Students criticize engineering dean for her response to accommodations requests

June 5, 2020, 3:09 a.m.

Students in CS 102: “Working with Data” are criticizing the instructor — School of Engineering Dean Jennifer Widom — as well as the course’s teaching staff for their response to student requests for accommodations in light of recent incidents of anti-Black racism, police brutality and nationwide protests. Students say Widom was “dismissive” and “hurtful” and that members of the teaching staff lied about course requirements while ignoring student voices. 

“Dean Widom should be fired for saying ‘that the teaching staff was “not going to offer accommodations for someone who looks a certain way” and … that “Asian students experience racism too,”’’’ wrote former ASSU President Shanta Katipamula ’19 M.S. ’20 on Twitter, citing quotes attributed to Widom in a Daily opinion piece authored by students. 

Widom did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment for this news report. The head of communications at Stanford Engineering, Michael Freedman, told The Daily that Widom has, as dean, “urged faculty to be as empathetic and flexible with students as possible in terms of accommodations,” and described the accommodations offered to the class. 

Widom and the teaching team are providing an extra late day for one assignment and giving students the option to not turn in that assignment and accept an average of scores across the four previous assignments. The teaching team also provided two extra late days for a project, with the option to submit it up to a week after that if it is clear that students did not use the solutions discussed in class. If students are unable to complete that project by that time and would as a result earn a course grade of NC (No Credit), they may request an Incomplete, and clear the Incomplete by turning in the project later. If students are unable to take the course’s second exam and as a result would earn a course grade of NC, they may also request an Incomplete, and clear the Incomplete by completing a “short oral exam” with Widom later. 

But students have criticized the teaching staff’s response and say that the accommodations are inadequate, calling for more leniency and for some assessments and assignments to be made optional. 

“National events have exacerbated existing inequities,” wrote Jasmine Sun ’21 in an email to The Daily. Sun, a former Daily staff writer who expressed outrage over the teaching staff’s response to requests for accommodations in widely circulated tweets, argued that recent incidents of racial injustice have exacerbated the already difficult academic environment created by the pandemic. 

On Saturday, CS 102 students outlined their requests for coursework accommodations in a post on Piazza, a platform used for discussion between students and instructors.

“We are reaching out for support with balancing academics and the weight of various world events occurring all at the same moment,” students wrote. “Proper academic accommodations must be provided to students, especially Black students, impacted by protests, violence, and inequities.” 

In the post, Theresa Gao ’21 and others asked for an increased amount of late days, an extended grace period on an assignment, and for the in-class midterm exam during Week 10 to be optional. Students said that the Week 10 midterm violated University guidelines about assessments and exams this quarter.

“There will be no traditional final exam period for timed exams,” wrote Provost Persis Drell in a March announcement. “Rather, instructors will continue teaching to the quarter’s end on June 11, using in-class quizzes and out-of-class assignments.” 

“Stanford made the right decision to prohibit final exams this quarter and alleviate stress on already overburdened students,” Sun wrote. “The CS 102 Week 10 midterm feels like a final exam in disguise that carries the same inequitable and undue impact on students. The fact that this exam is still mandatory despite COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd, and national protests is baffling.” 

CS 102 Head Teaching Assistant Leo Mehr M.S. ’20 replied to the first Piazza post requesting accommodations, writing “Professor Widom has heard your voices, but is taking a stand that she will follow university-level guidance on these measures— no changes unless mandated by the university.’’ (Mehr told The Daily that the did not “want to fuel this argument,” sharing screenshots of messages from the teaching staff to students.)

Later that day, Mehr qualified his response. 

“The above post was not meant to be a final word, and was meant as an initial response as we discuss further,” Mehr wrote. “We want to reiterate that individual students are not just welcome but encouraged to raise concerns about their own situations, especially in this time where there may be individual students who are acutely affected.” 

When Widom did not directly respond to students, Gao and Diana Kong ’22 sent an email to the CS 102 teaching staff at 8 a.m. on Sunday, cc’ing University administrators and reiterating the requests of the Piazza post.

“We have given Professor Widom several chances to come forward and create a discussion with us over the past few days, and her silence and refusal to address direct questions asked by several students in emails, office hours, and Piazza is unfortunately nothing new,” wrote Lizzie Dowdle ’22 in a statement to The Daily. 

The teaching staff posted on Piazza on Sunday, inviting students to reach out to discuss challenges they are facing, and announcing new accommodations, including giving students three more free late days, pushing back an assignment deadline and extending Widom’s office hours. However students were still disappointed that the midterm exam was not made optional and that they had not heard directly from Widom.  

Gao said that on Sunday night, after she had not received a direct response from Widom, she sent a final email which she signed from “Theresa Gao & all the other students that cannot be writing this email today, especially Black students, FLI students, students with disabilities, students with housing insecurity, and students of color.” 

In the email, Gao added a new request that the teaching staff “examine the weighted policy of the syllabus” in order to accommodate students who might not be able to take exams at the end of the quarter. She also denounced the teaching staff’s suggestion that students should take incompletes instead of asking for accomodations, arguing that incompletes “are unfair to students who are at risk or on academic probation, and it also jeopardizes their financial aid.” 

