Faculty alter two academic requirements in all-faculty meeting

Joey Fox

At last Wednesday’s virtual faculty meeting, the faculty voted near-unanimously to approve two motions submitted by the Committee on Academic Standing (CAS) concerning academic requirements. Both motions will go into effect starting in fall 2020.

The first motion concerns minimum academic requirements for first-year students. Under current policies, sophomores, juniors and seniors must receive four grades of C- or better to meet minimum standards, while first-years need to receive only three — in other words, first-years can currently receive one D and still meet requirements while upperclass students cannot. The motion eliminates this distinction, requiring all students, regardless of class year, to receive four grades no worse than C-.

“While the current policy may reflect a desire to ease the transition to Williams by relaxing academic expectations, we believe it is ultimately not in the best interest of the students or the College,” states a memo submitted to the faculty by the CAS. The motion passed with 97 percent of faculty voting in favor.

By making requirements consistent across class years, the memo affirms, “the new definition provides an avenue for the College to identify and engage with first-year students who are struggling (but not failing) academically before those struggles become major obstacles to academic success.”

The second motion establishes a pilot program, beginning in fall 2020 and lasting through spring 2023, to allow students to make up a course deficiency by using a previously taken fifth course credit. Ninety-seven percent of faculty also voted in favor of this motion.

Currently, when students take fifth courses, “those extra classes do not count towards the requisite 32 and cannot be used to accelerate graduation,” the CAS memo states. As a result, students who fail or withdraw from a course must make up that credit in the future, even if they had taken five classes in a previous semester and thus achieved the requisite number of credits for graduation. The new policy will allow those otherwise extraneous credits to count toward graduation requirements.

The memo details the many advantages that the new policy may bring, including making courseloads less onerous for students who may be struggling academically and saving the College money by eliminating expenditures on makeup classes taken elsewhere. The memo also notes potential disadvantages — most notably that some students may abuse the policy and load up on course credits early on in order to “curate an ‘easy’ senior year” — but concludes that the drawbacks are unlikely to be significant.

Professor of Computer Science Steve Freund, who introduced both motions, said that the two new policies emerged after a year’s worth of discussion and reflection. “This past year, CAS undertook an examination of our policies and processes to ensure we act as effectively, consistently and fairly as possible,” Freund said. The examination ultimately “identified several academic policies that we felt could be adjusted to improve how the College supports and engages with students struggling academically.”

“Both motions,” Freund continued, “seek to [help students succeed] by identifying situations where earlier intervention may be beneficial or by providing an additional means for making up deficiencies.”

The introduction of the motions to the entire faculty, originally slated for early spring, was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic; nevertheless, Freund said the policies remain unchanged. “While the world has changed much since then,” he said, “we believe the motions will improve our academic policies and how the College supports students regardless of the current circumstances and what lies ahead.”