Section: Opinion

Spring 2020 Merit List: The fine line between merit and privilege

At Kenyon, the Merit List, a list of students with GPAs of 3.55 or higher, is an academic tradition created by the Registrar’s Office that takes place every semester. This tradition is practiced under and justified by the assumption of equality among students, namely in terms of access to the resources available to them on campus, including but not limited to office hours with professors, tutoring services, internet resources as provided by LBIS, and academic accommodations as provided and managed by SASS. This statement is a call for this tradition to be looked at more critically, as we are presented with a unique opportunity to address long-standing issues of inequity in the face of the College’s current existential crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many issues within Kenyon’s academic policies and procedures were exacerbated by the sudden requirement for students to return to their homes this past spring, and the removal of equal access to on-campus resources. Many students returned to homes with a myriad of complications — which I won’t name here because of the broad and individualized nature of many students’ situations — that didn’t allow for them to achieve the same quality of academic success that they would have had the opportunity to achieve while still on campus. 

The issue of the Merit List this year is an inherently personal one, and must be separated from the emphasis on “hard work” and who “deserves” this academic honor. This is not a discussion on fairness, because the system in place is not and never was fair in the first place.

After weeks of students advocating for themselves and each other and pushing for change, the College listened: The spring 2020 semester’s grading system was changed to a Pass/Fail, with the option to reveal your grades. This new grading system seemed to be Kenyon’s temporary solution to the nationwide call for more equitable grading policies. However, there is still the looming issue of Merit List qualification, which requires a student to reveal the majority of their P/F hidden grades. 

This is a deeply flawed approach that rewards those who see remote learning as nothing more than a move back home or a slight inconvenience. Continuing the Merit List rewards those with the privileges of a stable internet connection, fewer familial commitments upon returning home, a space to work, no need for College-provided housing and accommodations that would usually be granted only on campus. These students who “worked hard” and “persevered” most likely didn’t have to work a second job. These students most likely weren’t hindered by a disability that impedes their ability to succeed in an online classroom. I surely doubt that students with a perfect view of an expansive field in the background of their 9 a.m. Zoom call were struggling with food or housing insecurity.

It is known that this pandemic disproportionately affects low-income and BIPOC students, many of whom may depend upon the recognition the merit list may provide on a resume in order to distinguish themselves from their white peers. Due to circumstances that these students — myself included — had to face during the spring semester, this is a recognition which is now much harder to achieve. I believe that, because students lacked the resources that typically justify the Merit List’s existence, it should not be made public for the spring. 

Merit, as a noun, is defined as “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.” While it has been proposed that not having one’s name on the list isn’t a punishment, those who are on the list are being praised. The Merit List, as it stands, would not be a recognition of achievement in our current circumstances. It would instead serve as a marker of a student’s privilege, and would perpetuate this false narrative of “persevering through hard times,” a vague statement used across the country that severely diminishes the experiences of those who genuinely struggled this past semester and may continue to struggle moving forward as a result of these inequities. These sentiments that imply hardship really only serve to show that the people who use them have no idea what they actually think “hard times” are.

It is this same logic that causes me to rethink the use of a Merit List in this upcoming 2020-2021 school year. By and large, we are still operating under these less than ideal circumstances. The College has begun to remedy some of the aforementioned issues by allowing students to return to campus through the petition process and distributing technological resources through LBIS. However, remote learning is still in effect for many students who chose not to defer this year, and many students’ situations have not improved but cannot afford to risk returning to campus. Deferring should not be a student’s best option. Under these circumstances, we as a student body should push for the suspension of the Merit List until the College’s academic standards are made more equitable. Students who are in favor of the Merit List can just look at their GPAs and give themselves a pat on the back either way.

Moving past this year, it will be necessary for the College and its students to reevaluate our institutional stance once we are able to have sincere and productive discussions on how to move forward, both from the pandemic and from an outdated system that continuously equates merit with privilege and dismisses the numerous inequities that exist among students.

This opinion is one of two regarding the existence of a spring 2020 Merit List, which is currently being debated by Student Council. The Council will place great weight on the results of a student-wide poll in making this determination. These two pieces were designed to help students make an informed decision prior to voting in the poll, which they can find here.

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