A colleague of mine is a non-tenured teaching-track faculty in a neighboring university. We work together frequently through our joint outreach and REU projects.

He is currently teaching a summer course in mathematics (pre-calculus algebra) with a compressed schedule from mid May to early July. The final exam is scheduled in two weeks. Last week he received students’ requests/suggestions, cosigned by presidents of two large student organizations¹, that:

  • The final exam should be cancelled for minority students (but remain the same for the rest of the students, i.e. minority students will do strictly less work); or
  • The final exam should be modified to contain only questions that relate to life experiences of marginalized minorities; or
  • Marginalized minorities will take an easier final exam.

None of these requests are realistic at least in the current semester. Indeed, imposing different grading standard by race is likely illegal too. So we can start with the premise that none of the requests can be granted. Yet, it seems dangerous to dismiss these requests completely, as they are backed by large student organizations.

Moreover, in one discussion, some student estimated that the failure rate in his classes has a strong correlation to race factor in the last few semester. (Students probably reached this estimation only by surveying other students who took his classes in the past, but my colleague admits that it: “sounds about right”.) It sounds to me that the students are collecting data for the next level of action should he reject the requests.

The vague official message from the chair and dean is that he, as the instructor, has the right to design the course. However, it is seems that the administration is getting ready to let him take the blame, should this develop into a PR disaster – e.g., the chair will only discuss this on the phone but not over email. He feels that his job is on the line.

How could one react to this and avoid both a PR disaster or doing something illegal? There may not be enough time to save my colleague, but I’m still curious, as I wouldn’t be surprised if this would happen on my campus soon.

¹ The two presidents are not enrolled in this class, but many club members are enrolled. This letter was only addressed to this one instructor, cc’ed department chair. If they send the same request to other instructors, we wouldn’t know.

  • 3
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please recall that comments can me moved to chat only once, and further comments will be deleted. See this FAQ for information and before posting another comment. Jun 23, 2020 at 8:22
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    Can you add a state tag to your question? Laws are different, and from a legal point it may be important. e.g. California recently repealed the former law banning racial and sex based discrimination (making racist laws legal). Also, an Oregon county wanted whites to wear masks, but not minority (later changed).
    – Nyos
    Jun 25, 2020 at 15:01

14 Answers 14


I would suggest offering something in response that makes the students feel like their concerns are heard, without compromising the academics of the course.

For example:

I understand that this is a difficult time, especially for minority students. Unfortunately, if I cancel the final exam, I won't be able to assign a grade to these students and they won't get credit for their work this semester. But in recognition of the extra challenges some students are facing right now, I am going to schedule an additional review session and office hours before the final exam. This way, students who are struggling can get additional opportunities to master the material before the exam.

A response that communicates empathy and understanding is much less likely to develop into a PR disaster than one that is irritated, defensive, or dismissive.

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    In terms of things you can offer, if university policy allows it, you could also have a later alternative date for the final for any students who want it. This has a possible side-benefit of making effective proctoring more possible since you would be online proctoring fewer students at a time. Jun 22, 2020 at 23:31
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    " I won't be able to assign a grade to these students" This might be a lie. Jun 23, 2020 at 0:09
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    @AnonymousPhysicist, In this case, it is probably true that without a final exam, the grades can be very difficult to assign due to the compressed schedule --- the final exam may be the only exam.
    – user39093
    Jun 23, 2020 at 0:37
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    @AnonymousPhysicist OP says that cancelling the exam is not "realistic" this semester. This example suggests one reason why it might not be possible to cancel the exam, OP can substitute whatever reason actually applies in the situation.
    – ff524
    Jun 23, 2020 at 1:21
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    The discussion about the inclusiveness of math and physics questions has been moved to chat. Please take any further comments on this subject there.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 24, 2020 at 5:24

Making special plans for minorities just seems like reverse racism to me. How can you expect the majority to pass this exam, without special assistance, but the minorities not? Why does a person from a minority need special assistance anyway? I'm assuming they had to make the same vetting process any student from the majority did?

