June 2, 2020

Students Demand Black Peers’ “Right to Grieve,” Optional Finals During Nationwide Upheaval

A bulletin board outside of Cobb Hall, on a misty day during spring break 2020, after many students had already left campus.

Lee Harris / The Chicago Maroon

A petition calling on University administrators and professors to make final exams optional in light of nationwide unrest due to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police has gained 2,000 signatures within two days of its release. It is part of a broader campaign, which organizers call “Black Students: Assure Your Right To Grieve,” seeking academic relief in light of the emotional toll which current events are taking on students of color.

The petition, authored by first-year Madeline Wright, argues that many students are unable to devote the usual amount of attention and energy to their studies due to their participation in protests and organizing or simply the distressing effects of national discourse. This burden falls heavily on Black students, it says.

“Black students have spent the last two weeks seeing more than one death of another Black man or woman by police. Black students are exhausted, traumatized, and simply not focused on a final,” the petition reads. “By forcing students to take non-optional finals, professors and administration prioritize academics before the fears, emotions, and mental health of their students.”

Wright, a member of the Organization of Black Students (OBS) and African and Caribbean Student Association (ACSA), attended three demonstrations within a week of Floyd’s death. She told The Maroon that the immediate demands of protesting quickly forced her academic responsibilities into the backseat.

“We’re really just worried about protecting each other, making sure people can get bailed out, making sure people have resources as things get shut down,” Wright said. “I have not submitted an assignment, I have not studied, I am not going to.… I just do not have the capacity right now.”

Even those not directly involved in activism are facing difficulties, Wright said, as the conditions surrounding the protests create a stressful environment for many students.

“People have worries that their brothers or their sisters can’t go outside because there’s National Guard,” Wright said. “We have helicopters over our houses. We’re really just not worried about a final.”

Over 700 students have responded “Going” or “Interested” to a Facebook event advertising the “Right To Grieve” campaign. The event has links to email templates for students to individually send to their professors, as well as a form where students can request that organizers contact faculty members on their behalf.

So far, the UChicago Global Studies and Philosophy departments have announced that their final exams will be optional, with some other professors waiving requirements on a class-by-class basis.

Organizers told The Maroon that while the administrative reception of the campaign has been variable, it has garnered widespread support from the student body.

“This was definitely speaking to a need that a lot of students felt. Black students especially, but also non-Black allies and white students, are all struggling to focus,” organizer Tyler Okeke said.

They also emphasized that the campaign is centered around the emotional experience of Black students.

“Black students are the ones who don’t have the time. Non-POC students can kind of dissociate; they can send off a tweet and then focus on their schoolwork. But if you’re a Black student, this is on your mind all the time. You’re just thinking about how people are being killed on the streets, and brutalized by police,” said Zebeeb Nuguse, second-year and co-president of ACSA.

The other ACSA co-president Chase Leito said that the campaign is informed by a longer history of Black students being expected to “let go” of race-related difficulties and trauma without accommodation from the University.

“For so long, Black students have been expected to be strong and to let things go: from microaggressions, to overt forms of racism, and racist comments in the classroom, on campus, and in society in general,” Leito said. “It’s very, very unfair that because society treats you differently because of the color of your skin, you should just suck it up and keep it pushing. I don’t accept that anymore, and I don’t think that other Black students should accept that.”

Wright said that providing academic relief offers a chance for UChicago—which Leito classified as “fake woke”—to act on the value of diversity the University claims to espouse, as stated in Provost Ka Yee Lee’s Saturday email to students.

“Let Black voices be heard. Stop using us as a cover photo and start acting like we matter,” Wright said. “They only like to spew diversity when we’re on the front cover of a page, but they’re not acting right now.”

Some peer institutions already adopted alternative grading policies due to the coronavirus pandemic, with Harvard University, Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and others adopting a universal pass/fail grading policies for their spring semesters. UChicago has an optional pass/fail policy in place, which organizers criticized as exacerbating inequalities within the student body.


Editors Note: This article has been updated to reflect the growing number of signatures on the petition.