Report criticizes black box approach to accommodation

Brett Hughes (1L)

The U of T Faculty of Law has, to date, employed what is best described as a black box approach to accommodation for illness and other personal circumstances. The only guidance available to students on the highly discretionary regime, which is administered by the Office of the Assistant Dean of Students (OADS), is a few sentences spread across several Academic Handbook webpages. Daniel Carens-Nedelsky investigated the process last year in an article for Ultra Vires. Now, two recent graduates—Krista Nerland and Marcus McCann—have released a major research report based on interviews with twenty students who have interacted with the regime. The report uses these first-hand experiences to make some informed recommendations for change.

First, here’s a brief recap of the status quo. Say you need an extension for written work. Your request will “normally” be granted if you have a “serious illness or compelling personal circumstances,” along with documentation. (That is, unless the Office of the Assistant Dean of Students, in its discretion, deems you trustworthy enough to not provide documentation.) There’s no further guidance. You may also avoid penalties after-the-fact if you provide a “reasonable excuse.” Is this a different standard from the ex-ante request? Who knows. What if you need to reschedule an exam? To have it rescheduled, the OADS must agree that you face “serious prejudice” if you were to write it at the scheduled time. The examples provided are “short-term illness” or “conflicting obligations over which the student has no control.” It’s unclear why different language is used in each section.

Ultimately, decisions are made at the discretion of the OADS. Naturally, this brings with it the tensions associated with discretion, including greater flexibility to respond to unique cases, but also inconsistent treatment of student requests and uncertainty on the part of students about what their options are. According to the report, Diverse Experiences; Diverse Needs, “students understood the necessity of discretion, but want it to be exercised within a clear policy framework.”

The report indicates that the regime is seen as often more concerned with preventing students from “cheating the system” than with ensuring legitimate accommodation needs are met. Some students reported that they received “markedly different treatment” in terms of accommodation offered and proof required than others with similar situations. The regime’s lack of transparency means that students often don’t know how to begin an accommodation request, what kind of information to include, what options are available, and what alternatives they have to disclosing personal stories to the Faculty’s leadership.

So what should be changed? The report lists 36 recommendations. These include: developing an accommodation policy, publishing the policy, publishing anonymized precedent of previously granted accommodation, and hiring a trained counselor to handle requests. Change may already be on the way. The Office of the Assistant Dean of Students is conducting a review of alternative approaches to accommodation at other universities, and has been provided with a copy of the report.

Read the report here.