This just seems like a massive discrimination lawsuit waiting to happen. You have to do for some students what you do for all of them, unless you want to answer the unsavoury questions about what basis you are doling out 'special treatment'.

I will take the chance to reply specifically to the highlighted parts of the original post.

You cannot cancel an exam for some. Clearly a decision is going to have to be made from an executive standpoint, and yes these are indeed special circumstances, but the decision needs to be applied to the collective and take all the students' concerns to heart.

If you start kowtowing to political rhetoric then it just becomes a matter of time before your institution loses its academic rigour. If student organisations are unhappy with the syllabus, then they can be invited to give their input when the syllabus comes up for review, but you cannot change the syllabus willy-nilly just to appease a student body. Especially not in the middle of a year.

In making the exams easier for some, your institution's credibility dies a sudden death. This is also the first step to becoming a diploma mill. It is also massively unfair to the students who do put in the work and graduate from a school, that from no fault of their own, have their credibility ruined.

Credibility for institutions, just like for people, is very hard to build up. The building of credibility takes years of concerted effort to make happen, but it takes only one moment to tear down.

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    Making special plans for 'minorities' just seems like reverse racism to me. - Unless the minorities face special challenges the majority does not face, or the exam is (inadvertently) biased in favor of the majority. A blind student needs extra time and special accommodations not granted to the majority of students, lest the exam be unfair. Of course, it is quite difficult to draw the line between what disadvantages deserve special recognition in oder for the exam to be fair or not (and my example is deliberately extreme), but that doesn't mean that the concern is generally invalid. Jun 23, 2020 at 12:21
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    If make the exams easier for some, your institutions credibility dies a sudden death. This is also is the first step to becoming a diploma mill etc... This is a slippery slope fallacy. As pointed out in my previous comment, special accommodations for disadvantaged students are not uncommon, and yet higher education is alive and kicking. Jun 23, 2020 at 12:21
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    @henning--reinstateMonica This is not a case of medically disadvantaged students, however, and even in such cases the mitigation covers the conditions, not the material or the marking criteria. The students in the OP suggest different criteria across groups, which is discrimination. Assigning more time,classes, modules, resources etc to students who struggle is not only welcome but essential essential, but when it comes to assessment the field must be even for all. Even for blind or mentally ill students, the assessment changes only in the conditions and to the extent it is not advantageous.
    – user117109
    Jun 23, 2020 at 13:47
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    How can you expect the majority to pass this exam, without special assistance, but the minorities not? Easy - Black students are naturally much more distressed by continued police killing and violence toward Black people than their White peers [personally, I am not sure whether including all POC make sense, but for Black people at least, the problem is easy to see]. Beyond that, their communities are being hit harder by COVID. This comment isn't to endorse a course of action; but to answer your question. || Can you explain why you put "minorities" in quotes? I see little reason to do so. Jun 23, 2020 at 17:56
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    Blindness is a personal attribute, and can be responded to by tailoring the test to the personal challenges of the specific student. It's not saying "You're blind, and so we're going to treat you differently based on these statistical attributes of the entire blind population." It's saying "You specifically have these particular attributes". If a school is saying "Blind people average 20% lower grades, so we're going to give every blind student a 20% bonus to their grade", that is NOT how accommodation is supposed to work, and is NOT acceptable behavior. Jun 24, 2020 at 22:41

It's worth noting that giving in to the student can also cause a PR disaster, it just will upset other people.

When dealing with those that asks for special treatment, I would advice arguing for why it's good for minorities as well when there's equal treatment.

If it's generally known that minority students at a given university don't have done the same work that nonminority students did, the degrees of the minority students will be worth less. This will seen encourage employers do be less trusting that minority students with degrees have the skills that a nonminority student with the same degree has and thus further racism.

But not giving the marginalized students the same exam you would effectively steal the opportunity of them to prove that they have skills. If one wants to live in a world where margalized students can be hired based on the skills that they have taken away the opporunity for them to prove their skills seems to be discrimination.

