OPINION: CMC is a community without courage

During orientation, the Claremont McKenna College first-year class and transfer students received colorful gear that read: “Courage Meets Community.”

But these past weeks showed us that CMCers lack courage. We lacked the courage to demand a grading policy that would have accommodated every current situation of hardship: universal pass, universal pass/incomplete or universal A.

For many students, grades are secondary to family responsibilities, health conditions, immigration issues, unstable housing and time zone differences. But at the same time, the transcript is crucial for graduate programs, job security, graduation and dependency on scholarships. So yes, our stakes are high. 

With the current CMC policy, CMC students will still receive letter grades but can opt-in for credit/no credit after viewing their final grades. The problem with this policy (or any opt-in opt-out policy) is that it benefits privileged students and places disadvantaged students, who won’t be able to improve their GPA and thus access their ideal jobs and/or graduate programs in the future, at another disadvantage. Some students will be able to submit their grades while others will not, because they did not have a conducive environment to complete their academic work. 

Instead of our representatives, professors and administrators trying to alleviate our hardships, we are being penalized for being poor and marginalized. This is inequality. 

On the contrary, a universal policy would have placed all CMCers (and all 5C students, for that matter) on the same playing field when applying to graduate programs, looking for jobs and/or maintaining a certain GPA. And even in the case of some seniors who needed these grades to graduate, or if some students needed the grades to get out of academic probation or retain their scholarships, we could have aimed for a universal A policy. 

Would any universal policy require some sacrifice? Yes. But as Laleh Ahmad CM ’20 told me, “A universal pass policy wouldn’t have been ideal for a lot of people, including myself, but we often have to sacrifice what we want in order to be truly inclusive.” 

My message is clear: If the policy is not universal, it does not address inequality. An opt-in CR/NC policy is inherently unequal; a universal policy is the only equitable option for our community.

The fact that a universal pass/fail policy was not even voted on by the faculty highlights the sizable gap between talking about inclusion and acting inclusively. It is worth mentioning that ASPC went on record supporting a universal pass/incomplete grading policy, and Pomona College’s faculty voted in favor of universal pass/no record/incomplete, becoming the only 5C institution to forgo letter grades. 

“The pandemic has upended my academic life,” Chris Agard CM ’21 said via message. “A common argument I heard from people advocating an opt-in policy said that people who worked hard for letter grades deserve to receive them. Where does that leave someone like me, who did work hard but whose academic work [at home] simply cannot match that at school?”

Students’ ability to learn is being affected, not their willingness to learn. 

“This policy completely ignores huge disparities in students’ living situations,” Miriam Farah CM ’23 said via message. “Not all of us have stable Wi-Fi, quiet working environments or even a desk. This policy forces disadvantaged students to choose an option that possibly hinders future academic and professional success while privileged students can comfortably receive letter grades.” 

We cannot blindly use the majority rule in a place where the majority of students come from the top 20 percent of the country’s median income and a tiny fraction of the student body comes from the bottom 20 percent. 

In my American Government course last semester, my classmates pointed out that they lived in ZIP codes where nearly 100 percent of residents had a high income and high levels of education. My ZIP code had 6 percent for both categories, and the ZIP code of the only black student in the class had 1 percent.

Unaffected students are not outraged that their peers are being affected by this grading decision. The socioeconomic disparity is evident within our classrooms, and is even more amplified now that we are receiving classes remotely.

On the faculty and administrative level, the email we received from Dean Peter Uvin was insulting. It was poorly composed, and poorly formatted. It felt rushed despite delivering news we had been waiting for three weeks; news that dictated the trajectory for many of us. 

What does it mean to recognize “the tough circumstances many of our students face” and still decide to “not [favor] any particular system”? 

You should have favored a system — a universal policy, because it was equitable. 

According to members of the ASCMC Executive Board, many professors were hostile and did not even want student representatives present in the discussions, much less to present policies. The voting meeting went into executive session (or closed doors) while not all questions were fully discussed.

It is also worth mentioning that ASCMC does not have as much of a history as ASPC of engaging in advocacy work with the administration. I mention this to note the challenges that ASCMC had to face to even get into the room. 

And if this difficulty persists, we ought to change that moving forward. There was lack of transparency from the administration and a lack of initiative from the faculty to come up with policies beyond the ones presented by ASCMC. They lack the courage and imagination to deviate from the status quo. 

I am disappointed that CMCers do not deeply understand their peers’ struggles. I’m disappointed that our futures are left to the discretion of professors’ leniency in grading. I’m disappointed that students chose to maintain their 3.6 Goldman Sachs GPA instead of showing solidarity.

I’m disappointed that we did not organize, that we assumed the majority rule was the correct answer, that we were not courageous enough to demand for the well-being of those who are struggling.

I’m disappointed that we failed our own community. I’m disappointed that CMC failed me. 

I do still, however, want to acknowledge the incredible hard work of everyone involved in the grading policy over the last few weeks despite the results. I appreciate the creation of a 5C-wide survey, the deans and faculty who consistently met with students, the resourcefulness of the Dean of Students office, the professors who restructured their entire syllabus and the two-week extension on senior thesis, even though it might not sound like it. 

I also want to acknowledge that, at the end of the day, ASCMC leaders are also just students going through an unprecedented situation and entering a new term in leadership.  

I consider my critiques important for the future growth of our school. CMC can no longer be the institution that invites sociologist and professor Anthony Jack to speak at the Athenaeum about elite institutions failing disadvantaged students, and six weeks later, neglects to implement policies that would have prevented the same disadvantaged students from failing.

To professors: I urge you to acknowledge these situations and implement generous arrangements in each class to accommodate our vulnerable students. I understand that administration and faculty have been meeting to get us back on campus in the fall. 

In the case that this is not possible because of the uncertainty of COVID-19, we all need to actively ensure inclusion and community within our school. We need a universal policy now. We will need a universal policy in the fall, in the case we cannot return.

My fellow students: Sometimes we need to sacrifice our privilege to achieve equality. Sometimes we need to learn more about our peers. Sometimes we need to prioritize the well-being of our friends over our grades. We are in one of those times. 

CMC, we cannot be a community without courage. 

Katherine Almendarez CM ’22 is a guest writer who is majoring in public policy and Latin American studies. She is from Honduras and Miami (no, Miami is not Florida). Follow her on Twitter @kathaalmendarez for some viral content. 

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