Southern academic administrators clarify revised attendance policy in letter to students

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An article published by the Southern Accent on Tuesday, Dec. 15, regarding revisions to the university’s recent academic attendance policy sparked a backlash on social media among students who disagreed with the changes.

Since the publishing of that article, administrators and University Senate representatives have expressed concerns about how the policy was characterized in the Accent headline, which described the new guidelines as a “reversal” in policy. 

“In my view, the headline of the article misrepresents the policy from the prior semester in that while professors were directed to not tie attendance to grades, students were still expected to attend class,” wrote Senior Vice President for Academic Administration Robert Young in a statement to the Accent. “In this sense, the university is not reversing course; it is clarifying what has been an expectation all along: Students who are ill or do not feel well should not attend class. Those who are not ill should go to class.”

In an email sent to students on Thursday, Dec. 18, academic administrators attempted to clarify the modifications, which will allow professors to penalize students for non-attendance during the Winter 2021 semester while at the same time excusing absences for students who are ill, are showing coronavirus symptoms or have been exposed to someone who tested positive for coronavirus in the last 14 days. The letter was signed by Young and Associate Vice Presidents for Academic Administration Dionne Felix and Tyson Hall. 

“As you know, the standing attendance policy was modified for the Fall 2020 semester,” the email reads. “In order to ensure the safety of students, staff, and faculty due to the pandemic, the university adopted a policy of not connecting grades to student attendance during the fall semester. We did not remove the expectation of class attendance.”

Administrators explained in the email that Academic Administration and the University Senate changed the guidelines to address students skipping classes even when there were no health concerns.

“… Unfortunately, it appears that many students misunderstood the amended policy and were absent for reasons other than illness, which detrimentally affected learning environments and, in many cases, their grades,” the email reads. “For this reason, Academic Administration and the University Senate collaborated to develop a revised policy for the Winter 2021 semester that resolved this issue while still addressing the need for safety. This policy incorporates the long-standing attendance policy (currently published in the 2020-2021 Undergraduate Catalog) with new directives that specifically indicate how attendance will be addressed during the COVID-19 pandemic for the Winter semester.” 

Student Association President Sheryl Kambuni is the student representative on the University Senate. She said though she understands students’ frustrations, they need to go beyond social media to voice their concerns.   

“If you ever feel like your voice is not heard, try reaching out to me, because I can tell you, for a fact, I [have] heard from not one student,” Kambuni said. “… Faculty cares about the student body. So if something is causing the students distress, then they’d be willing to look at it. Just be willing to reach out to people who can do something about what you feel.”

In an interview with the Accent, School of Religion Professor Alan Parker cited a drop in academic performance by students as a reason for the change. 

“I think in most cases, [by] returning the attendance policy to the professors, you’ll find that professors will work with you,” Parker said. “In other words, this is not trying to make students suffer. You will actually find that professors are already willing to talk with you and work with you. This is an opportunity to engage, not disengage.”

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