For students coping with questions of survival through fiscal, mental, and physical strain in the time of COVID-19, President Carmen Twillie Ambar’s March 25th email, ostensibly aiming to offer students support, instead read something like a celebrity “Imagine” video: misguided (if well-meaning), avoidant of the gravity of the disaster at hand, completely unhelpful, and vaguely insulting. The short missive, intended to quell uprooted students’ anxieties about the upcoming online module, included a video of the president playing piano, and offering advice her young triplets received on how to “make the most of this moment.” Ambar closes the email by asking that the student body “let us know how we can serve you during this difficult time.” We let you know. You chose not to listen.
In the days following Ambar’s email, the Student Senate presented a petition to the administration proposing a Universal Pass policy. Under this policy, all students would pass all their classes without letter or number grades, with exemptions for students who chose to receive a letter grade. The petition received the written support of more than 1,300 students — almost half the student body.
The refusal to endorse the student senate’s petition is a failure to meet the needs that the student body has explicitly expressed. Oberlin students, like those of schools and universities across the nation, are coping with significant anxiety as young people in the midst of a crisis: on the brink of a recession, and faced with an incompetent government. The statistics indicate that some members of Oberlin’s communities will die or be closely affected by death.
Many students, due to these circumstances (and possibly, but not always, the additional financial burdens they may be attending to), would prefer to withdraw from the semester on emergency leave. But at this point in the semester, the option of emergency leave is completely inaccessible. If a student were to take leave at this point in the semester, they would receive zero academic credit for their efforts this semester, and no refund whatsoever on their tuition.
The claim that “A universal pass would place faculty in a position of giving passing grades to students who have not met basic course requirements for passing,” and that this would violate “academic integrity” is a shallow and insufficient response to the facts of the situation: given the circumstances, many students will not be able to meet the basic requirements for passing, particularly students faced with circumstantial disadvantages that would prevent them from being able to repeat a course. In short, the refusal to endorse universal pass willingly disregards the significant number of students who, under the stresses of this crisis, will fail out of the semester and will not be able to return to school. The victims of this oversight will disproportionately be lower-income students and students of color. Every single student on merit scholarship is negatively affected by the college’s failure to endorse this policy.
Additionally unrecognized is a racialized nature of circumstance during this crisis. ABUSUA, African Students Association (ASA), Students of Caribbean Ancestry (SOCA), Black Scientists Guild (BSG), Oberlin Conservatory Black Musicians Guild (OCBMG), The Brotherhood, and Black Student Athletes Group (BSAG) have all publicly endorsed the Student Senate’s proposal. They cited the widespread racialized disparity in financial and academic resources available to Oberlin’s black students at home as evidence that “Black students will suffer negative academic outcomes at a disproportionate rate compared to our peers.” For Oberlin to stake a claim to its history as a racially progressive school, it must step up to the expectations it sets for itself by protecting the most vulnerable members of its community.
In their letter to the student body, Deans Kamitsuka and Quillen claimed that “the health, safety, and wellbeing of all members of our community is our paramount concern.” The decision to reject universal pass negates this statement, and demonstrates a willingness to prioritize the superficial academic rigor of the institution above that very health, safety, and wellbeing. For the EPPC and EPC to say that they “fully share Senate’s concerns about how this semester will impact student learning,” while failing to uphold the essential response necessary to those concerns is wholly disingenuous.
The proposal of a Universal Pass policy affords the college a unique opportunity to prove their dedication to serving their student body, and to protect the wellbeing of their students above all else. Failure to endorse this policy indicates a fatal misjudgement of institutional priority that will ultimately cost the college its student body.