Professor believes students need extra support this semester


A Message to the Students of William and Mary

The Educational Policy Committee is composed of members of the faculty and students of the College of  William and Mary. As its name suggests, the committee makes recommendations on curricular matters to the faculty and deans. As a faculty member and chair of the Educational Policy Committee, I wanted to speak to you in light of the recent calls for an expanded pass/fail policy. The opinions shared here are my own.

First, I want you to know that it was members of the administration who approached the Educational Policy Committee in the fall to consider endorsing an expanded pass/fail policy for the fall semester. Recognizing the extraordinary challenges created by the pandemic, despite the possible ramifications for students of having courses without grades on their transcript, the Educational Policy Committee and the administration together agreed that it was nonetheless in the best interest of students to allow for a significantly expanded pass/fail option.

Provost Agouris has explained in a recent letter to you that she is confident that this spring semester a revised pass/fail policy would not be in your best interest, weighing in this decision both your current wellness and your future success. Like in the fall, I am confident that the reasons for this decision are based on evidence and care for you, the students. This semester the Educational Policy Committee has not provided any recommendations on the pass/fail policy, and in this letter I do not intend to provide any opinions on the matter. Instead, I want you to understand how a faculty member is receiving your pleas for help.

When you began college, you were thrust into an environment in which you were expected to quickly gain independence and exercise agency in decisions that affect yourself and others. This rapid growth makes college life at the same time exciting and stressful. Even in the best of times, the rigors of the College’s academics and the high expectations placed on you by the faculty add to the challenging nature of this period of your life. In the best of times, this would also be one of the most fun and fulfilling times of your life. 

These are not the best of times. The pandemic has affected every one of us. We grieve for people we have known and lost; we grieve for a period of our lives that is not as we had planned; and we grieve for a world that is suffering together. We have trouble finding a shoulder to cry on because that person needs our shoulder, too. Students are hurting, and I need you to know that when you hurt, so do I. We are one tribe. Whether you like it or not, your professors think of you as family. We judge our success by your own, and when you smile it makes us smile, too. If you do poorly on an exam, I want to know what I could have done better. Our days and nights are spent doing our best to guide you to a place of success and well-being. Both are at the top of our minds, always.

The pass/fail policy has become an emblem of the structural challenges to mental health facing  students at the College today. I am hopeful that together we will find creative ways to work through this difficult period and emerge stronger and happier, even if this particular academic policy is not what you were hoping for. But to accomplish that, let us at this moment not be students, faculty, and administration at odds with one another. We are the College of William and Mary: one tribe, always. We care for one another. That is how we reach that light at the end of the tunnel.

Yours sincerely,

Joshua Erlich

Professor, Physics

Chair, Educational Policy Committee

Email Professor Erlich at

Note: This article was previously titled “Professor believes students need extra support this semester with pass/fail.” We changed the title to fit the message of the article more closely.


  1. First and foremost I really like the overall spirit of this article. You taught one of my problem sessions in intro physics and I thoroughly enjoyed working with you. However, last semester admin did not just approach the educational policy committee and encourage them to endorse expanding pass/fail in the fall. In fact, I believe you grossly mischaracterized that situation. It took members of student assembly attending meetings with admin, passing a resolution, having over 1/2 of undergrads vote (which is astounding) for admin to even consider adding pass/fail. It’s this sort of dismissive attitude about students/the work students do that is so frustrating when working with faculty or “admin” (I put in quotes because there are so many departments and I don’t want to group everyone in this category). To be candid, it’s disheartening to see that situation so mis presented(!). It’s also very illuminating about admin’s view of students that the Provost and her team do not think students have the wherewithal or ability to make an educated decision about pass/fail based on their own situation.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here