McGill’s mixed communication regarding the S/U option was quick, but not careful

It’s a small disclaimer on every McGill course syllabus: “In the event of extraordinary circumstances beyond the university’s control, the content and/or evaluation scheme in this course is subject to change.” This year’s cohort of students finally fell prey to the mysterious “extraordinary circumstances” when on March 20, the McGill community received an email from Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Fabrice Labeau confirming that students would be able to select the Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) option after receiving their grades. Advisors, departments, and faculties emailed their students at different times with information about how and when to access the S/U option. Although McGill acted quickly to announce the S/U option, the discrepancies between each faculty’s decisions and the lack of clarity in messages posted by departments and the administration came at the expense of students’ emotional wellbeing. 

McGill has made errors throughout this crisis, not least in its failure to support students on exchange. Still, the early announcement of the S/U option served as slight reassurance and calmed the nerves of students whose course work has been affected by the pandemic. Labeau’s message, however, was vague: It simultaneously claimed that while students can S/U any course, they may not do so if it “runs counter” to their program or department requirements. The contradictory wording resulted in confusion and gave departments a high level of freedom, which meant that students in different programs received different instructions and specifications regarding the use of the S/U option. It should be up to the McGill administration to ensure that everyone receives the same level of communication to allow a level playing field for all students.

Some departments, like English, received detailed information from their department chairs outlining the specifics regarding the S/U option for required courses, elaborating on the option for Honours students, and highlighting the option of receiving an incomplete ‘K’ grade for more time. The communication was clear and concise. When presented like this, these notifications provided some stability, but students in other departments did not have the same support. For other majors, like Economics, the information was difficult to locate online (if posted at all), and there was no communication to students clarifying the S/U option. The lack of consistency was detrimental to students’ wellbeing. The administration should have enforced the same standard across all departments to avoid unnecessary stress on professors, advisors and students during an already tumultuous time. 

In a broader sense, graduate and professional schools have different standards when evaluating Winter 2020 grades, making the decision to S/U even harder for prospective applicants. Queens Medical School has decided to drop Winter 2020 grades, while Georgetown Medical School has stated that applying with grades instead of S/U is highly preferable. This will mean medical school applicants face a lack of consistency in their applications. Some students seem happy to S/U all their courses while others remain fearful that the option will be viewed negatively by professional schools. Cornell University, for example, has only allowed students to implement an S/U option before receiving their grades, perhaps giving students at universities like McGill an advantage‒‒or, conversely, a disadvantage, if the S/U option is to be viewed harshly by graduate schools and employers. 

The clarity provided by some departments at McGill relaxed some students, whereas the lack of communication from other departments only increased stress. Failures came from individual departmental communications‒‒perhaps the administration should have foreseen this issue, but we should also remember that they are human too, and are also dealing with a lot of stress during the pandemic. The university’s response could have been more beneficial to students under stress should departments have acted in a united manner in sharing departmental updates on the subject. It would have been helpful for departments to have provided reassurance earlier and in a more succinct manner, but truthfully, this is a difficult time for all members of the McGill community.

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