Message to returning students from Deans Sternberg and Flot regarding the remote fall semester

This message highlights important aspects of the upcoming remote semester, including policy updates, available services and programs, and opportunities for engagement and community building.

Dear Returning Oxy Students:

We hope this note finds you and your loved ones safe and well. We write with important information about the upcoming remote fall semester, including policy updates, available services and programs, opportunities for engagement and community building, and to share our perspectives on what lies ahead.

We had sincerely hoped that in August we would be writing to you to prepare you for your return to campus and some semblance of normalcy. We share your disappointment that the continued and persistent spread of COVID-19 will keep us at a distance this fall. We continue to remind ourselves that the health and safety of our students, staff, and faculty must remain our top priority. The losses that we suffered as a community this year reinforce for us that health and safety must come first.

Our message today is intended to affirm the strength of the ties that bind our community together, even through physical distance. Oxy is more than a place and a space—it is an intentional gathering of people and ideas, with an institutional ethos that arises from the deeply held values of equity, excellence, community, and service. From the day you first set foot on campus, you became a part of that collective, and you will continue to be a part of the Occidental family even after you graduate.

Despite our physical distance, the academic and co-curricular program at Oxy is alive and well. As we all have had to adapt to new ways of being and doing during the last several months of pandemic living, Oxy has adapted too.

The Academic Program

First, a few words about how and why Fall 2020 will be different from the second half of Spring 2020. When we began the spring semester, we had no reason to expect that our mode of instruction would shift so dramatically. Last spring, courses were designed with the expectation that students would all be in one place and would be able to interact with their professors, and one another, effortlessly and in person. This semester, we can assure you that a program designed to be “Remote from Day 1” will present a much more seamless experience. Knowing we would be remote, faculty have (re)designed their courses in creative and intentional ways.

Faculty have been hard at work all summer preparing for a remote fall. We started by appointing a 20-member pedagogy committee—including faculty, instructional support staff in the Library and Center for Digital Liberal Arts, and staff in ITS—who designed a training program for faculty to make the best use of technology and the principles of equitable instructional design to revise courses specifically for a remote environment. And we have been able to draw on lessons learned in the spring, including feedback gathered by ASOC (Senate and DEB) that has been shared with the faculty as a whole. All of these measures will help our faculty provide an excellent academic experience for you this fall.

You can expect your courses to be explicitly designed for remote delivery, while replicating aspects of the in-person environment to which you are accustomed. Classes will be small (we have lowered course caps in many classes), allowing for closer faculty attention to each student. And all classes will provide opportunities for interpersonal engagement with faculty and/or classmates in 1:1 or small-group interactions, albeit from behind the safety of the screen.

Educational Equity in the Remote Environment

We are taking several proactive steps as an institution to address disparities in learning environments during the remote fall (including making on-campus housing available for students with housing hardships). In the coming weeks, ITS will be working directly with students to ensure that they have the hardware, software, and internet bandwidth that they will need to be successful in their classes—and help to provide those resources to those that do not (please refer to the August 7 message sent by James Uhrich to you regarding technology needs). The library has stepped up its digitization program to make materials accessible to you electronically, and they will make other print and analog materials available for curbside pickup or mailing. The library is also working with ASOC to replicate aspects of the textbook reserve program for students who cannot purchase textbooks. And before classes begin, you will receive information about expectations for synchronous attendance and accommodations for students in different time zones. With this information, you will be able to structure your academic program in a way that is compatible with your home schedule.

Recognizing that some students will need additional support to learn remotely and make progress towards their degree, we are taking further steps at the institutional level while preserving faculty authority over their classrooms. These policy changes have been put in place following discussions among the faculty as a whole, and within a committee of faculty and academic administrators (which also includes the ASOC VPAA) that has been meeting this summer to consider policy adjustments. These policy changes are listed below, and we are in the process of working with ASOC to schedule time to meet with students soon after the start of the semester to discuss these policy changes, the factors that faculty weighed when considering them, and any potential impact the changes may have on academic progress and post-graduation plans. We are committed to engaging with students over the course of the fall to explain these policies and their rationale.

