Academic Senate delays Accommodation Policy…again

The Academic Senate postponed a vote on the Accommodation Policy for the second consecutive month after dedicating two hours to debate a draft and review four written amendment proposals.

The current debate is the fallout of a legal settlement that was reached after former U student Christina Axson-Flynn accused the U’s Actor Training Program of forcing her to swear-an action that she charged conflicted with her religious beliefs.

Policy committee members remained confident about the process despite the prolonged delay.

“This is a great conversation to be having, it should be thorough and it should take as long as it takes,” said Accommodation Policy Committee chairperson Kate Coles. “Whatever policy comes out of this…I’m going to feel very comfortable with the level of discourse.”

John Morris, General Counsel for the U and legal adviser to the committee, agreed.

“I have every reason to believe that the policy is going to evolve through the ordinary process, which includes multiple meetings by the Academic Senate,” Morris said.

One faculty member voiced a sense of urgency at the Senate meeting, saying if the Academic Senate does not take action on the policy and preserve academic freedom for the U, the Board of Trustees or state Legislature may impose their own version of the policy.

Morris neither denied nor confirmed that possibility.

“We’re obligated to have a policy by January 2006,” he said. “I’m not going to speculate on what’s going to happen if that doesn’t occur.”

The debate

Much like January’s meeting, most of the heated discussion Monday involved the issue of remaining open to students’ values and allowing teachers to set their own curricula without fear of legal retribution.

Brian Saam, Senate member from the physics department, presented a letter of opposition to the drafted policy, which he wrote with fellow physics professor Jordan Gerton. The letter was circulated among some of the U’s faculty prior to the meeting and signed by 77 faculty members-mostly from the College of Science.

Under the current draft, professors would consider students’ accommodation requests and could choose to reject all of them.

However, when a professor allows one accommodation-excluding those required under the Americans with Disabilities Act or federal or state statute-he or she then “must similarly consider requests for accommodations based on conflict with sincerely held core beliefs.”

Saam’s amendment said, rather than allowing professors an opportunity to grant students requests, professors should be restricted from considering any accommodations. “Content accommodation on the basis of deeply held core beliefs are inappropriate under any circumstance,” Saam said. “By even acknowledging the principle that we might [grant accommodations], I think it compromises academic integrity.”

Senate member Leslie Francis from the College of Law said Saam’s amendment would allow her less freedom.

“Even in distressing personal circumstances, I could not grant accommodations to my students,” she said. “I could never take a risk and could only select readings that were never offensive to students.”

Saam and Coles agreed that the university should embrace free inquiry and the exchange of ideas, and Coles added that the process should not be policed. “The committee decided that you can’t have academic integrity without academic freedom,” Coles said. “There are some faculty members who feel so strongly about academic integrity that they’re willing to aggregate academic freedom. I think undermining academic freedom in the end always undermines academic integrity.”

Senate member Boyd Dyer from the College of Law said the problems that the Accommodation Policy seeks to solve could be remedied by other means. “If a student in law wants to take a particular perspective or show a particular viewpoint, it’s going to enrich the class for the other students,” he said. “It’s none of my business what your beliefs are, but if we can make a better course, let’s use it as an opportunity to make a better course.”

The Senate struck down the amendment sought by the signatories, but Saam said he “sort of expected” it would be rejected.

Allan Ekdale, a senator from the College of Mines and Earth Sciences, presented three amendments. The committee accepted two minor amendments, but the Senate voted down the third, which sought to alter the oversight process within departments.

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