The College’s plan leaves student voices unheard and questions unanswered

Editorial Board

They didn’t ask the students.

In our editorial last week, we urged the College to reach out purposefully to students before making decisions about next year. We affirmed that safety concerns and directives from the government come before all else, but we asked that the administration systematically collect our opinions as well. Based on the all-campus email that President Maud S. Mandel sent on Tuesday regarding her plan for next year’s academic model, it is clear that the College made no such concerted effort.

According to the email, regardless of whether the campus reopens in the fall, the 2020-2021 year will be made up of two semesters. Students will be required to take a minimum of three courses per semester rather than four, though students will still be permitted to take four or more courses if they choose, and there will be no Winter Study. 

In arriving at the decision, the College “considered data from the student survey on remote learning and the Record’s student poll about next fall, as well as significant faculty and staff feedback,” as Mandel wrote in her email. Deliberately solicited student feedback to this specific academic plan is notably absent from these considerations. Though we are pleased that the administration examined our survey results, our survey could not possibly have addressed the administration’s ultimate plan because we ourselves were unaware of the plan when we crafted it. 

The administration didn’t poll all students to gauge their attitudes toward next year, including the possibility of withdrawals. It didn’t open this plan up to student responses. Instead, it heavily weighed the perspectives of faculty and staff without giving students a chance to share their concerns. 

We commend Mandel for planning to hold virtual office hours this week and next, and we thank her for including a link to the new curricular planning working group’s comment form in her email. But we strongly believe that the College should have communicated with students more before making the decision.

Last week, faculty members had the benefit of a Zoom faculty meeting to hear from Mandel about proposed academic structures for the next year. And in the days after the meeting, they had the opportunity to provide “significant” feedback — feedback that, according to Mandel herself, caused the administration to reconsider their proposals entirely. Where was the forum for students to contribute to the conversation? Going forward, we ask the College to consider holding large Zoom meetings for students before arriving at decisions that will greatly affect us and our families. 

In lamenting the lack of student voice that went into deciding on the plan, the Record board does not intend to make a judgment on whether this plan was the correct course of action. But the plan’s two primary changes both have potential benefits and drawbacks that will need to be addressed. 

The elimination of Winter Study is a blow for students who value that period as a time to learn new skills and solidify friendships. We understand, however, the ways that its cancellation can ease scheduling concerns and help the College be able to keep public health guidelines in place. 

The course requirement was reduced with the goal of alleviating student exhaustion at having to take four remote classes. We understand the advantages of the change, in particular that it would ease the burden on students navigating challenging times. Yet questions will remain about academic equity as some students take four classes while others take three, and about meeting divisional and major requirements under the new system. We hope, and we trust, that the administration will approach these issues thoughtfully.

More concerning are the problems the plan does not address. In the Record survey from last week, when asked to rank four potential plans proposed by the College, more than half of respondents indicated that a remote fall semester starting in September was their last choice. That same survey showed that 68 percent of students were seriously considering withdrawing for at least a semester if the College continued remotely. 

We do not propose that the College reopen if public health guidelines dictate otherwise. The decision on whether campus opens in the fall is, rightly, out of our hands. But what students have expressed a desire for, in our survey and on the Record board itself, is a plan that offers flexible options if the College does remain online. This plan, unlike many of the others considered by the administration, offers none.

This lack of alternatives will likely pose problems for the College. For the many students seriously considering time off, the uncertainty about how the College would deal with a large group of off-cycle students is at the top of mind. Mandel has suggested in conversations with the Record that it is unlikely that 68 percent of students would in fact withdraw under a remote fall semester. That may be true, but is a 30- or 40-percent withdrawal rate all that much better? If campus is unable to reopen, those numbers may well become reality, and without a robust fallback plan, the College will feel the effects for years to come. So will the students who choose to withdraw. The plan released Tuesday makes no real attempt to mitigate that scenario. 

This reaction is not unique to the Record board. In a Record survey sent on Wednesday, 45 percent of respondents indicated disapproval of the new academic model; 23 percent approved, and 32 percent were neutral. Meanwhile, the student meme page on Facebook has been inundated with memes about the model, the vast majority of which are negative.

For weeks, students have been crying out for recognition of our biggest concern: how we can get as full a Williams experience as possible even if the fall semester is online. What landed in our inboxes on Tuesday contained no such thing and left countless simple questions unanswered. It’s hard not to look at this plan and see the gaping holes it leaves — and how many of those holes might have been filled had student opinion been properly taken into account.