May 2005

University of Utah Accommodations Policy

Gregory A. Clark, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Bioengineering Department, University of Utah presented A Contrarian’s Sincerely-held Beliefs Regarding the University of Utah Accommodations Policy to Humanists of Utah April meeting. The following is a summary of his remarks. The MS PowerPoint Professor Clark can be downloaded here.

The Accommodation Policy was created as part of a settlement agreement between the University of Utah and Christina Axson-Flynn, who had alleged that the U had violated her rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion by requiring her to speak words that she considered profane as part of a classroom exercise in the Actors Training Program.

Originally the focus was accommodations made on the basis of religion. Then the focus broadened to include accommodations made for both content and scheduling.

The scheduling accommodation inclusion basically parallels the U’s existing policy that says students who must be absent from class for U. activities or religious obligations are permitted to make up assignments and examinations.

According to Clark, two aspects of the content accommodations are appropriate and correct.

  1. Instructors are not required to grant course content accommodations, as long as the subject course requirement has a reasonable relationship to a legitimate pedagogical goal.
  2. Personal disagreement with these ideas and theories or their implications is not sufficient grounds for requesting an accommodation. Accommodations requested on such grounds will not be granted.

Nevertheless, Clark states that the central conceptual issue is not one of students’ rights versus faculties’ rights, or of academic freedom versus religious freedom, or of one religion versus another religion. It would be unfortunate if polarization occurs along these lines.

The central issue should be what constitutes appropriate criteria for determining the content of an academic curriculum. Clark believes only one principle applies: curricular decisions should be based on legitimate pedagogical concerns.

As indicated in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision of the Axson-Flynn case, “…the First Amendment does not require an educator to change the assignment to suit the student’s opinion…so long as…actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns…A more stringent standard would effectively give each student veto power over curricular requirements, subjecting the curricular decisions of teachers to the whims of what a particular student does or does not feel like learning on a given day. This we decline to do.”

Further, “…religious speech is speech, entitled to exactly the same protection from government restriction as any other kind of speech–no more and no less.”

Consequently the accommodation policy is partly correct in not requiring that legitimate curricular content be modified to accommodate personal, non-pedagogical concerns.

However, Clark states the policy errs in two fundamental ways. First, it allows curricular decisions to be based on religious or secular beliefs that have no reasonable relationship to legitimate pedagogical concerns. In short, instructors may alter legitimate course content expressly to avoid conflict with personal beliefs, even when those beliefs have no reasonable relationship to any legitimate academic goal; the validity of such decisions may not be evaluated or questioned no matter how extreme.

Such a policy opposes the very nature of academia, which is one of open and honest inquiry, and seriously compromises meaningful attempts to balance conflicting principles.

Second, this policy promotes religious discrimination by allowing assignments to be required for some students but not others on the basis of students’ beliefs rather than on legitimate pedagogical criteria.

Thus, personal religious and secular beliefs are not appropriate criteria for altering course content, just as they are not appropriate criteria for altering grades, research results, or contents of scholarly or pedagogical publications.

The policy does not allow accommodations for “disagreement”; however, it would still allow accommodations for “conflict” with personal beliefs. This distinction raises the important question: What is the difference?

To address this question, the policy would still allow accommodations like those requested by Axson-Flynn11. Irrespective of whether one is or is not sympathetic to that particular case, the 10th Circuit Court decision clearly indicates that “requiring an acting student, in the context of a classroom exercise, to speak the words of a script as written is no different than requiring that a law or history student argue a position with which he disagrees.”

Further, schools “routinely require students to express a viewpoint that is not their own in order to teach the students to think critically. . . A more stringent standard would effectively give each student veto power over curricular requirements, subjecting the curricular decisions of teachers to the whims of what a particular student does or does not feel like learning on a given day. This we decline to do…It is not necessary to try to cram this situation into the framework of constitutional precedent, because there is no constitutional question.”

Or, as the lower court ruled, “were this [the Axson-Flynn case] a First Amendment violation, then a believer in ‘creationism’ could not be required to discuss and master the theory of evolution in a science class; a neo-Nazi could refuse to discuss, write or consider the Holocaust in a critical manner in a history class. Indeed, a Catholic law student could not be required to make an argument in favor of capital punishment during an in-class exercise designed to enable law students to argue cases they find unsympathetic. Just as it is reasonable for law school faculty to find that such an ability is necessary for competent would-be lawyers, so is it reasonable for an acting program faculty to use such exercises to foster an actor’s ability to take on roles of persons they might find disagreeable.”

