the College behind them. I know that this is no one’s first choice, but, as we prepare to enter another semester of remote learning, I see this as an issue of the common good—the mission of the College.

The petition, in a little over a day, gathered over 300 signatures by current students. The names show a consensus of the campus. There are affinity group leaders, club leaders, STEM and humanities students, artists and writers. These are students imploring you to help. Listen, please.

The petition asks the College and Dean of Academic Affairs to make all grades for the 2020 Fall Semester “pass/fail” and reconsider their decision to return to letter grades while maintaining remote learning for the majority of students:


Bowdoin acknowledges that a large portion of students will be disadvantaged in their capabilities without access to a conducive learning environment and that students from the wealth class will have advantages not normally present when residing on campus.


The current COVID-19 Pandemic presents a myriad of mental and physical health difficulties for students and their families that letter grades will only capitalize on further.


Many financially disadvantaged students will need to pick up half to full time employment in order to help their family with living expenses or to cover their own living expenses which will put them at a disadvantage in the letter grade system to students who do not have to do so.


Students who struggled with letter grades as a result of circumstances due to the pandemic will be at a disadvantage in the job market and careers after Bowdoin at no fault of their own.


The uncertainty around online course structure will de-incentivize students from enrolling in classes they perceive as more challenging or more unknown, harming students’ education and Bowdoin’s ability to adequately prepare students to the best of the faculty’s ability.


Bowdoin Professors will be forced to try and understand each individual student’s home life and necessities outside of Bowdoin which puts unfair pressure on their teaching ability and students’ right to privacy.


Bowdoin realizes that as an institution it is unethical to believe it can adequately configure its remote learning to the needs of every student in the same way it can with students on campus.

Thus, The students of Bowdoin College kindly ask that all grades continue to be “pass/fail,” as they were in the Spring 2020 semester, and [that there be] no option given for letter grades, as this is the most equitable path for Bowdoin to take and maintain its core mission of the common good.”

I, Mitchel Jurasek, believe in a fully equitable semester. Like the hundreds of students who have signed this petition, and the many more that will do so in the coming days, I support this movement. This petition represents Bowdoin students’ unstoppable drive to uphold the values of the College, to uphold the common good.

Mitchel Jurasek is a member of the Class of 2021.


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  1. class of '22 says:

    i completely agree…we found these obstacles and inequities to be so problematic that we suspended grades in the spring, why is is any different now? those boundaries don’t disappear overnight

  2. Class '21 says:

    This is a well considered argument and I’m mostly in favor; I do wonder however if students should be allowed to opt into grades on a class-by-class basis

  3. Bill says:

    Keep this in mind: Applicants to the more exclusive grad. programs will be severely disadvantaged by a pass-fail grading system, a fact confirmed to my by a law school admissions officer.

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