Gift-Giving Discourse: Decriminalizing Academic Progress Language

ASCCC North Representative

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” – Jelal al-din Rumi

It is a heavy, invigorating lift to participate in how intentionally the community college system is changing to serve the evolving needs of students. And as the changes evolve into more changes, no college should fall behind. Strides can be taken that are simple and inconvenient but that provide benefits to students that colleges cannot ignore. Those strides include changing the way institutions talk and think about academic probation in order to increase student success. Regularly reviewing and revising institutional language reflects professional agility in understanding the experience of the modern day community college student. Decriminalizing academic probation language requires exploring how colleges view their students and how they see their roles in students’ academic journeys.

In Spring 2023, the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges passed Resolution 07.01 SP 23 Destigmatize Academic Probation Language and Processes, [1] encouraging local colleges to review “local policies and practices with an aim of mitigating local processes that may negatively impact students who are on academic or progress probation.” Prior to the resolution, the ASCCC’s Rostrum article “Addressing the Stigmatization of Academic Probation” (Curry, 2023) provided an overview of why these updates are so important. As the article highlights, Cal State Fullerton has made some great strides in this area, publishing Toward a Racially and Culturally Sensitive Renaming of “Academic Probation” (Boretz ,, 2021), a data-informed report and call to action claiming that the language conventions that higher education uses when referring to academic progress are harmful:

a departure from the term ‘probation’ may help to eliminate the perception of criminalization that some students associate with the language used to describe their academic standing. Perhaps adoption of neutral language will in turn help to close equity gaps with regard to student persistence, academic resilience and more equitable graduation rates. (Boretz ,, 2021)

The report offers the hope that “we may indeed be faced with an opportunity to create a student experience of overcoming academic obstacles that is characterized by racial sensitivity, emotional neutrality and self-empowerment, rather than fear.”

Changing the Narrative from Fear to Uplifting

Changing the words that institutions use when discussing students and student success—discussions directly with them and about them among colleagues—is an important step in decolonizing thought-systems to ensure that respect for students and their capabilities is primary. The way faculty and staff talk about students reflects their values, and the best place to begin reflecting respect is to start with codified policies and formal paperwork. The benefits in updating such language are as follows:

  • It can convey to students that the college is there for their success, not failure;
  • It can convey to students that the college has standards that it expects will be met and that the students will be supported if those standards are not met;
  • It can offer program and department employees a chance to discuss the foundational reasons why ingrained, everyday language can either brighten or dim student capabilities;
  • It can offer employees an opportunity to collectively replace deficit responses with affirming language;
  • It can provide counselors, department chairs, instructional faculty, and all student-facing groups the opportunity to develop conscientious and intentional academic progress.

Professor of Rhetoric and Composition and anti-racist scholar and educator Asao Inuoe (2022) writes about the impact of language in his blogbook Decolonizing Our Language. His view on teaching writing could be a guide as colleges look at local ways to upgrade current academic documents, forms, and person-to-person references. Inoue offers strategies to improve “language habits” and asks institutions to “[consider] the conditions and consequences of our languaging as more important than any individual’s motives or reasons,” suggesting that they should look to “crafting sustainable gift-giving discourse – that is, languaging that sustains, does no harm, and always tries to heal.”

Progress over probation and disqualification over suspension employ a form of restorative justice: through word choice, one acknowledges the systems that actively prevent students, especially students of color, from succeeding while also proving that institutions are capable of making change for the betterment of every student.

Culture Shifts and Lowkey Enrollment Management

Changing the language for academic progress in the California Community Colleges system is essential to gain a level of accuracy and support for the student experience. In the Rostrum article “Defining the Gaps: The Power of Language and the Allocation of Responsibility,” Shaw and Wallace implore the ASCCC to make more intentional vocabulary choices in resolutions and state that “the ASCCC should encourage delegates to use terms and descriptors that more accurately describe the struggles underrepresented and marginalized students experience in their institutions” (Shaw & Wallace, 2018). The accuracy with which one refers to academic progress will help retain students who hear how much the college wants them to succeed, especially at times when they are in need of the most support. Institutional self-edification could mean the difference between a student continuing at the college, with hope and confirmation of support, or turning away after being re-traumatized, alone, and disenfranchised. Affirming language begets success for everyone.

Local academic senates can initiate change, in collaboration with all constituency groups, to collectively develop and upgrade terminology that empowers rather than dehumanizes student identities. If associated student governance bodies, students at-large, classified staff, and administrators are included and encouraged to provide input, the dialog could offer college-wide unification in the collective effort to uplift students. The process of engaging collaborators and discussing what the changes may be, where changes need to be made, and where operationalizing the changes itself offers an opportunity to exercise inclusive practices and include diverse perspectives.

If colleges change academic probation language and communicate in a manner that “does no harm, and always tries to heal” (Inuoe, 2022), they can open doors to deeper, transformational changes in alignment with principles of inclusion, diversity, equity, accessibility, and anti-racism. Doing so can not only change words in websites and forms but also change the culture to more deeply actualize the humanity in higher education.

If you are aware of someone who is working on changing academic progress language at your college, please let the ASCCC know. Monitoring the progress of this work and establish local promising practices can be very useful. Email msapienz [at] (Mitra Sapienza).

For ideas on how to begin or continue implementing changes regarding academic progress language, the following resources may be useful:


Boretz, E., Gunn, K, & La Pietra, D. (2021). Toward a Racially and Culturally Sensitive Renaming of “Academic Probation.” California State University, Fullerton.
Curry, S. (2023, February). Addressing the stigmatization of academic probation. Senate Rostrum.
Inuoe, A. (2022). Decolonizing Our Language.
Shaw, L. A., & Wallace, J. (2018, October). Defining the gaps: The power of language and the allocation of responsibility. Senate Rostrum.

1. See the text of all ASCCC resolutions