Letter to the editor: Choose equity, Occidental

Letters to the editor are traditionally edited for clarity, Associated Press (AP) style and grammar. This letter was published as submitted to allow readers to view this letter as it was emailed to Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg, Associate Deans and Occidental faculty members April 25. This letter is a response to an email sent by Sternberg April 24 to the student body, which is replying to a previous letter to the editor.

Dear Dean Sternberg, Associate Deans, and Faculty Members,

We are emailing you in response to the decision made by the Academic Deans, Faculty Council, and Academic Planning Committee on April 24, 2020, to not institutionalize the proposal collectively supported by over half of the student body so far in addition to numerous alumni and parents. This proposed addition is intended to make the current academic policy at Occidental College more equitable for all students. We value the perspective expressed in Dean Sternberg’s email, but, because of the overwhelming feedback from the student body, feel compelled to respond to three of the points that addressed the reasoning behind not institutionalizing our proposed addition:

1) Institutionalizing our suggestion “…has the potential to devalue the efforts that faculty have put into shifting the academic program to remote instruction.”

We want to point out that this is only true if the ultimate value and capstone of what faculty have given us is a grade—it is not. The value is in the effort they have invested into their students and their classes, the knowledge they have shared with us, and the intangible lifelong lessons that have taught us how to be better students and people. This unfortunate situation may have devalued the college experience, but it does not devalue the knowledge that can still be imparted through a humanizing shift. Our proposed addition does not devalue the hard work that our professors have put into us, similar to how a professor’s work is not devalued if a student ultimately chooses to go CR/NC at the end of the semester. We also want to emphasize that though we propose that finals be made optional, this does not mean that all students will choose not to take them. Many students will utilize finals as an opportunity to improve their grades or demonstrate their learning. The time and effort that faculty have invested in creating their final assignments will not be wasted or go unappreciated. We are merely asking for the implementation of a policy that is consistent across campus to be empathetic and understanding of many students’ struggles. Not instituting a policy that aims to alleviate the burdens from our most marginalized students is to go against our institutional value of equity.

2) Institutionalizing our suggestion “…may devalue the meaning of the credits toward the Occidental College degree that students will have earned this semester.”

We wish to first point out that credits have already been devalued by the pandemic and by the varying ways the faculty have adjusted their classes. Changes for each course have been defined differently by each professor, causing inconsistencies across the college. Some faculty have already made finals optional while others have not. Some faculty have greatly reduced the number of required assignments, whereas others expect the same workload and have, in some cases, increased the length of their lectures or the number of readings to compensate for lost time. This burdens those in the direst circumstances. With students learning in significantly different environments, these credits are much more easily obtained by the privileged than those who are struggling. Students that complete the semester with poor grades—which is not indicative of their potential, but rather a signifier of their unfortunate circumstances—will be highly disadvantaged in the future. When competing for jobs or spots at graduate schools, other students whose colleges adopted more lenient policies will have higher grades and will thus be stronger candidates. Pitzer, another small liberal arts college, is currently considering a Universal A policy supported by 52% of the faculty, with the final majority vote taking place in the next few days. Several other institutions have adopted policies such as a universal Pass/Fail system. In comparison, Oxy’s current opt-in CR/NC system is not a comprehensive solution, as it forces the most vulnerable with least time to study to go CR/NC. Choosing this option has been highly discouraged by graduate schools, among others, if it was not a universal school policy. This would disadvantage underprivileged Oxy students who want to pursue these graduate programs, fellowships, and internships, those who seek to transfer, or those who need outside scholarships and financial aid. Adopting our proposed change will only help the future academic and professional pursuits of marginalized students and will also not devalue the credits at Oxy any more than they already have been.

3) Institutionalizing our suggestion “…would remove faculty authority over their classroom operations, as we believe faculty autonomy is a critical component of academic freedom.”

We want to make clear that we value, respect, and deeply appreciate the efforts that faculty members have made to ease students’ transitions to remote learning. We know that many students have and continue to look to faculty for support and understanding. However, we’d like to also share that this letter—supported by more than 1000 students—has been created because students are still struggling. Our unfortunate circumstances are not caused by the faculty, but rather the incredibly vulnerable and difficult situations many students currently find themselves in physically, mentally, and emotionally. In these trying times, the faculty has continued to teach, and students are continuing to learn—altering the grading policy will not change that. We do not believe that adding to the policy infringes on faculty autonomy to educate; we are asking to implement a grading policy that is consistent across the college. Again, some faculty have made finals optional, while others have not. Some have greatly reduced the number of required assignments, whereas others expect the same workload and have, in some cases, increased the number of readings or lecture time to compensate for lost time. The disparity between class expectations that currently exists is unfair, and only an institutionalized policy will be equitable for all students.

Further, with this policy, we hope to eliminate the burden that many students, especially those who find themselves in deeply distressing situations, endure by having to share and validate their difficulties and trauma with professors, staff, and administrators. This should not be a requirement as it is an added source of stress for the many students who are struggling at this time.

Over 1000 students have now signed a letter urging you to take into consideration the following addition to the current academic policy: only count assignments submitted after Spring Break toward students’ grades if they positively impact students’ final grades, and make final exams, papers, and lab reports optional.

We are not asking for faculty to shift their entire curriculum once more, we are asking them to provide a choice.

We need the College to uphold students’ wellbeing in this time of crisis and modify the academic policy.

We need the College to respond to, not just “acknowledge,” the difficult circumstances so many students are in.

The College must continue to uphold its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion by institutionalizing change that will positively impact students from all backgrounds, specifically our most vulnerable peers, during this desperate time.

The College can and should do better for its students.

The outcome of your decision will impact the futures of all current Occidental College students. We hope you will choose to stand with us.

On Behalf of The Students of Occidental College,

Dafna Erana ‘21, McKenna Sims ‘21, Jillian Kuo ‘21, Nina Srdić Hadži-Nešić (ASOC President) ‘21