The goal of a pre-calculus algebra course is to teach students certain math that's needed by later courses. If the students continue without actually learning the material of the cause they are likely to get problems with later causes. It's likely best for students who don't have the skills to pass the exam to repeat the course.

One job of exams is to provide a student objective feedback about how they deal with the subject. If a students learns early that they aren't fit for a certain subject they waste less resources that they would otherwise invest in the subject.

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    Sure, but what do you suggest now the OP and their friend?
    – user111388
    Jun 24, 2020 at 22:09
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    @user111388: Before suggesting any course of action, it is wise to consider all possible consequences of various actions, and what Christian said here is part of what has to be acknowledged.
    – user21820
    Jun 25, 2020 at 3:37
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    @user21820: Ah, ok. I thought answers here should (also) give an answer to the posed question.
    – user111388
    Jun 25, 2020 at 11:21
  • @user111388: Ideally yes, but knowing these potential consequences might be far more useful to the asker than just hearing opinions on what to do. =)
    – user21820
    Jun 25, 2020 at 13:53
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    "If it's generally known that minority students at a given university don't have done the same work that nonminority students did, the degrees of the minority students will be worth less." Indeed. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas famously wrote that he affixed a "15 cent" price sticker to his 1974 Yale law degree for exactly that reason. (For those not familiar with Justice Thomas, he's black.)
    – reirab
    Jun 25, 2020 at 22:57

Moreover, in one Zoom discussion, some student estimated that the failure rate in his classes has a strong correlation to race factor in the last few semester (Students probably reached this estimation only by surveying other students who took his classes in the past. But my colleague admits that it "sounds about right").

I am wondering, why this has not come up yet as part of a possible approach. Correlation does not imply causation --- yet, if there are hints and your colleague's gut feeling that minority groups struggle more with the course, I would ask myself why this is the case. So as some have already proposed to widen tutoring and office hours before the exam, I would kindly ask all students to elaborate on their struggle with the course, its content or anything related. In my opinion this is best done anonymously (i.e. as teacher leave the room while the students contemplate and set up a letter box or a messenger system).

The chance is that you may find issues that can cause that perceived asymmetry (alongside with structural reasons, about which usually no one can anything do about on their own).

// edit: The same appraoch is useful for any intersectional dimension of inequality: class background has a huge impact on academic merits as well as sex/gender (e.g. in natural sciences).


Before talking about what to do, here are some suggested premises to follow:

  1. Document all communications on this issue. Even if it's just a phone conversation, record the date, time, and summary.

  2. Use these two as guiding questions: "Have I followed the school policy and syllabus?" and "Have I done my due diligence to make sure students' requests are heard?"

  3. Acknowledge that if there has been any racial discrimination in the school, your colleague cannot undo this in a semester. However, it's important to look into it and get started. (aka, do the due diligence.)

  4. Get into alliance rather than being antagonistic. The common enemy here is supposedly the school and the math curriculum. Ascend the students' grade-centric request into momentum for a larger movement.

First, I don't think your colleague should deal with this alone. If the department head is not taking this up directly, then involve other parties such as Office of Equal Opportunity or whichever office that handles requests for accommodation.

Second, go back to the syllabus and stick to the policy asking for accommodations. The said students are asking for accommodations. Invite them to submit a request to the office in charge. In most institutes, that office will contact you with a recommendation on what accommodations to implement (e.g. extended time, larger fonts on text, quiet room, etc.)

Third, go for highest possible level of transparency: acknowledge that this is happening and make this incidence known to the whole class without disclosing any information marginalizing any group. Document those announcements as well.

Fourth, check with your registrar and see if it's possible for some students to apply for switching to pass/fail instead of getting a letter grade.

Fifth, check again with your registrar to see if they can actually get some real grade data broken down by student's race/ethnicity.

Sixth, sit down, and really think how much extra is your colleague willing to do. For example, extra office hours by appointment (so that those who feel marginalized can have some more face time, should they want.)

