College must reinstitute last year’s academic flexibility

Isabelle Wood

“Climb high, climb far.” It is hard to find a phrase more central to the Williams ethos than this tagline. It is embedded into our intellectual environment, inscribed onto a campus landmark, and invoked in the College’s mission statement. It is what the College strives to do, yet something that it is failing at miserably with regards to student mental health at the current moment.

There is a simple solution to this current crisis: Reinstitute last year’s academic accommodations immediately.   

As evidenced by the lead story in last week’s issue of the Record, “As students struggle with mental health, unprecedented demand for therapy overwhelms IWS”, students are, by and large, not doing well. They are inching by with not enough sleep, too much work, and minimal institutional support. In short, students aren’t climbing high or climbing far. Instead, they are scraping by, a tragic (and preventable) foundering of this ideal of unequivocal and ubiquitous excellence that the College claims to champion. 

There are several concrete steps that President Maud S. Mandel and the deans’ office can undertake to alleviate the burden on students that require no financial investment and can be instituted swiftly. The recent decision to extend the Pass/Fail deadline to January is an important first step in the right direction, and there are several similar accommodations that the College can and should adopt to help alleviate student stress, anxiety, and burnout. 

Many of the academic changes made last year in response to the pandemic can and should be reinstituted. For example, reducing the required course load to three classes per semester and allowing students to Pass/Fail more than three classes over the course of their time at Williams would do volumes to ameliorate academic stress. Additionally, letting students withdraw from a course without such a designation on their transcripts will encourage students to evaluate their priorities and limitations in a mindful and reasoned way. These are prudent and sympathetic policies that would foster an environment of intellectual curiosity and support, rather than one of needless competition, pressure, and malaise.

Such policies would allow students to focus on their studies without the unnecessary and sometimes crushing anxieties that grades induce. Especially as we are still suffering through a devastating pandemic, our abrupt transition back to “normalcy” was bound to cause mass whiplash, and we are suffering the consequences of that sudden jolt back to extracurriculars, social lives, and full course loads and expectations. 

The aforementioned accommodations are not at odds with the College’s missions and standards; rather, they are congruous with the ideals that the mission statement and admissions office so proudly pronounce. As evidenced by the adoption of such measures last year, reducing course loads and increasing Pass/Fail quotas do not compromise the intellectual rigor or academic standards that define Williams. In fact, they promote a holistic educational experience that looks beyond putative academic intensity.

I do recognize that several factors that could contribute to a healthier and happier campus climate are outside of the College’s control. For instance, though important, hiring a legion of new therapists in a rural area during a moment of such clinical scarcity is difficult. However, increasing the number of providers in Integrative Wellbeing Services is not the only means to improving campus mental health. In fact, such thinking is reductionist and fails to grapple with the nuances of student well-being. It neglects to critically engage with how administrators and professors can improve the student experience in the here and now, not just at some undisclosed future date.

The institutional disregard for student mental health this semester is unacceptable. Especially in the wake of three student deaths in the last year, the College’s inability to acknowledge student suffering beyond periodic appeasing emails is inexcusable. We find ourselves amid a national mental health crisis that has unsurprisingly found its way onto our campus. Yet, in many ways, Williams is acting as if we as a community are immune to its consequences. We, frankly, are not. The administration’s lack of direct action is saddening and dangerous, and it needs to reevaluate its priorities.

With this in mind, it is imperative that the College’s administration move beyond paying lip service to our institutional values and adopt proactive, responsible policies in response to our current mental health crisis. The stakes are too high not to. 

Therefore, I charge Williams to lead by example and foster a climate of excellence in all spheres of student life: Readopt the academic policies of the past academic year, and unequivocally commit to prioritizing student and community well-being. There is more to our health than weekly Covid tests. Reassessing and living by our supposed values are important and necessary next steps. Only in doing so can we allow students to realize our core ideal: to climb high and climb far this semester and beyond.

Isabelle Wood ’22 is a history major and leadership studies concentrator from New York, N.Y.