U profs squabble over Accommodation Policy

U student Robert Axson was just another student in Deen Chatterjee’s Political Philosophy course until his peers found out he was the brother of now well-known former U student Christina Axson-Flynn.

“When I mentioned I was her brother, everybody’s face changed and everyone had something to say,” Axson said. “The one statement that surprised me was when one girl asked, ‘Why did your sister have to do this and make all of us pay?'”

Axson said he was surprised because “nothing about this affects you unless you file for an accommodation.”

He added that he was satisfied with what he knew about the Accommodation Policy’s passage through the Academic Senate.

“This is the best policy they could come up with in a state school,” he said. “This will be a good program, and people shouldn’t be afraid of it.”

However, some professors expressed different views of the policy.

Chatterjee, who was teaching Axson’s class when the student announced he was the brother of Axson-Flynn, said students are ill-served by accommodations and added that students should make concessions to professors, rather than expecting faculty members to accommodate them.

Chatterjee was part of a four-member panel held Thursday, March 10, that discussed the outcome of the Accommodation Policy, which the Academic Senate had passed the previous Monday.

“[Students] need to rise above their faith,” Chatterjee said. “Higher education is not a right, but a privilege; one has to earn it.”

John Francis, associate vice president for academic affairs and undergraduate studies and professor of political science, said the policy could actually prevent students from being accommodated.

“Before, if someone said they couldn’t read something, I might have found a different text for them,” he said. “Now, it’s more complex. If I grant [one] accommodation and there are 10 different faiths in my class, I then must also accommodate those nine others.”

For that reason, he said, he may now be more inclined to deny all accommodations.

Rather than battling religion, Francis said the U should be doing more on the campus to invite religion into the public sphere of education.

Panelist and history professor Colleen McDannell agreed. “We have refused to invest any capital in academic study of religion,” she said. “We should shift our attention toward religion.”

Francis agreed. He said classrooms should acknowledge the role religion has played through history, but in some locations the Utah Constitution complicates that.

Paul Toscano, panelist and attorney, said there has been a sea of change in the past 30 years that have brought religion and morality to the front of political thought. He referred to that time as the “conservative revolution.”

“On a map, Utah is the reddest of red states and Salt Lake City is a blue island in a red sea,” he said, adding that the U would look like a fresh bruise with the diversity of views on campus.

Francis agreed that the United States has become more religious. “If you drew a line around the Northern Hemisphere, the U.S. is one of the most religious nations on Earth,” he said. “Religion is thriving here and is wonderfully pluralistic.”

He compared the U’s function to a business, saying it should play a customer service role and “learn the technique of accommodation without losing a sense of who we are and what we’re doing.”

Chatterjee disagreed. “Higher education is not a political bargaining case where doing business is a goal,” he said. “When that happens, we’re all the losers. Neutrality is a political value, we should be going for objectivity or fairness. There is no room for neutrality in academia. It’s an objective pursuit.”

However, Chatterjee warned that no belief should be taken as a target.

“But constant clashes with deeply held beliefs are side effects,” he said. “What good is faith if it can’t withstand critical scrutiny?”

McDannell said the new policy should coax students to think about theology and express their religious beliefs on paper.

“Students will now have to think, ‘What are my sincerely held core beliefs?'” she said. “It forces them to systematize and express their morals…Students will have to come up with an established set of religious beliefs.”

She added that LDS leaders would need to recognize the complexity of morality.

She said former LDS President Ezra Taft Benson was the only leader who expressed views that could help Christina Axson-Flynn-the theater student who sued the U, claiming the Actor Training Program faculty tried to force her to swear.

McDannell said the church leader had warned against vulgar or inappropriate entertainment, but added that the university is a place of education.

Toscano agreed. “There is a difference between the way people see teaching evolution from the way they see swearing or watching sex,” he said. “This will force leaders to distinguish these things.”

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