Op-ed: An open letter to Tufts faculty and administration calling for lightening of coursework

Content warning: This article mentions mental health struggles and suicide, and references violence against people of color and transgender individuals.

Dear Tufts University professors and administration,

The fall semester of 2020 felt unreal. With the ruthless pandemic, the contentious election and the terrors of climate change, there was something devastating on the news to wake up to every morning. Meanwhile, students pushed forward, taking four to seven classes, going through assignment after assignment, exam after exam.

It has been difficult — and often impossible — to be held to the same standards of academic excellence, be expected to perform well on exams and achieve a high GPA while also experiencing the intense distress of the moment we are living in. Students are worried about their own safety and the safety of loved ones, anxious over whether campus will stay open (especially for those whose home environments are not conducive to taking classes), experiencing financial insecurity and struggling with mental and physical health. Young adults are one of the groups who have “disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation.” One in four adults aged 18–24 had seriously considered suicide in the 30 days before completing the CDC’s survey. Stress and mental health issues are especially high for Black, Indigenous and people of color, especially Black and Latinx folks. First-generation, low-income and undocumented students also face exacerbated stress due to low support on campus. Some students are facing extreme financial hardship. Isolation has led to more mental health issues; previous research demonstrates that students with lower quality social support were six times more likely to experience depressive symptoms than students who had high-quality social support. 

Some professors and the university assure us that they value our mental health, yet demonstrate the opposite when they set the impossible expectation for us to complete a similar amount of work as in a previous, pre-pandemic semester. While some professors are understanding, others operate with a “business-as-usual” mindset. Some professors have increased the workload, assuming students have more time on their hands. Some have also posted asynchronous lectures while making class mandatory.

We are grateful to those professors that have created space in classes for students to connect and discuss, and who have been flexible and adjusted coursework. This should be the standard. It is not enough for Counseling and Mental Health Services to be available for appointments and to send out reminders of how to manage stress; the root of the issue must be tackled. Naturally, we are working on tackling the issue of the pandemic, but the issue that must be dealt with now is the intense academic pressure and overworking students face. We ask that a consistent standard be set for professors to implement a lighter and/or more flexible course load. Professors that already implemented such a standard taught courses where learning, not work, was the goal — and students have found that they retained more information from these classes.

We are living in a world that can feel apocalyptic. The number of COVID-19 cases and deaths remains very high in the U.S. The U.S. Capitol was stormed by white supremacists. Black lives, and especially Black trans women’s lives, are stolen consistently — about 23% of victims of fatal police shootings in the U.S. in 2020 were Black, and reported murders of trans folks were the highest they’ve been in 2020, with about 80% of victims being Black and Latinx. Black and Latinx folks are facing disproportionately worse health outcomes from COVID-19 in a country that offers them worse healthcare, discrimination and more polluted living environments. We, as students, especially those of us that are people of color, first-generation, low-income and/or undocumented, are feeling immense burnout. 

We are encouraged to be civically engaged and to think of our community, but when our university prioritizes schoolwork above all else, we barely have energy left to connect with friends virtually (especially because our schoolwork requires hours a day on the screen already), let alone make change in the world. We, as students, often have to choose between school, a social life and/or working toward justice. This was true before COVID-19, but has been exacerbated since the onset of the pandemic. 

We ask that the university acknowledge these challenging and upsetting circumstances and encourage all professors to lessen the workload and be more accommodating to students’ needs. We ask that, for the professors who have not already, you follow through and change your syllabi in response to the intensity of our current situation — we cannot be following the same syllabi from previous years in a year like this one. We ask that you accommodate students’ absences from class. We ask that you make space for respites, breaks and catch-up periods in your courses, especially in a semester that lacks a spring break. We ask that you are generous with extra credit. We ask that you make space for students to connect with each other and discuss the world’s happenings with each other in class. We ask that you uphold our university’s values of empathy, accommodation and responsiveness to current events.


Athena Nair

Signed by 350 students and counting; to add your name or sign anonymously, go to bit.ly/tufts-open-letter.