The University Is Incapable of Prioritizing Its Students

In the most pressing crisis of our academic careers, the admin’s failure to implement opt-in pass/fail shows their inability to truly prioritize student wellbeing.

By Noah Tesfaye

When I wrote about how imperative it was that the University implement universal pass/fail at the end of May, the United States had recently crossed 100,000 deaths from the COVID–19 pandemic. Since then, we’ve surpassed 265,000 deaths and lived through the largest protests in American history. Despite it all, many of us students returned to campus for the fall. Yet, in a meeting with the College Council, the University refused to adopt the same College-wide opt-in pass/fail grading system for the fall quarter, reasoning that, unlike in the spring, professors now are prepared to accommodate online classes. This decision, however, has nothing to do with the preparedness of our professors and everything to do with the University’s pockets. Admin sees pass/fail as an inconsistency in marketing; flexibility doesn’t fit into our image as a university with uncompromising academic standards. Worse, the University shows no sign that it’s going to change its ways anytime soon––its refusal to reimplement opt-in pass/fail (not to mention its reckless choice to not offer all students COVID–19 testing before they travel back home to their families) makes clear that they will continue to choose uplifting the University’s prestige over its students’ wellbeing. Consequently, we cannot expect them to do what’s right. More importantly, we cannot wait for them to do what’s right. Instead, we have to be our own advocates. In this case, we students must reach out to our professors and department heads, and do what the University won’t: demand opt-in pass/fail.

College Council ran a survey in which 500 of the approximately 6,000 student population responded to questions about how the quarter was progressing and found that “over 62% of respondents rated their mental health at a 4 or below” out of 10. Furthermore, out of the students surveyed, “over 77% of students supported an opt-in pass/fail system.” Yet, Dean Ellison told College Council that they do not establish policies based on student demand or interest, leaving grading to faculty and department heads.

When helping co-organize the “Assure Your Right to Grieve” campaign during the height of protests and leading up to finals, I saw and understood the grief and overwhelming stress students were faced with. We were grateful to see that, for students who needed support, the University’s policy shift to opt-in pass/fail and giving students the chance to complete assignments during the summer was some form of reprieve. Even if the University refuses to acknowledge the circumstances that led to the organizing efforts that won for students, the comments by Ellison were indicative of sentiments we always knew existed. The University’s policy to defer pass/fail decisions to departments is a financial strategy guised as an affirmation of our institution’s pedagogical values. It’s clear that, when push comes to shove, students are first and foremost revenue-generators.

When I first came to UChicago as a prospie, a trustee proclaimed proudly to the incoming students and their families that “maroon is the new crimson,” implying she believed the University was rising in status. Over the past few years, UChicago’s U.S. News ranking has fluctuated; it now sits tied as the sixth-best national university. What does a high ranking mean for the University? Revenue. Sure, the University is a knowledge production site. But production is the keyword here––the University directs its academic output to boost its profile. With this publicity-driven increase in demand, our acceptance rate plummets. These low acceptance rates and our elevated status help recruit other knowledge producers, aka more professors; as the status of the University becomes elevated, higher-profile faculty could be more interested in coming to the University. The University’s strategy enables a continuous cycle in which the recruitment of better faculty leads to what is perceived as more valuable research and thus more revenue for the University.

As a private university, UChicago is accountable to none of us as students. It’s in large part what allows the University to maintain such a clear position against allowing student input into any of their decisions. Trustees, both alumni and oftentimes the largest donors to this institution, make the final say on whatever vision the University will pursue. This, combined with the city of Chicago’s lack of criticism with the University’s expansion throughout the South Side, leaves students in a vulnerable space to organize or affirm demands to support our wellbeing, knowing the chances to win the policies we want are so low.

As fellow columnist Kelly Hui outlined in her recent piece about the false premise of decolonizing this institution, the University, from its inception, has been at odds with meeting the material conditions of both its students and the communities they are located in. Universities are neocolonial, imperialist-backing, capitalist institutions by design. They seek financial gain while feigning care for students only for “good press” and improved rankings to reel in more money. If amid one of the most vulnerable moments in a century, students and their well-being are not integral to the University’s policy implementation, it is fair to assume that we are not a priority for the administration and never will be.

Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, two of the leading scholars in theorizing the end of the university as an institution and authors of the book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, wrote in a recent essay entitled “the university: last words,” “Whatever vision we have of the university should begin with what we can practice, independent of what administration will or can or can’t and will not grant.” The decision to not offer a College-wide opt-in pass/fail grading is immoral, as I laid out nearly six months ago. It is beyond willful ignorance. The University cannot and will not grant us the necessary accommodations because our well-being will never be worth more than money. I ask because the administration won’t: Faculty, department chairs, give your students the necessary accommodations and offer pass/fail for major and minor credits. After how taxing and exhausting this quarter has been for all of us, assure your students that you can and will make whatever options available to help support students in the final few weeks of the quarter. As for students, College Council has been working with department heads to understand their pass/fail policies this quarter, along with providing resources to help you advocate for yourself and for your peers. We must recognize that we must advocate for ourselves in spite of the brutal reality that the University cannot provide us with the relief we deserve. With that, reach out to your professors and departments and tell them this: It’s time for opt-in pass/fail.

Noah Tesfaye is a second-year in the College.