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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Students claim lecturer failed to create safe environment in letter to chemistry department

Requests from students include retroactive grade changes, better communication practices and diversity training

Chemistry students submitted a letter of complaints against their lecturer, Dr. Daniel Nurco, to Chemistry Department Chair Jared Shaw and other administrators via email, citing unfair course expectations and discrimination after students said they experienced unprofessional interactions with him.

In the email detailing the complaints, students have requested formal regulation of “reasonable instruction” and communication, as well as “retroactive adjustments to grading policies (notably those for the first midterm exam)” and penalization for Nurco’s unprofessionalism and creation of “an environment in which students feel unsafe.” The letter also requests diversity training and adjustments to either the units or necessary hours to perform well for the course.

Nurco is a lecturer and researcher who taught two courses in organic chemistry during Fall Quarter: CHE 8A and 8B.

 In email screenshots sent to The California Aggie, Nurco responded to students’ practice midterms with feedback such as “horrifically bad” and “terrible.”

Natalie Merino, a third-year animal science major, was exposed to COVID-19 and is currently in quarantine off-campus. She said she expected a “more human interaction” when she reached out to Nurco explaining the situation and its potential impact on her grade.

“So I wrote this whole big message about everything that’s going on with me—how life has been hard on me, how I’ve been having to care for my roommates and at the same time having to juggle with my schoolwork and finals, my actual work, but then I couldn’t go to work anymore,” Merino said. “He wrote, ‘Oh, what an unpleasant handful, sorry about that.’” 

Lucien David, a third-year anthropology and linguistics double major, said he requested assistance through the disability office to increase the time on his midterm. 

“I am a disabled student so I get accommodations from the SDC,” David said. “So when he got the documentation from the SDC, it had my legal name on it because my legal name is what the disability was attached to.”

Nurco responded by sending an email addressed to David’s legal name, with his legal name in the subject line and repeating the name four times within the body of the email asking for an explanation as to why there was a difference, according to an email chain forwarded to The California Aggie.

“He sent me an email that was very condescending, intimidating,” David said. 

Once David explained that he was transgender and that his legal name is not the name he identifies with, Nurco responded that, “It would be really great if your SDC paperwork would match your Canvas name,” followed by once again repeating David’s legal name, according to emails provided to The Aggie.

In an email response provided by David, Shaw said that the failure of not including David’s preferred name was a mistake by the SDC and not Nurco.

According to UC Davis’ registrar’s office, preferred names are to be used whenever possible. 

Yana Gurevich, a second-year clinical nutrition major, said she contacted Nurco because she was having trouble gaining access to a practice test. Though Nurco answered her question, he separately emailed her, “You are making it out to be too big of a deal,” according to an email provided to The Aggie.

“I was very confused because he answered it once and was like, ‘Yeah you can just do this’ and then sent a whole different email to me [saying] ‘It’s too big of a deal,’” Gurevich said.

Nurco is not just a lecturer, he is a researcher with 67 publications according to Research Gate; Merino said this may be a higher priority than his students’ wellbeing.

“He needs to see it as: ‘he’s not just a researcher, he’s also a professor,’” Merino said. “Even if he doesn’t want to have sympathy for students, he needs to act like he has sympathy for students.”

Nicole Drake, a third-year ecological and environmental biology major is taking Nurco’s four-unit Chemistry 8B course.

“We have a workload equivalent to a nine-unit course,” Drake said. “We sat down and figured it out with how many hours of work we had versus how many hours of work were average for a four-unit course.”

According to the UC Davis registrar’s office, each unit should be the equivalent of three hours of academic work per week.

“The class is so hard,” Merino said. “I’ve had hard classes but this class just hit me different than all my other classes.”

Following feedback from students, Nurco has reduced the coursework for the rest of the quarter for his Chemistry 8A two-unit course, according to the email response from Shaw.

Drake said that Nurco’s policy for grading meant that answering part of a question incorrectly would result in negative points for the exam.

“But if you just put nothing that’s a zero, so it’s better to just not try, which is completely discouraging,” Drake said.

Drake said that her internet went down while taking a midterm and when she tried to submit the midterm once her internet had been restored—three minutes after the deadline—it took Nurco over a month to let her know that he would be able to accept it even after she said she would be willing to provide proof that she submitted it as quickly as possible.

When asked for comment regarding the complaints, Shaw sent an email saying the department does not provide comment on personnel matters.

“I can assure you that when we receive student concerns we take them seriously and work with faculty to ensure the best possible learning experience for our students,” Shaw said via email.

Melissa Lutz Blouin, the director of News and Media Relations for UC Davis, responded on behalf of the College of Letters and Sciences’ Dean, reiterating a lack of comment on “confidential personnel matters.”

“Anyone who wishes to report a potential incident can do so through the Harassment and Discrimination Assistance and Prevention Program, or HDAPP,” Blouin said via email. “Once a report is received, HDAPP assesses the report and resolves the matter either through informal resolution or a formal investigation process.”

The Aggie contacted Nurco via email and received initial responses, but Nurco did not respond to the requests for comment. 

“It’s a hostile learning environment that he’s creating because people are scared to reach out to him,” Drake said. “We’re scared to ask for help. We’re scared that we’ll be harassed or ridiculed for asking for help which is something that no student should have to experience.”
Written by: Kathleen Quinn — campus@theaggie.org

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