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Evening Student Struggles with Administration Over Unclear Policies

Submitted by on May 10 – 2013No Comment

In January, Sarah (her name has been changed to protect her privacy) began petitioning administrators at Fordham Law to take her Constitutional Law exam early, but her request was repeatedly denied. According to the Registrar’s rules governing examinations, students can only take exams up to one day early, and only for religious reasons. Sarah requested to schedule her exam a week early, because she will be 38 weeks pregnant on the scheduled date of her final.

Sarah’s doctor had discouraged her from doing anything strenuous, including taking an exam, during or after her 38th week of pregnancy. She also recommended Sarah avoid taking any exams after the delivery, because it is unclear how long her recovery time will be.

Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Nitza Escalera said requests to reschedule exams are “nothing new.” She explained that when certain circumstances prevent a student from taking an exam at its scheduled time, the administration accommodates that student so that he or she can take it during a designated makeup period, or other agreed-upon time.

Escalera emphasized that makeup exams are always administered after the originally scheduled date. She said that under no circumstances are exams administered prior to the scheduled date, even for religious reasons.

However, the policies Dean Escalera outlined are partially inconsistent with what is listed under Rule 6 of the exam policies posted online, which state that for religious reasons, students can take examinations “earlier on the day scheduled or on the previous day, in so far as practical.”

Escalera explained that the rule appeared not to have been changed online after faculty members voted to revise exam policies. The most recent faculty vote involving exam-rescheduling policies occurred in 2003. The vote dealt primarily with permitting students to defer exams when he or she has two scheduled to start within 16 hours of each other. Previously, students were only allowed to request a deferral if they had three examinations on the same day. This revision is reflected under Rule 5 of the policies listed online.

It is unclear whether this faculty vote also included deleting “religious reasons” from Rule 6.  Vice Dean for Academic Affairs Sheila Foster said the 2003 vote was the only legislative history she could find on the current rule.

Escalera said that allowing a student to take an exam early could risk the integrity of the exam and that inconsistent enforcement of policy could render Fordham Law vulnerable to lawsuits, adding that Fordham Law’s rescheduling policies are consistent with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Professor Tracy Higgins agreed, saying “if you give an exam early to one student, there is always the risk that the content of the exam will be disclosed to others. If that happens, the professor will likely not learn of it until after the exam is given to all of the students.”

Higgins added that this would be “extremely difficult to remedy.”

She contrasted this with a situation where one student takes an exam late and receives information about the content of the exam from her classmates. This, however, only compromises the exam responses from that one student, rather than the entire class.

When administrators initially denied Sarah’s request to take her exam early, she offered to sign a confidentiality agreement and explained that it would not be in her interest to provide her classmates information about the content of the exam, but her request was still denied.

In situations where makeup exams are taken after the scheduled date, Escalera explained that professors often write new exams to ensure that integrity is preserved. But even this poses problems.

“It is very difficult to grade that one exam on the curve with all of the students who took a different exam because there is no real way to compare,” Higgins said.

It would likely require another faculty vote to change policies that would permit taking an exam early in a situation like Sarah’s. “Faculty committees are part of the faculty governance structure that each law school regulated by the ABA has in place,” explained Foster. She said that depending on the proposal, students may or may not be consulted to determine policy changes.

Fordham Law does not have an appeals process for faculty votes, something Foster said no law school that she knows of has. “There is nothing special or particular about our structure,” she said.

Sarah said she now plans to take her exam as scheduled, particularly after being hospitalized last month as a result of experiencing pre-term labor symptoms. “I can’t continue to risk my health and especially my baby’s health because the administration fails to do the right thing. . . .  Right now is just not the ideal time, given my condition,” she said.

Higgins criticized the decision to deny Sarah’s request. “I certainly think that it is extremely important for the law school to accommodate legitimate student health concerns, including pregnancy. I also think that it is completely unacceptable to prioritize concerns about religious observance over other, equally (or frankly, more) weighty concerns,” she said.

–Elizabeth Gavin, Managing Editor


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