The McGill Senate on Dec. 2 rejected a motion to suspend the body’s standing rules, which prevented it from reintroducing a proposal to implement a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) grading option for students this semester. In a controversial move, they referred it back to the Steering Committee, even though it had already reviewed the proposal. This decision is particularly striking considering that over 105 universities across North America have decided to ease grading accommodations during the Winter 2020 semester, from Harvard College in the United States to Bishops’ University in Sherbrooke. McGill’s relentless academic austerity and pursuit of prestige is a mask for its fragility as well as a pretense to refrain from promoting student welfare. Nevertheless, administrators have a duty to place their commitment as educators above bureaucratic barriers by reintroducing an S/U option as a necessary emergency measure.
In derailing the motion, the Senate invalidated the agonizing testimonials student senators read during the Dec. 2 meeting—some of which disclosed thoughts of suicide and self harm. Administrators cited a lack of “proper due diligence,” but student senators have been advocating for S/U for months only to have it rejected first by the Academic Policy Committee (APC) in September, then by the Steering Committee, and now by the Senate. Although the APC argued that students knew in advance that the S/U option would not be offered this semester, when students registered for classes in April they also did not appreciate the unprecedented struggle that remote learning would entail. Moreover, the APC’s insinuation that the policy would be impractical due to the labour required to implement it appears insincere, as the same was done expediently in March 2020. It avoids giving due diligence to students’ concerns, reflecting administrators’ disregard for the work that student senators have invested in consulting constituents and advocating for students’ wellbeing.
Administrators offered logististical objections as well, arguing that S/U could negatively affect accreditation requirements for certain programs and scholarships. But the proposed S/U policy would be optional: The letter grade would remain the default, and faculties would identify their specific application of the S/U option. Although faculties should advise students of the option’s risks, or even exempt certain programs such as Medicine entirely, these concerns do not discount the need to provide S/U as an option, especially for those who have disproportionately suffered during the pandemic.
After all, other institutions evidently recognize that remote learning is a poor substitute for in-person instruction and that students should not be evaluated by the usual standards. Because the S/U option does not impact overall grade point average, applying the option would eliminate marginal grade discrepancies that hinder learning in general, and which remote instruction has rendered particularly difficult to control. Exacerbated inequities in learning environments and declining student mental and physical health—realities that administrators acknowledged during the Winter 2020 semester—have persisted, contradicting the basic equalization premise of a numerical grade standard.
McGill has historically subtracted students’ humanity from their academic fidelity, and the pandemic has corroded the thin strands of social stability and cohesion that once made it bearable. In a misguided defense of McGill’s reputation, administrators are reducing McGill’s name to a trivial ticket into graduate schools and the workforce. Students do not just come here for a fancy pedigree and latin-inscribed diploma; they come here to learn, and many are capsizing on that journey through the remote learning hurricane. Students should continue to remind administrators of this by submitting testimonials and signing petitions demanding that S/U be reinstated. But the onus is on administrators to heed them. When the Senate hears the motion to reimplement S/U again, it will stand at a crossroads not only on grading standards, but also the underlying pedagogical philosophy propelling McGill into its third century.