On March 27, the faculty of Notre Dame Law School met to discuss a potential ad hoc grading policy in response to the disruption of the spring 2020 semester caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The faculty did not reach a consensus and will reconvene next week to continue its deliberation. At the meeting, 2019–20 SBA President Devan Patel gave the following statement:

I want to first share with you some of the personal stories that students have expressed to me in the more than 250 messages I have received. Their stories depict a spectrum. On the one hand, there are those students whose lives have thankfully not been all-too affected; they are safely in their apartments with access to Wi-Fi and all their materials, and their families are safe, healthy, and financially secure back home. On the other hand [redacted for student privacy], students without access to stable Wi-Fi, students whose mental health struggles are aggravated by the crisis, students forced to care for their younger siblings or their sick family members, and [redacted for student privacy]. Then there are those students who fall in between. Like myself. I am safely back home in San Francisco. I will likely overcome my Wi-Fi difficulties or go without the stack of notes left in my South Bend apartment, but I worry constantly about the health of my family. We live in one of the nation’s infection hotspots, so severe that the U.S. Navy is sending one of its two hospital ships nearby, and every single member of my family, myself included, has a preexisting condition that puts them at a heightened risk of fatal consequences. It is estimated that up to 56% of Californians will get infected, meaning two members of my family. As each day goes by, I am in the position where I am hoping that it is my brother and I who get infected, as we statistically have the best chance of surviving, all things considered.

The one thing we as students have in common is the inordinate amount of stress this virus has caused. Our situations place burdens on all of us. In short, this crisis is unlike any that American society has faced since perhaps the Second World War.

I am addressing you today on behalf of all students attending this new form of “Notre Dame Law School.”

To be clear, this is not about lazy students wanting to shirk responsibility or taking the easy way out. At the beginning of this semester, every student enrolled in courses fully expecting to learn the material, take the exam, and receive a letter grade like every semester prior. Since then, however, everyone’s circumstances have drastically changed.

These extraordinary circumstances require us to reexamine this semester’s grading system.

Any decision you reach today must address 2 questions:

  1. How do we best serve those students in need now?
  2. How do we ensure the best results for future employment when the crisis ends?

First, how do we best serve students now: The fact is that students are under unprecedented levels of stress. I recognize that, as an institution, it is not our job to alleviate ALL of this stress, however, we can at least do our part to mitigate any lasting damage to students’ academic records and ensure their employment potential. To do this, we can provide students with an opt-in pass/no credit system.

The current proposal for an altered grading system offers students the ability to opt into an all-or-nothing pass/no credit grading scheme before students know their grades. Hundreds of students have reached out to me to describe their situations and what they believe will be better for them both now and for their futures. After considering their input and concerns, we ask that you build on today’s proposal by instituting optional pass/no credit after grades are released. Furthermore, I advocate for students to have the option to select pass/no credit for each individual course after viewing their grades. However, even an option for students to elect all-or-nothing pass/no credit after grades are released would be an improvement. Though I mean no disrespect, this current proposal should be the start of our discussion, rather than the end of it.

Think of this: Even when things are functioning normally in the world of law school, you don’t always see the results for which you planned. Believed strong study habits don’t always yield the intended results. Practically every 1L, after the first semester, experiences the disappointment of this failure of premonition. Second and third years, too, commiserate about how they succeeded in classes they thought they would struggle in and struggled in classes they thought they excelled at. The point is that while exams are fair, students are not good at predicting their personal outcomes. While well-intentioned, the plan for students to decide by April 28 seems, to me, completely unrealistic under the present circumstances. We would be asking students to predict how a global pandemic will affect their academic performance when students can’t even predict their academic performance in regular circumstances.

To the second question: How do we ensure the best results for future employment when the crisis ends? As discussed in the current proposal and by the Curriculum Committee, there is concern about how employers will interpret a grade of “pass” for students who have seen their grades prior to choosing. This is a valid concern. But the concern exists whether students choose before or after knowing their grades regardless. Allowing each individual student to decide for themselves what they feel gives them the best fighting chance in an interview is the most fair solution because it allows every student to make individualized determinations based on their own circumstances. I might find it easier to explain how my circumstances resulted in a B- rather than a pass to an interviewer, whereas my classmate might find it easier to explain a pass than a B-. But by allowing students themselves to choose, it gives each of us the opportunity to be the master of our own fates.

The 1Ls, and the NDLS community broadly, are of course concerned with how 1L grades this semester will affect their chances to secure employment through OCI, either in the fall or in January. An opt-in pass/no credit system, after seeing one’s grades, allows each 1L to confront each interview with the tools of their choosing. This will be fairer and produce better outcomes than a system where 1Ls must choose from a position of ignorance whether to potentially handicap themselves by replacing unknown grades with passes or to potentially handicap themselves by choosing grades that reflect their circumstance, and not their ability.

Even those with job offers have no guarantees anymore. I myself lost my job offer this week as a direct result of coronavirus’ impact on the economy. I spoke with Vinny in the CDO yesterday, and he informed me that I am the first recorded student to face this issue. I pray that I am also the last, but I am not confident that that will be the case. Having the ability to elect pass/no credit for each of my courses after seeing my grades would allow me to be the most competitive I can be given this tumultuous situation. Even if I could not choose for each individual course, having the ability to elect pass/no credit for my semester as a whole, after seeing grades, would allow me to be more competitive than the current proposal. Additionally, this gives students the incentive to try to achieve the best grade possible on exams. Permitting selection of pass/no credit before seeing grades will have the opposite effect.

I appreciate that some of you may look skeptically on students picking and choosing which classes to receive a grade in. The current proposal states, “any student facing true hardship will have all of their classes affected.” In a broad sense that may be correct, but this does not mean students experiencing true hardship will get bad marks in every class. Students should not be forced to forfeit an A they earned in one course because of disadvantages they suffer in other courses. It can only help them to have the ability to explain why the one class on their transcript with a “P” was the one class they signed up for to broaden their horizons or for which their notes were left in South Bend before the coronavirus upended their semester. That their hardship manifested in just one subject is wholly predictable and does not diminish that they are experiencing true hardship. Difficult courses are often ameliorated by the ability to pop in on professors and casually discuss topics with classmates, opportunities made exceptionally more rare and difficult by the migration to Zoom.

For these reasons, we the student body believe that the best available option is optional pass/no credit, course by course, after grades are released. But even optional pass/no credit for the semester as a whole, after grades are released, is better than the current proposal. We ask you to put each student in the best position for success in what will be an undeniably strained and contracted economy. You have always worked to ensure your students’ success. We call you to do the same now more than ever.