Letter to the editor: A proposed academic change for equity by Occidental students

Letter to the editor

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 presented to the board of trustees April 23.


Dear Trustees, Faculty, Staff, and Senior Administrators of Occidental College:

We write this letter to communicate the feelings and experiences many of us, as members of the student body, are currently confronting in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. In addressing these matters, we are proposing an addition to the current academic policy to accommodate these arduous circumstances: 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.  

It is unreasonable to expect students to adjust to our new realities while simultaneously performing at a high academic standard. It is equally unreasonable to believe our academics can remain our top priority and that all we need is enough motivation to get through the semester. Due to the suspension of in-person classes and the cancellation of all other on-campus activities, it is assumed that college students have more free time to focus on academics. We challenge this belief, as many of us have been forced to return to unsafe and unstable living situations and take on unforseen responsibilities. There are many of us who are worrying about our families being evicted, taking jobs on the frontlines to compensate for laid-off family members, living with queerphobic family members, caring for loved ones, taking on the bulk of household work, worrying about those who are at risk, as well as mourning over those we have already lost. Furthermore, many of us, such as graduating seniors and low-income students, are deeply concerned about our financial wellbeing as we transition into the summer, where we will receive little to no support from Occidental College. As much as we care about our education under normal circumstances, the last concern on some of our minds is academics given the present situation.

The reality is that many of us are struggling to varying degrees. It is imperative to consider that many students now lack the appropriate environments and tools necessary for their academic success such as a space that is conducive to learning, a stable internet connection, and a printer. We lack the peer support systems that aided us not only in our rigorous coursework but also in our personal challenges and endeavors. We also want to emphasize that many students have been and continue to be impacted by the tragic losses of students Ilah Richardson and Jaden Burris (may they rest in power), which occurred within three weeks of one another. The tight community at Oxy causes our sorrow to ripple, with the entire student body being affected to varying extents. Grief has no timeline, and many of us continue to cope with these losses in different ways. The decision to move to remote learning occurred only three weeks after our second loss. Many students have not had time to heal. We therefore urge you to take this into consideration and allow for a more flexible academic policy as detailed below.

With the current academic guidelines, we will be receiving letter grades at the end of the semester that will not reflect our academic abilities, but rather, whether we had the privilege to remain academically productive under distressing circumstances. Despite the adjustments to grading policies, such as allowing grades to be adjusted to CR/NC, the expectation to submit multiple weekly assignments and excel in our courses persists. This expectation is stifling, and the resulting pressure has left many of us feeling helpless, exacerbating our inability to focus on doing our best academically. 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. 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. Choosing CR/NC may appear as an attempt to cover up a lack of resilience or laziness. The CR/NC system can have implications for graduate institution admissions as well, given that some future applicants will be applying with letter grades while others will have a pass/fail. Although we hope these institutions will be sympathetic towards students due to the crisis, we cannot expect them to be unbiased. There are multiple graduate programs, including numerous medical schools, that have stated they will not accept CR/NC grades if opting for them was the student’s choice, and many more discourage students from taking that option. Other undergraduate institutions have offered students the opportunity of only completing assignments if they desire to increase their grade, but are not requiring full academic engagement. This policy would best serve Oxy’s diverse student body given the unique and unequal circumstances we are currently experiencing. We therefore implore you to reconsider the current academic policies to promote equity over equality. 

We, the students of Occidental College, urge you—Trustees, Faculty, Staff, and Senior Administrators—to consider action over words during this desperate time. Though we are appreciative of the many efforts the College has made to ease students’ transition during this incredibly difficult time, we believe Oxy can and should do better for its student body. We acknowledge that some students may have access to more stable living situations than others and may not be as affected by this change. However, we must also acknowledge that the most vulnerable members of our community are disproportionately negatively impacted by the present grading practices, and it is our duty as a community to advocate for them to ensure their success. We believe the empathetic route is to adopt a measure that not only does not harm the aforementioned students, but also benefits the many of us who are struggling. We urge for you to consider our mental, emotional, and physical health. As you do this, we call on you to add the following to the currently enacted guidelines for a more empathetic 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 hope that you all understand the extent to which this affects us as over 800 students have signed this letter and many have contributed by adding their experiences and insights. This letter was not written by a single individual or a group of people; we, the students of Occidental College, have come together to share our experiences, our voices, and our most sincere desires regarding the changes that can be made to our current academic policy to best benefit students’ wellbeing during these trying times. Now is the time for Oxy administrators, faculty, staff, and trustees to come together and take into consideration every student and their present circumstances.

As of April 25 10:32 a.m., this letter received 916 supporting signatures from current students and 15 from alumni. To view a live list of these names, visit the original letter.



Institutions Enacting Optional Assignments/Finals

Goldstein-Street, Jake, and Ash Shah. “’It’s Incredibly Unfair’: How the Move to Online Classes amid Coronavirus Is Fundamentally Altering Courses.” The Daily of the University of Washington, University of Washington, 9 Mar. 2020. www.dailyuw.com/news/article_81e2e072-61aa-11ea-aefa-93afeba4f941.html

Dill, Emma. “How Has Grading Changed Since Coronavirus Forced Classes Online? Often, It Depends on the Professor.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 Apr. 2020, www.chronicle.com/article/How-Has-Grading-Changed-Since/248508

Sarraf, Isabelle. “Holloway: All Northwestern Undergraduate Final Exams to Be Made Optional.” The Daily Northwestern, Northwestern University, 30 Mar. 2020, dailynorthwestern.com/2020/03/15/lateststories/holloway-professors-asked-to-make-all-undergraduate-final-assessments-optional/. 

Editorial Board, et al. “Editorial: Put Our Health above Grades and Teach with Empathy.” The Occidental, 16 Apr. 2020, www.theoccidentalnews.com/opinions/2020/04/15/editorial-put-our-health-above-grades-and-teach-with-empathy/2900729?fbclid=IwAR32MNoSrdZ1N-IOwLoREsibpYa3ejdN91vwXQwW3HZeB6fs1RUTnfsDuFA

A Compilation of Graduate Institutions’ Admissions Policy Regarding CR/NC

FOR STUDENTS – US Medical School Pass/No Pass Pandemic Policy” https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1kfxiWvAHef3lUyOyRhgzqTcetqS0fan4CYn94_r6LT0/edit#gid=0 

Updated Osteopathic Medical School Admissions Protocols in Response to COVID-19

https://choosedo.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04 /Main-COVID-4-9.pdf

Further Reading 

Henry, Jazz. “Letter to the Editor: Black Community Feels Isolated after College Mishandles the Deaths of Two Black Students.” The Occidental, 16 Apr. 2020, https://www.theoccidentalnews.com/opinions/2020/04/08/letter-to-the-editor-black-community-feels-isolated-after-college-mishandles-the-deaths-of-two-black-students/2900598