Seventh, consider extra credit that is also useful for your colleague and educational for the students. For example: a 5% extra credit on a two-page essay on "What I'd do to achieve race/ethnicity equity in pre-calculus algebra," "Is the mathematics curriculum equitable? Why and how to fix it?" Make sure to note that the information may be summarized anonymously and reported back to the department for future planning.

My answer received this following comment and I'd like to give a more detailed explanation:

How is your extra-credit question algebra? This is an algebra course, not a social studies course.

My counter question would then be, given the rift between social science and STEM, who is going to own up to this question? Should they be a pile of assignments filed away by a social science professor, or a set of possible improvements that an algebra professor can adopt? There are pros and cons in both, I'll leave that to each of their own view. But I feel that, enough with pushing our STEM education questions over to social science, ask about the inequity, learn about it, and do something with it.

Another more pedagogical point I'd like to highlight is that: don't get too bogged down by the frame of your assessments. A lot of teachers think that they can only assess what they teach. But actually assessments engulf much, much more than what the students learn.

For example, pre-existing knowledge or misconception is worth assessing at the beginning of the class. What did the students come equipped with? How well they know it? Learning environment is worth assessing as well. Do they feel enough supports from this class? Do they get the software and textbook without much trouble? Or have they been doing without it because they are expensive? And of course, affect and emotion are worth assessing, too. Do they feel safe in my class? Are the examples featured in class applicable to their lived experience and career prospects?

I'd implore everyone to assess more broadly. You may often be surprised by how much you have affected the students, and how much you can learn from them.

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    Your second-last paragraph has good recommendations, but it doesn't address the question of why one should evaluate students in an algebra course on the basis of a social studies essay.
    – user76284
    Jun 23, 2020 at 19:56
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    And, in the spirit of not going into the ivory tower ourselves, I also want to emphasize: be creative with whatever extra credit assessments you'd like: make a post-it wall, make a vlog, get a time-series data set and find out where and when COVID hit the minority the hardest, go wild! The baseline is that, we need to hear them out, we need to see how we can help leveling the leaning ground. I'd refrain from defending essay or not, that's really besides the point. Jun 23, 2020 at 20:13
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    Too bad this answer is late to the popularity contest. It has some good practical advice. Jun 24, 2020 at 5:58
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    This is the best answer. I would stress to get the equal opportunity office on-board more. They are (or should be) trained experts, may have seen this situation before, and if OP's colleague follows this office's advice and bad PR follows, they can at least somewhat shield themselves from the worst.
    – gerrit
    Jun 25, 2020 at 7:41
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    Much of this answer is excellent — in particular, acknowledge their concerns, and work with the university’s equal opportunity office. However, I’d suggest some major caveats about the extra credit assignment. Such assignments give advantage to students who have extra time and energy available, and who are familiar with essay-writing (or similar) on subjects outside their specialisation. In practice, this typically ends up further advantaging students from privileged backgrounds. See ilaba.wordpress.com/2019/12/01/diversity-statements for a thorough discussion of a similar point.
    – PLL
    Jun 25, 2020 at 11:30

I consider the answer of @ff524 to be the best, but here is an administrative alternative.

The lecturer can discuss with administration if the exam can be replaced with coursework within short notice but with sufficiently long deadline. This gives all students, including minorities students, flexibility and much more additional time.

Another option is to discuss with administration (or suggest to students) if extensions or special arrangements (e.g. exam extra time) can be granted to all or any students who apply for them. Although such accomodations are normally made centrally, a "local" departmental solution might be possible.

Both of these solutions are based on how some universities have dealt with students affected by the coronavirus, where blanket extensions were given and/or extensions were granted without the students having to supply much, if any, medical evidence. They are not without their problems but provide a reasonable way out. In any case, students must not be discriminated based on skin colour, ethnic origins etc, or given a (dis)advantage compared to other students. As a mitigation example, the first and third solution suggested by the students in the OP are inapplicable on those grounds and are certain to expose the lecturer.

