Letter to the Provost:
Hello Madam Provost,
Over the course of the semester, we have seen increased requests from students to expand the pass/fail model from last semester into the current semester. These requests have come in various forms, private messages, a number through our feedback form, dozens of emails, and a constantly increasing number of social media posts. I’m sure your office has also received a considerable amount of correspondence surrounding the Spring 2021 grading policy.
While we understand from our previous email correspondence, in addition to the announcement sent out this morning, that the administration is not intending to expand the pass/fail policy for this semester, we urge you to reconsider. Currently, the student petition regarding Pass/Fail sits at over 2000 signatures with a wealth of student testimonies. This past Friday, students protested the lack of circumstantial policy changes being offered in such a difficult semester. This semester, students have seen a disheartening fluctuation of COVID cases; they have been involved in heavy conversations surrounding naming & renaming. They have witnessed a tumultuous national climate with insurrections mounting distrust towards authorities and public officials, and increased visibility of hate crimes towards Asian Americans. These past few weeks, students have experienced a myriad of intense emotions, including stress, fear, frustration, and anxiety. This, coupled with an already atypical semester, has been a recipe for atypical academic strain. The campus has been subsequently plagued with varying stress levels, depressive episodes, and other mental health-related issues. Yet, students feel that the resources at the Wellness Center do not meet the demand. Offering resources after the fact, more than halfway through the semester, does little to alleviate the strain we already see students experiencing.
Our analysis of the feedback received is substantiated by the W&M&You survey results from throughout this semester. While 71.2% of students surveyed stated the semester’s non-compression increased the quality of the semester (citing it as better than the fall semester), 54.9% of students surveyed reported that Spring 2021 was still a heavier academic workload than previous non-COVID semesters. Interestingly, when surveyed, faculty also felt they spent more time teaching than they did pre-COVID, with 87.3% of those surveyed saying they spent more time this semester (with 67.6% of those surveyed saying they spent much more time). Of the additional time spent on teaching, those who chose to elaborate on the cause, 40.5% of them attributed that time to “students needing additional support/communication/
It’s also important to note that while 73% of William & Mary students surveyed in Fall 2020 reported that their workload was heavier compared to Fall 2019, only 27.1% of those students cited the compressed semester as being the leading cause of that heavier workload. Meanwhile, of the students who reported that their workload was heavier in Fall 2020 compared to Fall 2019, 22.2% cited heavier amounts of additional work as the cause of that workload increase, and 18% cited the greater effort demanded to complete assignments, two categories that likely have not changed significantly since last semester. Additionally, we understand that faculty have expressed concerns about underprepared students ending up in higher-level courses that they may not have taken otherwise. However, we urge you to consider that a passing grade at W&M is a D-. On the pass/fail policy passed last semester, that same D- is regarded as a passing grade. In a typical semester, when the pandemic officially subsides, the university will still encounter students who are allowed, per W&M policy, to move onto the next course after receiving a D-. So, reteaching is something professors will likely encounter regardless of the pandemic. With the P/F policy in place, you are providing equitable infrastructure to ensure that the pandemic is not the reason for academic difficulties. In a typical semester, if someone performs poorly due to mental health or physical health, we have Care Support Services who provide students with the option to retroactively withdraw from a course if the failing grade was due to an extenuating circumstance. An extension of P/F policy would ensure that the pandemic is taken into nuanced consideration when looking at a student’s transcripts. Additionally, all students do not have the privilege of withdrawing from courses as a solution to a difficult situation due to many reasons such as financial aid and graduation schedule. Especially thinking of graduating seniors, who may not be in the financial situation to stay an additional semester for one course.
It’s not just William & Mary students who feel this way. Looking to UVA and GMU, two of our peer institutions, each of them has extended the pass/fail policy they offered in Fall 2020. In UVA’s decision, their administration stated: “Ultimately, we sought to balance serious concerns raised by students, faculty, and staff about the effects of this pandemic on many of our students, while at the same time honoring the views of those students and faculty who seek to give or receive standard grades.”
We often look towards the decisions made by UVA as a source of validation that we are on the correct path - that our peer institution, too, feels that a particular decision is the right one. We have to ask, why now when so much is at stake for our students, are we choosing to be an institution that ignores student requests? There are cries from students to further explain the decisions being made, as the explanations do not align with the experiences, intentions, and concerns of those who are asking for academic relief. It seems little has changed from last semester to the current semester. We have gained more time, yet in the same breath gained infinitely more turmoil both within our walls and on a national scale.
It is important to note that students are adults who are fully capable of understanding the repercussions of a decision, such as choosing pass/fail grading. It is also important to note that not all students intend to continue their education. Students live life on their terms, with very different paths forward. A student hoping to continue to graduate or professional schooling will make the best choice for their situation, which may differ from that of a student immediately pursuing a career.
It is also essential to acknowledge that the wellness days have been considered by many to be ineffective. There are numerous reports of faculty assigning work or exams the day after those wellness days, making them less of a relief and instead, an additional, albeit more focused, workday. As sporadic as they are, those wellness days cannot, in good faith, be considered an adequate replacement for our traditional spring break. Wellness programming does little to assuage the systemic abnormalities of the semester. If we were truly back to normal, students should be able to enjoy the same amenities they typically do, including longer hours at traditional study spaces such as Swem Library, among other academic spaces.
Additionally, while this is, as you noted, semester 2.5 online, some faculty still are not adequately equipped to teach online courses and have not fully translated their agendas into an online format. We cannot expect students to be fully adjusted to learning online when some faculty are not capable of teaching in those formats. It is, perhaps, an overestimation to assume that an unusual change would be the sole reason for decreased knowledge acquisition. If anything, it would seem that, from the student perspective, it has been much more difficult to receive a solid foundation within the classroom this semester. Creating all the more reason for an “unusual change to existing grading policy would not be wise”.
We must also acknowledge the many emotional and mental strains that the pandemic has had on the personal lives of many students. Several students have emailed us about how they are struggling to get through this semester. We have borne witness to testimonials of students who are trying to grieve family members and friends that have died as a result of COVID and can find no reprieve because of the rigor of this semester. We have borne witness to testimonials of students whose mental health is deteriorating but are unable to care for themselves, as they have to still comply with their rigorous academic schedule.
And, even to make this more personal, we write to you struggling as well. Many of our SA members have remarked how difficult this has been for them for the aforementioned reasons, with being a representative of the student body as a compounding factor. To do this work, to write to you now, is not the only diverging time from other issues, but an exacting time that we necessarily do not have for ourselves. In short, very few students at William & Mary have had the time to prioritize their health and we owe it to them to extend some mercy in an already merciless time. Students are hurting. That is apparent. We need to do what we can for their sake. We have to do our best to account for the many stories of strife that are widely dispersed throughout our community.
Lastly, it concerns us that students have not been involved in the official evaluation of our circumstances and the decision-making process to explore the possibility of expanding pass/fail allowances, like faculty have been since they are directly affected by such decisions. Not to mention, last semester there were very different conversations regarding revisiting Pass/Fail policies for this semester; however, we never had them and were not consulted about the current policies in place. In meeting with high-level administrators, the focus has been on how we can decrease strain on our William & Mary community. We are providing a clear path to reduce that strain now.
If possible, we would appreciate having the opportunity to meet with you all to better understand the rationale behind the decision regarding P/F announced this morning and to fully understand the faculty concerns briefly mentioned in your email to the student body. We will also reach out to the Faculty Assembly to discuss this matter with them as well. As with last semester, we will be making this memo public to the student body to be transparent about the elevation of their concerns. We hope to hear from you soon.