Why are finals more important than Black lives?

June 3, 2020, 1:04 a.m.

CW: Police brutality, anti-Blackness, death

Black Lives Matter. 

As we write this, the nation burns and grieves. Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and the innumerable others whose names have since receded from the public awareness are merely the most recent victims of a society that has categorically dehumanized and devalued Black people since before its inception. None of this is new; not police brutality, not systemic racism, not the deaths upon deaths of Black people that seem to soar to no end. But this week’s events have resurfaced centuries-old pain, trauma, and anguish. As if the suffering were not enough, we mourn amidst a global pandemic unprecedented in living memory, amidst a crushing recession — all of which exacerbate the preexisting conditions of anti-Blackness, systemic racism and white supremacy.

It must be understood that school is the last thing on our minds at this time. From the outset, this quarter was going to present unprecedented challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic has completely reshaped the way we live, from sheltering in place to transitioning offices and classrooms to be almost entirely virtual — with the exception of those working essential jobs. It has created uncertainty about the safety and well-being of our loved ones, and separated us from many of our support systems and forms of community, while forcing some of us to return to precarious living situations. In addition to all of this, in a moment of global crisis, the Black community is now further burdened by the grief and trauma of seeing people who look like them killed once again as a result of institutional racism, particularly in the form of police and mass incarceration.

Many professors have shown support and solidarity to Black students in this difficult time, in the form of course-wide accommodations like canceling assignments or exams, making projects optional, eliminating late penalties or reducing other requirements. We are grateful to receive this support. In particular, we would like to highlight the actions of Jerry Cain in the Computer Science (CS) department, who not only enacted all of these measures, but also provided support resources. He wrote in a public post:

“I shouldn’t be requiring you to email me, particularly if you have been directing your mental and physical energies towards more important matters. I need to be proactively accommodating everyone for the rest of the quarter.”

This is especially powerful, because those who are most likely to require such accommodations are precisely the individuals with the least capacity to reach out.

However, the response has not been consistent across courses. Some teaching staff have provided little to no concrete action to support students aside from blanket statements of “support” or affirmations that “we’re here for you.” As a current CS teaching assistant (TA) ’20 noted, “There are first-generation and low-income (FLI) students still working essential jobs who may be the sole providers for their families, and there are FLI Black students who are dealing with both, and yet the teaching staff still wants these students to reach out first?”

Professors like School of Engineering Dean Jennifer Widom have repeatedly demonstrated that they are out of touch with Black student experiences on and off campus. We are especially concerned with her and the teaching staff’s refusal to accommodate Black students by implementing changes to course requirements in CS102: “Working With Data: Tools and Techniques,” which directly takes time away from Black students’ self-care and community obligations. We approached her on Saturday, in good faith, to express our concerns with the effect the strenuous assignment schedule would have on the Black community in light of the ongoing traumatic events. Students with little to no programming experience were expected to learn how to code virtually in the midst of a global pandemic, learn SQL, Python, R, data analysis and visualization via spreadsheets, Tableau, machine learning techniques and data mining algorithms. 

On Monday afternoon, students in CS102 and concerned friends in the CS department and beyond attended Widom’s office hours to discuss this issue further. We were met not only with staunch resistance, but with tone-deaf and baseless accusations and non-sequiturs from Widom and the teaching staff. Widom expressed that the teaching staff was “not going to offer accommodations for someone who looks a certain way” and later remarked that “Asian students experience racism too.” These two profoundly ignorant whataboutisms at best completely misunderstood the point of our asks, and at worst continue to minimize the suffering of Black people, using Asian students as a wedge.

Widom is not alone. Before students began to advocate more broadly for academic accommodations, students in PSYC 135: “Sleep and Dreams” were campaigning for their own accommodations. A student reached out to professor Rafael Pelayo and the teaching team on Thursday, expressing their frustration with the lack of action that had been taken to adequately address the impact the anti-Black state-sanctioned violence was having on students academically, as well as suggesting clear steps to mitigate additional academic pressure.

The teaching team did not reply to the email until Sunday, after a more formal school-wide email campaign had already taken place. Additionally, the student didn’t receive a response from Pelayo himself, but rather one of the TAs, who insisted that the class would be offering some form of accommodations.

Ultimately these accommodations addressed none of the concerns this student, or other students that had ultimately emailed the team with, had raised previously. Further, the posted accommodations were announced by a TA, with a resounding lack of formal response from Pelayo himself. Much of the frustration in the class was centered around refusal of Office of Accessible Education (OAE) accommodations, and the continued unwillingness to accept late work despite Black students in the class being forced to grapple with trauma from anti-Black violence. 

While students were continuing to advocate for their Black peers in the form of academic accommodations, the TAs sent repeated emails to students, demanding to know why the TAs and Pelayo had not been publicly recorded on a spreadsheet tracking responses to academic accommodation requests as a “positive” response. Multiple students were having to defend themselves to the TAs, while already in the midst of a traumatic situation. All of this, and students have yet to see any direct acknowledgement from Pelayo about the situation, nor have academic accommodations been ratified.

Furthermore, Stanford as a university has been largely silent. While the administration has released a few generic statements with hyperlinks to resources, students are largely expected to advocate for themselves while fighting for their lives. 

Time and again, the labor of advocacy is pushed on to students of color, and this occurrence was no exception. Had Stanford stepped up and offered direct, concrete guidance or statements about academic accommodations in light of this situation, we would not be required to request accommodations ourselves; we would not have had to experience professors in powerful positions invalidating our experiences; we would not have to strike an impossible balance with academics and justice; we would not need to write this letter.

We want to make it clear to professors and administrators: Silence is complicity. Inaction is complicity. It is, and has never been, enough to simply say that you “support us.” Words are doing nothing for the students who are grieving, on the streets, or experiencing police brutality right now and are still somehow expected to complete schoolwork. If Stanford claims to truly be a University that seeks change and progress, now is the time to prove it.

Theresa Gao ’21, Christopher Tan ’21, Eva Reyes ’20 and Allison Tielking ’20,
writing on behalf of a group of concerned Stanford students

Contact Theresa Gao at [email protected], Christopher Tan at [email protected], and Eva Reyes [email protected].

Login or create an account