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    Note: Math Educators SE currently has a question on the best way to give exams in the current climate, and the top-voted answer observes that a multi-day project in place of an exam saw widespread cheating, and filing of F's and academic dishonesty violations against a quarter of the class (matheducators.stackexchange.com/a/18479/5563). Jun 23, 2020 at 14:26
  • @DanielR.Collins Unfortunately that is a risk and I am fully aware of the problem. Without knowing the specifics of the material and the course, it is difficult to suggest a way to mitigate it.
    – user117109
    Jun 23, 2020 at 14:42
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    I think that the clear implication from that answer is to not give long projects. Jun 23, 2020 at 15:10
  • @DanielR.Collins It is not for me to determine the duration or how it relates to the material of potential coursework, hence I have written "sufficiently long" in my answer. This can mean 4 hours or 4 weeks.
    – user117109
    Jun 23, 2020 at 15:35
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    @DanielR.Collins I had a similar experience in one of my foreign language courses. I had never experienced such brazen cases of academic honesty in my career. I've tossed around the idea of doing oral defenses of work, to spot check things that look suspicious / generate a genuine dialogue, but it's very time consuming — tough to do 30 minute examinations for each of 30-60 students in a typical American college timeline Jun 24, 2020 at 2:58

EDIT: The question has changed substantially, resulting in a bit of a mess.

I subscribe to the philosophy that conflicts with students should be used as teaching opportunities where possible.

Is your exam actually useful? If it's not, cancel it for everyone. If it is, explain to students why its useful (to students or society, not you personally). If it's useful, it would hurt minority students if they don't take it.

Your exam probably should include questions that relate to the experiences of minorities. Questions that relate to the experiences of a particular group do put that group at an advantage. Spread the advantage around as equally as you can. There might be exceptions, such as if the topic of your course is a white person or a group of white people, you might not be able to ask questions that relate to black people. Or maybe your course is about a pure math subject or cosmology which cannot be connected to anyone's experiences. Tread carefully: if you are not familiar with a particular group's experiences, do not rely on stereotypes. Ask an expert for help, or admit you don't know how to do it if that's the case.

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    The course in the question is pre-calculus algebra... what do you mean "maybe your course is about a pure math subject"? Of course it is! This answer doesn't apply to the question by its own admission.
    – Clay07g
    Jun 24, 2020 at 15:27
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    @Clay07g The question was changed, and you are incorrect anyway. Pre-calculus algebra is not a "pure math subject which cannot be connected to anyone's experiences." Maybe number theory is. Jun 24, 2020 at 23:24
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Also, to me it seems preposterous to ask if OP's colleague's exam is "actually useful." Let alone to suggest to cancel it. But that's my opinion. Jun 25, 2020 at 18:48
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    @BlueElephant I took quite a few useless exams during my time as a student. Jun 25, 2020 at 22:53
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    @BlueElephant On that point, I have to agree with Anonymous Physicist. I've taken plenty of useless exams that had no real bearing on measuring what a student knew about the subject at hand over the years. Granted, those were pretty rare in math courses.
    – reirab
    Jun 25, 2020 at 23:06

I'd offer two practical suggestions. First, have a "blind" grading system, where each student is assigned a random code that goes on their exam papers* instead of their name. None of the graders know which code corresponds with which student.

Second, ask the students to suggest questions that relate to the life experiences of "marginalized minorities". Of course that includes figuring out how to tell if someone actually is a marginalized person, or say one of Barack Obama's kids :-)

*Maybe homework too, but it's too late for that this year.

