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U. Senate working on ‘accommodations policy’

Issue is how to deal with objections to course curricula

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It took lawyers for Christina Axson-Flynn and the University of Utah more than four years to reach a settlement after the former U. student declared her "deeply held religious beliefs" were offended by a requirement to use profane language during a theater class.

It will take the U. Academic Senate more than just Monday's meeting of nearly 100 faculty members to agree on the settlement's resulting "accommodations policy."

The problem is that there is virtually no precedent for such a document, intended to give students a means by which they can object to curriculum during class — and provide a way to reach a resolution.

So, it will have to wait until a meeting next month, when the Senate may vote whether to approve, amend or reject the current draft.

"There is very little law in this area," said U. general counsel John Morris.

And there are very few schools with a policy that even comes close to the breadth of the new U. policy, according to Morris, who searched over 50 institutional Web sites for comparison.

But there was plenty of debate among the U. faculty over how to implement the policy and over the content of a document.

Under the new policy, a student's request to opt out of having to read or recite certain materials must be considered by the professor, who can then decide whether to accommodate the student's request. If the student's request is denied, the professor's dean then has the right to overturn the decision.

The policy states a professor retains the right to deny content accommodations, provided the course material in question is relevant toward some "pedagogical" or teaching goal.

Issues raised Monday included a faculty member's right to set a course's curriculum and how appeals are made during the process of granting or denying accommodations requests.

No one, however, is expecting a "flood" of requests for content accommodations because of the new policy.

"We don't think the world is changing overnight," said Accommodation Committee chairwoman Katharine Coles.

Some praised the new policy, saying it lends balance to "polarized" issues that might arise from religious or political beliefs.

Others see the policy as slowing or influencing the process of deciding what constitutes legitimate criteria for developing course curriculum. One fear is that a "tradition" of academic freedom has become something professors now have to defend against the policy.

Yet another concern is whether a faculty member's bid for tenure or chance of promotion will be hurt if they are on the wrong side of an accommodations request.

Some wonder how far accommodations requests will go. A made-up example used in the meeting involved a student who objects to working on human cadavers and requests to work on a computer simulation instead. But another student might take it further by objecting to working on a simulation because it was derived from an actual human cadaver.

In the case of Axson-Flynn, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she claimed discrimination because other students were allowed exemptions from course work for religious reasons. She claimed violations of her rights to free speech and freedom of religion.

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com