Controversial policy returns to President’s Council

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The lion’s share of Policy 601 covers standard academic procedure. It’s about approved absences, syllabi, and emergency situations in the classroom. But the controversial policy has spent almost two years in limbo, because Section V on the tail end of the policy has struck a nerve with the faculty and brought into question the vitality of academic freedom in the classroom.

In its current draft, Policy 601—which was proposed on September 1, 2011 with Dr. Ian Wilson serving as the sponsor from the President’s Council—includes a “Procedure for a Course Requirement Modification.” The procedure allows a student to request modifications in curriculum that is in conflict with what are currently being referred to as “strongly-held” or “sincerely-held” beliefs.

What that means is that students, when faced with something that they feel is in conflict with their beliefs, can—according to the policy—submit a written explanation of what the assignment is and why they want it to be modified for them. If the modification is granted, the student will then, in theory, work on an alternate assignment that should teach the same lesson, but in accordance with that student’s beliefs.

“We’ve been working on this for the past year or two, and had good discussions with the faculty senate this past year and had several lengthy discussions,” said Wilson, the senior vice president of Academic Affairs. “They’ve wanted to change some things and a lot of it is in the phraseology and that kind of thing.”

Facing scrutiny from the Faculty Senate, the administration is trying to find a compromise to allow for academic freedom and control in the classroom, but still protect the institution by allowing students to withdraw from material they may find offensive.

After extensive modifications and recommendations from the Faculty Senate, the policy is returning to the President’s Council for the council members to sift through the suggestions. According to David Connelly, associate professor and president of the Faculty Senate, the problem is how much freedom the student will be allowed, which ultimately comes down to the wording the policy will use.

“Any time you get into talking about content of a course you’re getting into, kind of, sacred ground for faculty,” said Connelly. “Faculty go off and get PhD’s and training and all these things, believing that we understand our content and we should be the ones to control that—that’s our domain. To allow a student into that domain, who we view as the person we’re trying to teach, then it creates some controversy.”

The academic freedoms granted to professors and educators have a direct and obvious effect on students and the education they receive while in college. Some faculty members suggest that a policy such as this has the potential to compromise the reason why students seek education to begin with.

The policy also brings up other concerns beyond academic freedom, but also what is fair to the students who follow the established curriculum. It’s left some faculty members and students wondering why equal credit should be given for completing a course when the same curriculum was not addressed and everyone did not do the same work.

“The very meaning of education in the western tradition—going back to Socrates—has always been that education, by definition, should challenge the student in all kinds of ways,” Dr. Michael Minch, philosophy professor and director of the Peace and Justice Studies program at UVU, said.  “Not just because it’s hard to figure out a problem, but it should, in fact, be a means for students to reevaluate and re-interrogate and revise—not wholesale—but revise the values and notions of their world view. If that’s not happening then education, as it’s been understood for over two millennia, isn’t happening.”

The policy itself was proposed in response to a lawsuit that the University of Utah settled out-of-court with former theater student Christina Axson-Flynn. Axson-Flynn sued the university, alleging that her rights to free speech and freedom of religion were infringed upon when she was not allowed to omit words she found offensive during an in-class exercise in the institute’s Actor Training Program. The civil rights lawsuit was settled after five years of litigation when the university announced an agreement to implement a religious accommodation policy.

With the settlement, the precedent was set and, to protect themselves legally, other institutes looked into adopting similar policies. In this post-Axson-Flynn environment it does seem necessary for institutes to protect themselves from similar cases, however, faculty and students still take caution with the policy, wondering what the effects could be on the educational system itself.

“To teach one’s discipline with integrity—as the discipline, literature, or research dictates—will surely offend the conscience of any number of students,” said Minch. “And in those cases where those students’ concerns are validated and appeased, then the very nature of education itself has been distorted, truncated, diminished.”

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