On May 19, when President Maud S. Mandel sent out a campus-wide email announcing that Winter Study will be canceled and that students will only be required to take three courses per semester, the Williams meme page exploded with memes about the announcement. Although very entertaining, these memes reflect a shared sentiment of disappointment, frustration and confusion among students regarding the administration’s decision.
In light of this most recent decision to reduce the course load for the following year and cancel Winter Study, there are growing concerns among students about the uncertainty around the structure of the fall semester. I agree that this decision will maximize flexibility, which is crucial to bringing students back on campus next year, especially considering the rapidly evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this announcement has left many students bereft of the answers and assurances they were looking for from the College. While trying to increase flexibility to be able to swiftly adjust and adapt to the constantly evolving circumstances is something that the administration seems to be predominantly concerned with at the moment, the more salient concern for most students is the knowledge, or a lack thereof, of whether and how they can safely return to campus this fall.
I have no doubt that both working groups and faculty and staff are working tirelessly and comprehensively to find the most feasible and equitable solutions for the upcoming year. However, I believe that there is a lack of transparency in the decision-making process, and many students, including myself, feel unsupported and left in the dark. Essentially, we do not know what options and ideas are on the table and what tangible steps the school is taking to prepare for the next semester. The lack of a democratic conversation with the larger student body about rules and policies concerning them has only exacerbated students’ concerns about the fall semester and has even instilled distrust among some students in the working groups’ ability to make the best decision. I believe that more publicly conveying information to students about the conversations in the working group meetings would help alleviate some of the stress surrounding the uncertainty of the fall semester.
In all fairness to the administration, the working groups did launch a feedback portal, where students, faculty and other community members can express their views. What is, however, lacking and frustrating about this feedback form, is insufficient information about the role that these opinions and suggestions will play in the broader decision-making. Similarly, Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom sent out a survey attempting to assess whether students will take time off and what number of courses they will be willing to take, depending on whether the semester is taught remotely or in-person. I am not entirely sure what the point of the survey was, but if the administration believes that many more students will enroll if we go remote because of a reduced workload, then their understanding of students’ priorities and concerns at the moment is misplaced. I think it is safe to assume that many students will still take four courses regardless of the College’s change in its course-load policy. Therefore, reducing the course load to entice more students to enroll may not entirely be successful. Although students may be more likely to only take three courses if Williams decides to pursue remote instruction, this still does not resolve the issue that not all students have the same access to resources to successfully and effectively pursue online classes.
Nevertheless, the point is that no matter how necessary canceling Winter Study and reducing course loads may be, this was not the reassuring announcement that impatient and anxious students were looking for. The announcement was certainly unexpected, yet quite underwhelming — in fact, it did not attempt at all to address some of the more pressing concerns of students, such as whether or not we will be on campus this fall, what social distancing on campus would entail, what alternative options will be in place for international students or students with underlying health conditions who may not be able to return at all next fall. This ill-timed announcement seems like a stop-gap solution at best, and one that has created confusion and raised more questions than it has answered. The timing and the nature of the announcement, along with the response it generated, speak to the large communication gap between the administration and the student body. The consequences of this lack of communication and understanding between the administration and students are apparent in the meltdown on the meme page in response to Mandel’s announcement. It has also made clear that students are concerned and unsure if the administration is on the same page as they are regarding the decision about the fall semester or taking student feedback into account.
Communicating with students what the next semester could look like and what options the committees are leaning towards is essential to including students in the decision-making process. For instance, the College could make the working group meeting minutes publicly available or send out emails regarding these meetings more often. If the administration is aiming to resume on-campus instruction, they should start preparing for the safest ways to do so, and explain the exact social distancing, quarantining and testing measures that would be introduced if and when students return to campus. Not only will this reduce the uncertainty regarding the structure of the fall semester, but also quell both parents’ and students’ anxieties about students being able to safely return to campus.
Hadiqa Faraz ’21 is an economics and political science major from Islamabad, Pakistan.