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    I like the first part of the answer. The blind grading system is what Chinese used for thousand of years, However, I don't know how to implement it in this case, if the professor and the grader are the same person. I have no comment for the second part of the answer. The original request/suggestion is not understandable to me. How could a math exam be related to skin color? !+1 = 2 for whites, 1+1=3 for Asian?
    – Nobody
    Jun 24, 2020 at 2:08
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    @scaaahu: For the random codes, you could use computer-generated ones, and not look up the corresponding names until after the exam. Wouldn't be hard to design a system for that. For the second, I do share your lack of understanding, but comments on that would almost certainly be deleted.
    – jamesqf
    Jun 24, 2020 at 15:45
  • Not sure what age group this exam is aimed at, but potentially you could incorporate such life experiences into “word problems”. e.g. you could potentially use voter suppression through gerrymandering as the basis of a question on percentages/ratios.
    – jl6
    Jun 25, 2020 at 7:33
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    @scaaahu CrowdMark (an online grading tool) anonymizes assessments. Unless a student writes their name on every page, work is anonymized while grading. I presume that other similar tools (I am aware of at least one other, called "Gradescope") work in the same way, or can be set to work in the same way. I also usually design exams with a front page containing only some kind of academic integrity statement and nothing to be graded. When I start grading, the first thing I do is go through every exam and flip to the second page. Anonymizing is not that difficult. Jun 25, 2020 at 12:43
  • @jl6 A university pre-calculus algebra exam would almost certainly be most likely to be taken by first or second-year university students, so 17-19 years old, for the most part. Granted, there may be some "non-traditional" (i.e. older) students, too, who are entering college at some point later than right out of high school. Those are more likely to happen in graduate school (in which case I would certainly hope that you would not be needing to teach them pre-calculus algebra!,) but do happen in undergrad, too.
    – reirab
    Jun 25, 2020 at 23:17

This is an ongoing problem at all levels of university life. For example Asian students applying to Harvard (1) brought (and lost) a lawsuit against Harvard's admissions policy that they claimed was racist because of a perception that Asian students 'had fewer social skills' In other words that they were perceived to be inferior in some way. On the other hand, Yale (2) have been accused of discriminating against Asian students on the grounds that they are somehow over-qualified and therefore over-represented. This supposedly deprives other groups of available places.

That such opposite claims should exist simultaneously and be vehemently pursued, shows the depth of feeling and confusion that exists in this area.

The value of exams ultimately is to persuade potential employers that candidates are capable of performing the job adequately. If employers feel that certain people's degrees are less valuable because the possessors of them have had an "easy time of it", this only pushes the problem further along the line.

I suggest that representatives from all parties must be involved in the discussion. The argument should be,

"We passionately want to further the interests of minority and/or disadvantaged students as much as possible. At the same time it is important not to devalue the perception of their qualifications in the employment sector. How do you suggest we best do this? All ideas are actively welcomed."


(1) Why The Asian American Students Lost Their Case Against Harvard (But Should Have Won) by Evan Gerstmann - professor and published writer on constitutional and educational issues. https://www.forbes.com/sites/evangerstmann/2019/10/01/why-the-asian-american-students-lost-their-case-against-harvard-but-should-have-won/#4ef936bb63c1

(2) U.S. Investigating Yale Over Complaint of Bias Against Asian-American Applicants https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/26/us/politics/yale-asian-americans-discrimination-investigation.html

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    Its possible for admissions to both percieve Asians as having fewer social and superior academic skills. Jun 23, 2020 at 14:04
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    I think you overestimate the importance of future employers. A degree is only an acknowledgement by an institution that a certain education has been attained. That level is only somewhat related to the job market. After all most universities will tell you to go to a tradeschool if all you want is a job.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jun 23, 2020 at 14:26
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    @Neil Meyer - I'm not so sure. In Britain, there has always been in certain sectors, a tendency by employers of graduates to preferentially choose from the older more 'prestigious' universities. Oxbridge graduates are in the general population often perceived as superior to those of institutions that were originally polytechnics. If a college produces graduates that appear to have a lower standard for certain sectors, this perception will spread out into the general consciousness willy-nilly - even if it lacks validity. Jun 23, 2020 at 14:46
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    What exactly is wrong with having fewer social skills and superior academic skills? Describes me perfectly, and I'm not Asian.
    – jamesqf
    Jun 24, 2020 at 1:38
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    @jamesqf - No one here has implied that. It becomes racism when a whole group of individuals is perceived that way, regardless of their actual character. That's exactly what the Asian students were complaining about - being lumped together as though they were all the same. Jun 24, 2020 at 13:55

One could consider an option (offered to all students in the course) of making the exam optional. This could be done where taking the exam could only help a student's grade; or where it could help or hurt. You could also say, for instance, that to be eligible for a grade of A, a student must take the exam. If you do this option you should be prepared, in advance, to let a student know what their grade without the exam would be.

