The New Yorker sparked an internet firestorm this week when it published a feature on Oberlin College, a private liberal arts school in Oberlin, Ohio, where activists told the magazine they’d recently run into academic trouble while advocating for justice. In the story’s most-buzzed-about paragraph, a student noted how the college had denied a petition to nix any grades below C after a semester that saw droves of students protesting the police killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
“A lot of us worked alongside community members in Cleveland who were protesting. But we needed to organize on campus as well — it wasn’t sustainable to keep driving 40 minutes away. A lot of us started suffering academically,” student government representative Megan Bautista told the New Yorker. “Students felt really unsupported in their endeavors to engage with the world outside Oberlin.”
The story’s narrative moved on, but the below-C petition caught readers’ attention. Fox News Insider tagged a post about the New Yorker article “outrrageous,” while Libertarian site Reason.com ran an article titled, “Oberlin Students Want Below-Average Grades Abolished, Midterms Replaced with Conversations.”
Reason.com wrote: “Should we handicap professors’ abilities to grade their students because some of those students think organizing and protesting is more important than class? The students [the New Yorker] interviewed seem to think they’re not at college to be educated: They are at college to educate everyone else.”
Headlines referred to the student demands in present tense though it wasn’t clear whether the petition was still circulating Wednesday. The push the New Yorker appeared to be referencing started more than a year ago. At the time, the Oberlin Review reported more than 1,300 students signed their names to request a “no-fail mercy period” after the 2014 deaths of black males like Rice and Michael Brown.
“We do not have time to process,” then-junior Kiki Acey told the student newspaper. “I see my friends breaking because they are literally forced to choose between what they’ve been told they need and what they feel they need to do.”
Administrators shut down the movement in December 2014. In a statement, President Marvin Krislov said in part “suspending grading protocols is not the way to achieve our shared goal of ensuring that students have every opportunity and resource to succeed.”
Users on College Confidential, an education-focused message board, noted Wednesday that Oberlin had a grading policy before 2004 that eliminated scores lower than C in favor of an “NE,” or “no entry.” Posters said similar rules also exist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts.