Letter calling for revised grading & final exam policies receives more than 1,179 student signatures; college declines

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A screenshot of the revision history of the student letter requesting a revised Spring 2020 grading policy. Students "signed" by adding their name and class year to a public Google Doc. More than 1,000 students have signed the letter as of April 27.

More than 1,179 students, 53 alumni and 149 parents have signed a public letter petitioning for a revised Spring 2020 academic policy.* Addressed to board of trustees members, faculty, staff and senior administrators, the letter asks that only the assignments with a positive grade impact are counted toward students’ final grades and that final exams, papers and lab reports be made optional. It was created April 22, hosted on a public Google Doc and open to co-authorship from any Occidental student and was circulated among students via social media, email and text in an informal signature-gathering campaign. While the letter remained open to edits from any Occidental student, students Dafna Erana (junior), McKenna Sims (junior) and Jillian Kuo (junior) created the Google Doc and helped facilitate the editing and revision process.

Since its creation, the letter’s proposal has been formally declined by the college April 24, while the Critical Theory & Social Justice (CTSJ) department has endorsed and implemented the letter’s proposed policy revisions across all classes April 26.

The letter was presented at a board of trustees meeting April 23 by Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) president Nina Srdić Hadži-Nešić, the only student representative in the video call. At the time, it had accumulated over 850 total signatures.

The next day, April 24, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg emailed all students to notify them of the college’s rejection of the letter’s proposal. Sternberg said after hearing about the letter at the board meeting, she had brought the letter’s concerns to the academic deans, faculty council and Academic Planning Committee for discussion. She also included a copy of an all-faculty email she sent earlier that day, in which she informed faculty that she did not feel she could support the proposed revision. Sternberg cited its potential to devalue faculty efforts to shift to remote instruction and the meaning of the credits that students will have earned this semester as reasons for turning down the proposal, as well as concern over faculty autonomy.

“We are stopping short of instituting a College-wide policy that would remove faculty authority over their classroom operations, as we believe that faculty autonomy is a critical component of academic freedom,” Sternberg said via email.

The day after, in an April 25 email, Erana, Sims, Kuo and Srdić Hadži-Nešić responded to the college’s denial of the proposal with a follow-up letter detailing rebuttals to three of the reasons for the denial Sternberg outlined in her email. They also emailed this response directly to Sternberg, associate deans Carolyn Brighouse, Ron Buckmire and Salvador Fernández and all faculty members.

In emails sent to all student listservs and faculty April 26, professor and Critical Theory & Social Justice (CTSJ) department chair Mary Christianakis announced that her department unanimously endorsed the students’ letter and would be adjusting assessment, evaluation and grading across all their courses immediately.

“While we have made adjustments in our own curriculum, the students’ astute assessment and evaluation of the situation and their precise and thoughtful articulation of their demands inspires us to follow their lead,” Christianakis’ letter on behalf of the department said.

Currently, the college offers an opt-in Credit/No Credit (CR/NC) academic policy for the Spring 2020 semester, akin to other institutions’ “pass/fail” grading systems. The policy provides students with a window of time at the end of the semester to view their final letter grades and decide which courses, if any, they want converted to a CR/NC grading system, so long as the grade is a C or higher. The new policy was announced shortly after the college’s transition to remote learning March 12.

“Though Oxy has offered the CR/NC route at the end of the semester, it is unfair that many students will have to opt for this option simply because they could not perform their best academically during a global pandemic,” the letter states. “Those in the most difficult circumstances at this time will likely be forced to opt into CR/NC, and ultimately, students will be graded based on privilege, not their academic abilities. This is a matter of equity.”

Erana and Sims said they first got the idea to draft the letter, now termed the “Letter for Academic Equity,” while talking to one another about their frustrations regarding increased class workloads. Erana said she personally felt frustrated at herself for not being able to be as productive as she is during a regular school year. Sims said she felt unable to focus. Both said that after considering the variety of policies colleges and universities across the U.S. are offering, they decided that the letter’s proposed policy revision was a more realistic, equitable solution that still accommodates students who need letter grades for financial aid, scholarships, graduate schools and more.

“We felt that this policy kind of toed the middle a little bit, that it addressed many of the concerns students had,” Kuo said. “We obviously recognize that it isn’t a perfect solution, but we think that it is more equitable compared to Oxy’s current system without going to the ‘full A’ policy. We thought choosing a proposal that seemed feasible, reasonable — something that the administration would actually respond to versus just dismiss for being ludicrous — was the right way to go.”

Sims agreed, explaining that only counting assignments that positively impact final grades allows the students who worked hard to improve their grades to see their efforts reflected. At the same time, Sims said, the proposed policy avoids harming students whose post-coronavirus circumstances have dramatically inhibited their ability to work.

Srdić Hadži-Nešić said she believes that faculty autonomy, as well as faculty efforts to transition to remote learning, would not be diminished with the policy revision.

“It still allows faculty a lot of room to give grades to those who want grades, but to also grade those in difficult circumstances with more empathy,” Srdić Hadži-Nešić said. “All the work faculty have put in — that doesn’t go away. It doesn’t need to be sort of ‘honored’ by the grades they give us. They have already transferred that knowledge to us, so the grade is not the capstone of what faculty give us.”

Erana, who is a member of the board of trustees’ Student Life & Enrollment Management (SLEM) Committee, said she had shared the letter with about 20 trustees at their meeting the morning of April 23. Srdić Hadži-Nešić said later that day at the full board meeting, she was allocated time to explain the letter and advocate for its proposal. Additionally, she had provided the letter to Secretary of the College Marsha Schnirring, who forwarded it to all trustees that day. Both Erana and Srdić Hadži-Nešić said that while presenting in their separate meetings, trustees appeared to be listening intently, nodding along and describing the letter as compelling and reasonable. The Occidental has reached out to the board of trustees for comment.

Erana, Sims, Kuo and Srdić Hadži-Nešić said they felt disappointed to see the letter’s proposal declined in Sternberg’s email only one day after its presentation to the board and senior college administrators.

“The contrast between acknowledging students’ struggles in words and action was very stark in that response,” Srdić Hadži-Nešić said. “It poses the question of: how big of a concern — or what is the exact number and threshold of signatures — that the administration takes student concerns seriously? Nine hundred people is really no small number at a 2,000-person liberal arts college.”

Kuo said Erana, Sims and Srdić Hadži-Nešić are now encouraging students to reach out individually to faculty with whom they feel close with to advocate for the letter’s proposal, as well as encouraging additional signature-gathering and sending emails to the dean’s office and faculty council. Students are using a collaborative spreadsheet to keep track of their outreach efforts, as well as which faculty have announced their support of the letter.

*Signatures as of April 27 at 1:30 p.m.

This article was updated April 28 at 1:00 p.m. to clarify that the April 25 student response letter was emailed directly to associate deans Carolyn Brighouse, Ron Buckmire and Salvador Fernández and all faculty members, in addition to Sternberg. It was updated again April 30 at 12:30 a.m. to insert a quote from Sternberg’s April 24 email clarifying that the consideration of faculty autonomy — in addition to the potential to devalue remote learning shifts and the meaning of credits — was a factor in the decision to not institute a college-wide policy.