I have been a student in at least two courses where this occurred...quite a long time ago, but both very reputable institutions.

  • 2
    This is happening in many, many universities, even before the protests for justice started, with just COVID. Jun 23, 2020 at 14:51

CYA: Cover your Ass

  1. Have all communications with everyone over email. Send follow up emails recapping discussions after phonecalls.
  2. Do not opine on anything, not with the students nor with any one else. Your opinions are irrelevant and will only get you in trouble.
  3. Follow explicit University policy on designing exams. It's likely that it is illegal for the instructor to make any attempts to gain any knowledge about a student's race, let alone make any decisions based on it.
  4. Freedom to design a course is completely different from freedom to grade on anything other than course material.
  5. Stay off of social media.
  6. Do not accept any suggestions made by the president of the student organizations unless explicitly approved in writing by the Dean or University President or someone higher up. Try to be robotic about the application of University rules.
  7. Leave out "real life based word questions" entirely. Change "Bob wants to fence a rectagular garden ... " to "What is the area of a rectangle if width equals ..."

Seriously, please ask your friend to focussed on staying employed (in their non-tenured job) during COVID19. The race relations situation in America is extremely tempestuous right now, particularly on campuses, and now is not a good time to become a scapegoat that gets caught in a conflict involving much larger political forces.

The issue of making mathematics accessible to underprivileged communities or the even broader issue of education being a tool of cultural hegemony or cultural violence etc can be addressed more systematically by folks who are tenured and in positions of power at the University.


It might be possible, without compromising the construct validity of the exam, to accede in part to the second request, i.e. to include some questions of direct relevance to contemporary struggles for racial equality.

@jl6 already suggested one potential area for investigation in a comment above, examination of the mathematics of voter suppression/gerrymandering.

I don't know what the intended learning outcomes of OP's courses are, but it might also be possible to build an interesting algebra exercise around one of the following:

  • showing that, given some algebraically-prescribed significance test, some algebraically-prescribed structure of data set [*1], and some algebraically-prescribed way of controlling out confounding variables, there exists a domain of parameter values for which one cannot detect statistically significant racial bias in the stop-and-search decision-making of any individual police officer, but one can nevertheless detect statistically significant racial bias in the aggregated stop-and-search activity of the police force as a whole [If anyone's thinking of going down this road, I suggest not identifying any particular real-world police force, unless you know for sure whether that particular police force is inside or outside that domain of parameter values, and are therefore able to defend yourself against any accusation of defamation]; and/or
  • deriving expressions for the second moment of area, about axes aligned in different horizontal directions, of a horizontal cross-section of the legs of a statue of a confederate general (or equivalent local wrongdoer outside the US), and thus determining in which direction one would pull on a rope attached to the statue's head, to achieve flexural failure with the smallest force [*2]. I think OP said "pre-calculus", so one would probably have to supply a formula for the second moment of area of a single leg about its diameter, and have students use the parallel axes theorem. [If anyone's thinking of going down this road, make sure to check local laws on "instructing in the art of crime" or similar first; although recalling some of the formative-assessment questions I was set when I was an undergraduate leads me to believe this is well within the bounds of what's safe in my local jurisdiction.]