  • Students will still have the option to select CR/NC grading for courses that count towards the major, minor, or core requirements. However, the threshold for CR has reverted to the previous standard of a grade of C or better. Students will continue to have all semester to elect CR/NC grading, but the date for such selection will be the last day of the semester, following finals, but before the posting of grades.

  • We are instituting a midterm grading process, to replace the “low grade warning” system. Under this policy, all students will have information about their progress in each of their classes that can help them improve their performance and will aid them in selecting the CR/NC option.

  • We will continue to call for faculty flexibility with respect to assignment due dates, attendance, and other classroom policies, matters that are under each faculty member’s purview as outlined in the faculty handbook. If a student believes that their extenuating circumstances have not been adequately considered by their instructor, they are encouraged to ask for assistance from the academic deans or the support staff in student affairs. 

While the global pandemic represents a significant hardship for many members of our community, our plans and preparation for a remote fall semester have been guided by our institutional principles. We are working very hard and directing significant resources toward minimizing inequities in learning environments, and making all of Oxy’s academic resources available to students, wherever they may be. At the same time, we are taking steps to maintain the rigor and intellectual engagement that are fundamental to an Oxy education.

Building Community

One of the hallmarks of Oxy is our small tight-knit community. Although we are not able to be with each other in person this fall, we intend to create ways in which students can engage with each other and with staff and administrators outside the classroom. Nearly all of the co-curricular programs, services, and supports that you experience on campus are available virtually. While always a priority, student wellness is especially important in the midst of a pandemic. While all of the College’s support services will need to be offered remotely, it’s important to underscore that those services are available and will be delivered with the same level of care, quality, and compassion that you would expect.

The staff in the Dean of Students office remain accessible every day of the week via office hours and individual appointments. To arrange to meet with someone in the Dean of Students office, please click here. No matter the format of classes, Oxy is committed to honoring all approved academic accommodations. Students who set up their accommodations with Disability Services should reach out anytime to Luci Masredjian or Mariam Ashchyan to talk through how their accommodations will be implemented in an online context. In addition, all students, regardless of location, will have access to counseling and medical services at Emmons this fall, all of which will be virtual. Support services will remain available at Project SAFE as well.

Though we are not together on campus, continuing our progress towards greater equity and racial justice remain as important as ever. Chris Arguedas, director of Oxy’s Intercultural Community Center, has been leading our effort to create a Black Action Plan at the College. Chris has been working with a committee of students and staff to refine and fine-tune the plan. More information about this plan will be sent in the coming weeks.

There are a host of community-building programs throughout the fall semester that we hope you all take advantage of. These programs are being sponsored and delivered by a number of offices from throughout the College, and we’re sure you’ll find a number of programs that will pique your interest. For example:

  • We’re hosting Affinity and Identity Group Mixers for students. You can meet other students from an affinity group that you identify with, and expand your community and support system. The Intercultural Community Center will be hosting First-Gen, Queer, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian Pacific Islander student mixers early in the semester. The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life will also facilitate a student mixer that will explore student support through that department. Additionally, ResEd will host a Residence Hall Community Meeting. 

  • The annual Fall Involvement Fair also will occur during Welcome Week, and provide a chance to learn about, and get connected to, student organizations and clubs. 

  • As a final example, on Friday, September 11 we’re hosting a Day of Service. Fall Into Service is the first virtual service day ever offered at Oxy. You can start off the fall semester by doing something good for your community. We believe these robust and wide-ranging programs will help students engage with each other and with Oxy outside of the classroom. Further, student organizations and clubs will be available and active as well.

Finally, it’s important to note that no matter where you are, Oxy’s Culture of Care is here for you. As a reminder, our Culture of Care refers to a community in which faculty, staff, students, and administrators pay close attention to the individual needs of students, and are proactive in connecting with students who appear to be struggling. They can then lend support and guidance, or facilitate a connection with an on- or off-campus resource, that may be of assistance. Further, we hope that this spirit of caring and empathy permeates our entire campus community, and that students demonstrate a Culture of Care with each other as well. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to someone at the College if you, or any of your peers, might need some support.

Take good care, and stay well.

Dean Sternberg and Dean Flot