Since the start of the 2022-2023 school year, the messaging of Wellesley administration, from Provost Andrew Shennan’s Convocation speech to an email sent out by Dean Sheilah Shaw Horton on Sept. 9, has been clear: while the COVID-19 pandemic might not be over, it’s time to return to normalcy. This includes returning to pre-pandemic policies that are meant to make Wellesley academically rigorous. These policies include removing hybrid options for sick or quarantined students, encouraging professors to offer fewer extensions and explicitly stating that students whose roommates have COVID should continue attending classes in person.
These policies, in conjunction with Wellesley removing essentially all preventative measures for COVID, are making Wellesley even less accessible than it currently is. It is ableist to force immunocompromised students to attend classes with close contacts of COVID-positive individuals while allowing professors to choose to make masks optional. It is ableist to limit absences and extensions when some students have disabilities or chronic illnesses that make them get sick or need a mental health day more often than nondisabled students. It is ableist to penalize tardiness when the College access van is frequently late bringing students to class. It is both ableist and classist to only require professors to accommodate students with official documentation, which often requires waiting months and/or paying thousands of dollars.
Dean Horton’s email stated that the College wants to reintroduce academic norms “without backing away from the compassionate and inclusive ethos that defines a Wellesley education.” These words ring hollow without tangible policies to back them up. Wellesley has shown that it has the capacity to increase its accessibility through hybrid work and education options. Just this week, I had a class on Zoom to allow for a presentation by a guest speaker. Somehow this was not a disruption to my learning, but allowing students to have a classmate Zoom them into class would have been. The College simply does not care enough about its disabled students to continue providing these options.
In this pandemic that we are all experiencing, a lack of a remote option combined with optional public health measures will cause people to either disregard their personal health and that of their classmates or to fall behind in their classes. This will lead to students either missing classes they cannot make up or being ‘distracted’ from achieving the ‘academic standards’ that Wellesley touts due to illness. Is this what Wellesley wants?
I’ve written before about how a desire to “return to normal” fails to critically examine whether our pre-pandemic normal is something worth returning to. Recent College policy has repeatedly implied that it is time to move past the age of “giving each other grace” in order to make Wellesley rigorous again. Wellesley is already rigorous. Broadening who has access to a Wellesley education by implementing more accessible and flexible policies does not diminish this in any way.
A college’s academic rigor is dependent not just on the standards it holds students to, but also the standards we hold our administrators to in accommodating all types of learners. If Wellesley truly believed in academic rigor, it would hire more mental health professionals and disability support staff to help disabled and neurodivergent students succeed. It hasn’t.
Several of my classes have included a community norm in their syllabus that “your mental, emotional, social and physical health are always at least as important as this course,” which is taken from the work of a former Wellesley professor, Ada Lerner. Wellesley’s administration should take this sentiment to heart. I want to attend a college where my and my classmates’ mental health, happiness, work-life balance and sense of community are at least as important as the quality of our education.
In many of the conversations I had in the days after this email was sent out, there was a profound sense of sadness. Disabled students struggle daily on this campus, and for many this was just yet another slap in the face by Wellesley College policy. When I think about all the times my friends and I have been stressed or overwhelmed or sad because of the amount of expectations placed on us by our academics, I can’t understand how anyone could think that more academic challenges are the solution to Wellesley’s problems. I want disabled (and all marginalized) students to feel like they belong at this college. All the academic rigor in the world is not worth inaccessibility and exclusion.