I note OP's observation about more senior faculty members showing signs of preparing to scapegoat the front-line instructor if anything proves controversial. My advice for dealing with this is: make sure the questions are written in good time to put them through the faculty's established system of internal and external moderation (the faculty does have an established system of internal and external moderation as part of its exam authoring process, right?) That way, a couple of other academics have looked at the questions, and either dipped their hands in the blood by signing a form agreeing that the questions are appropriate, or ruled the questions inappropriate and requested (in writing) particular changes to them.

[*1] but probably not the actual content of a data set - that would lead down an arithmetical rabbit-hole that probably isn't relevant for an algebra course

[*2] or, if your local protesters appear to want the statues they topple left intact (either in order to avoid prosecution for criminal damage by not actually doing any damage, or in order that the statues can be re-erected as cautionary artifacts of historical record in a non-celebratory context), to avoid flexural failure while applying enough force on the rope to rotate the statue off of its plinth.


Suggest that he edit his word questions to directly relate to typical experiences for African-American students.

One of the comments mentioned that this is a course on pre-calculus algebra, so presumably the exam would include word questions. You could base these on official numbers for things like the rates of inter- and intra-group criminal violence compared to the proportions possessed by those racial groups, or do things like include questions on stereotypical interests possessed by African-Americans; for instance, if you have a word question about exponential growth, you could make it a question about a rapper calculating how much interest he'll make if he puts the money he made from his latest album into the bank, or a question about solving a linear or quadratic equation might become a question about a black woman calculating the total cost of different hair care products.

If your colleague takes this approach and is not African-American themselves, they may want to ask an African-American colleague to look over it and make sure that none of the stereotypes they've used have reached the point of being offensive, and the best person to decide if any of the stereotypes your colleague's used are offensive to African-Americans would be an African-American. Your colleague probably wouldn't want to include any questions referencing fried chicken, watermelon, or purple drink, for instance, because it's my understanding that those are considered offensive stereotypes.

Note: I'm not an African-American myself, so I can't say for certainty what is and isn't offensive to them.

  • 1
    those are considered offensive stereotypes – And the questions you are actually suggesting are not? These seem offensively stereotypic to me, in particular “a black woman calculating the total cost of different hair care products”.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jul 4, 2020 at 7:46
  • @Wrzlprmft It's my understanding that African-American women spend a lot more time and effort getting their hair the way they want it than women from other ethnicities do, because of how curly and frizzy it tends to be. If an African-American says that it is offensive, I'd be willing to edit the post to remove it, though, and include any examples they might give of problems that wouldn't be offensive.
    – nick012000
    Jul 4, 2020 at 7:49

The technology does not allow the school to administer a "fair" exam (example).

I am a little surprised that the chair told him that he has the right to design his own course (I believe departamental exams are more common in remedial math courses).

Since all the students are stressed out by the current events, he should not administer any final exam, but just give everyone an "A".

  • 18
    How is giving everyone an A fair, in the sense that grades are supposed to convey an accurate (to the extent possible) assessment of the students on the topics covered?
    – GoodDeeds
    Jun 23, 2020 at 4:07
  • 26
    @DimitriVulis What if it is in the medical field? Should medical students who had a stressful semester get an automatic pass, even though they have no idea how to do their job properly? Some university courses are actually teaching important things, where lives are on the line. Jun 23, 2020 at 5:48
  • 4
    @DimitriVulis But then wouldn't the correct "grade" to give them then just be a letter "I"? That is, as per thoughtco.com/what-is-an-incomplete-793156
    – ManRow
    Jun 23, 2020 at 8:20
  • 2
    The OP never references a "remedial" course, so I'm not sure where that came from in the answer. But to address the surprise/assertion about remedial exams: note that CUNY this semester has canceled its standard institution-wide remedial algebra exam. The "instructor has responsibility" is exactly what I would expect to hear in cases of contentious issues like these. Jun 23, 2020 at 14:44
  • 3
    @Andrei But a pass and an A grade are not the same. Many universities switched to or gave a pass/fail option to students due to COVID-19, which makes sense, but giving an A grade just for passing would be an incorrect assessment.
    – GoodDeeds
    Jun 23, 2020 at 19:03

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