“The Dean should use her substantial influence to set an example for empathetic and inclusive CS,” Sun wrote. “Especially in a class for nonmajors, especially in a department and industry that already struggles with diversity and inclusion.” 

In the email, Gao also shared messages from students in the class who talked about trying to complete coursework while grappling with violence going on right outside their homes. Gao said that after explaining the situations of these students, she was met with the response from the teaching staff that, “Professor Widom is denying any course-wide requests, and that CS 102 is not making any changes unless there is a Stanford University wide change. If you email us individually, we will consider your request.” 

“To ask students to individually advocate on their behalf during this time while their lives are actively in danger is simply astonishing and heartbreaking,” Gao wrote. 

In a statement to The Daily, Senior Associate Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Access Lauren Schoenthaler provided the provost’s guidance for instructors of spring quarter courses, which encourages transparency around grading and offering “other accommodations if your class pedagogy and structure permit.” 

“Remember that these accommodations must be available to all students in the class,” the guidelines state. “Not all students will feel comfortable asking for consideration, and there are issues of fairness.”

Freedman, the head of communications at Stanford Engineering, told The Daily that Widom has, as dean, “urged faculty to be as empathetic and flexible with students as possible in terms of accommodations.”

Students met with Widom during her office hours on Monday to discuss accommodation requests. 

“On 6/1/2020, several students spent ​two hours​ in Widom’s office hours, rehashing their emotional trauma, only to have Prof. Widom quickly dismiss them and try to change the subject,” wrote Eva Reyes ’20 in a statement to The Daily. 

“I was visibly upset when Professor Widom said to my face that ‘Asian students experience racism too,’” Gao wrote. “Asian American students were visibly upset after she made this comment and explained to her how damaging All Lives Matter rhetoric is.” 

On Wednesday; Gao, Reyes, Christopher Tan ’21 and Allison Tielking ’20 published an op-ed in The Daily denouncing Widom for her responses during office hours. 

“On behalf of prof Widom it has been hard to strike a balance between what she sees as fair and what students need for support,” Mehr wrote in a Piazza post in response to complaints. “It’s also not that Jennifer [Widom] doesn’t care or is turning a blind eye to the issue. Having been on many zoom calls with her these past couple days, she does really, deeply care, and she’s made it very clear that she wants to support anyone who needs help.” 

Some students, however, said that caring is not enough.

“Classwide accommodations, such as making final assignments optional, is the only way to level the playing field,” Sun wrote. “Individual extensions are not enough: by putting the burden on students to self-advocate, they force students to explain their private trauma in detail and hope that their problems are deemed severe enough for an accommodation. In extreme situations like this, it’s fairer to extend everyone the opportunity to prioritize self-care and community care over academic stress. Normal standards of grades, rigor, and meritocracy don’t make sense in the context of a global crisis.” 

On Thursday morning, Widom directly addressed CS 102 students for the first time in a Piazza message. 

“I’m sorry I haven’t been able to engage with you via Piazza or email,” she wrote. “As you can imagine, I have massive demands on my time right now, but that certainly doesn’t mean I don’t care about the class. As always, I welcome questions on any topic during class, and I always stay on Zoom afterward as long as students like.”  

Addressing the demand for accommodations, Widom wrote, “as you are aware (I hope), we added several accommodations earlier in the week, enabling all work that came due in weeks 9 or 10 to be dropped or delayed.” 

She added, however, that she was not making the midterm exam optional, referring students to a statement by another computer science lecturer that according to Widom more “eloquently” describes the “learning goals and assessment scenario in this class.” That lecturer’s statement warned of the risk of “losing the legitimacy of what it means to pass a class” if learning goals are not met. It also supported the suggestion of offering incompletes, writing that incompletes are “basically to say that we understand that the current situation prevents someone from fulfilling the learning goals for that class right now, but that we still want you to be able to pass the class later when those learning goals are met.”

Students were not satisfied with this response. Several commented on the Piazza message, saying that Widom was still “violating” University policy by having an exam on Week 10, and characterizing her as “an aggressor.”  

At 12:22 a.m. on Friday morning, the CS 102 teaching staff notified students that it was “closing public posts on piazza. Private posts will still be allowed so that we can answer all of your questions. We encourage you all to continue reaching out with any questions or concerns about the class — we are here to help.”

“There are several questions that have yet to be addressed by Professor Widom and the teaching team, even though they have been restated multiple times in e-mails and Piazza posts,” Dowdle wrote. “These included why Widom thinks making a final optional is ‘unfair’ for students, why Widom will not join Piazza and engage in discussions with students in general, and why the teaching team refuses to address student arguments that requesting individual accommodations poses a ‘heavy unnecessary burden on those who may already be at risk.’” 

This article has been updated to include that Mehr told The Daily that he did not “want to fuel this argument,” sharing screenshots of messages from the teaching staff to students.

This article has also been updated to include that Freedman told The Daily that as dean, Widom has urged faculty to be “empathetic and flexible” on accommodations, and to offer more specific information on accommodations in CS 102.

Contact Sarina Deb at sdeb7 ‘at’ and Jenna Ruzekowicz at jruzekow ‘at’

Jenna Ruzekowicz is a staff writer in the sports section. She is a sophomore from Syracuse, New York majoring in Computer Science. Her teams include: Portland Thorns, Arsenal and Man City. Contact her at jruzekowicz 'at'

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