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.