It is also noteworthy that the 10th Circuit Court makes no distinction here between what some might regard as divine mandate and others might regard as personal prejudice: “The religious nature of Axson-Flynn’s refusal to say the offensive words is not determinative…’Religious speech is speech, entitled to exactly the same protection from government restriction as any other kind of speech–no more and no less.'”

Thus, in short, if instructors may excuse professional actors in training from legitimate exercises because of conflict with personal beliefs, then instructors could plausibly also excuse students in the other circumstances above, so long as other policy conditions were met. Stated another way, allowing accommodations based on “conflicts” may seriously compromise the apparent prohibition against accommodations based on “disagreement.”

Clark disagrees with the oft-repeated contention that making accommodations in cases such as those above would not compromise basic academic principles of any kind. As a matter of principle, it is not inappropriate to expose students to legitimate pedagogical material that they may find offensive; rather, it is inappropriate to delete legitimate pedagogical material simply because someone may find it offensive.

Censoring books, texts, and topics that are pedagogically legitimate to avoid conflict with personal beliefs is becoming alarmingly popular at public institutions. Consider for example, the Provo public library, which recently banned the Salt Lake City Weekly for several months. Although Provo library director Gene Nelson “feels very strongly that the main focus and purpose of a public library is to make sure that voices are heard–both majority voices and minority voices,” he nonetheless banned the paper because of conflict between the paper’s content and patrons’ “religious values.”

Just as it is inappropriate for a public library to remove legitimate material from its shelves simply to avoid conflict with personal beliefs, so too it is inappropriate for a University to use such a conflict as a reason to remove legitimate material from its curriculum. Another instance, Utah county school board is now refusing to adopt any current psychology text that refers to homosexuality to avoid conflict with non-pedagogical beliefs.” It is a very sensitive subject,” said Nedra Call, Nebo school district’s director of curriculum.

Along similar lines, on March 1, 2005, the Salt Lake City school board deleted policy IB, Academic Freedom, which had previously allowed teachers the right to teach “sensitive materials.” The board intends to consider a new policy involving “religion, sensitive materials, ‘academic freedom,’ and similar issues.”

Admittedly, the policies above involve high schools and libraries, not universities, and may involve mandated as well as voluntary censorship. But all deal with the central issue of whether it is appropriate to delete legitimate material simply to avoid conflict with personal beliefs.

Title VI funding for the University of Utah’s program in Middle Eastern Studies has been threatened because scholars in such programs have voiced “criticisms of American foreign policy” that are considered unpatriotic.

Private universities such as BYU may, and do, subjugate pedagogical goals to non-pedagogical missions, and routinely censor legitimate materials that conflict with non-pedagogical beliefs, or that are considered somehow “distressing,” “offensive,” “sensitive,” or “taboo.” Such institutions may also claim that such censorship does not adversely impact students’ educational experience.

A summary of what the accommodation policy does do:

  • Treat requests for scheduling and content accommodations separately.
  • Leave faculty in charge of establishing the content of the curriculum and of specific courses.
  • Requires students to understand and be able to articulate ideas and theories that are important to the discourse within and among academic disciplines whether or not they agree with or believe those ideas and theories.
  • Place the burden on the individual student for determining when and if the content of a course conflicts with a sincerely held core belief.
  • Provide a procedure to follow in case a student requests a scheduling or content accommodation.
  • Permit any instructor to deny any request for a content accommodation as long as the course content has a reasonable relationship to a legitimate pedagogical goal.
  • Permit any instructor to grant any such request, only if a reasonable alternative means of satisfying the curriculum requirement is available, only if that alternative is fully appropriate for meeting the academic objectives of the course, and only if the instructor considers all such requests during the same course equally.

A summary of what the accommodation policy does not do:

  • Require faculty to alter course content
  • Permit students to “opt out” of course assignments for religious or any other reason.
  • Oblige faculty to grant accommodations requests, except in those cases when a denial would be arbitrary and capricious or illegal.
  • Require faculty to predict what course content may conflict with a student’s deeply-held core beliefs.
  • Require faculty to judge either the sincerity or the validity of a student’s beliefs.
  • Guarantee that all students will be able to complete all classes or majors at the University.

After the University of Utah Senate gave the accommodation policy a favorable vote, members agreed to hold a formal evaluation and discussion about the policy’s status during the January 2007 Academic Senate meeting. However, the Senate is free to informally review any policy at any time.” The concern of the body and faculty is that the policy will provoke a lot of activity vis-à-vis accommodation requests,” Kate Coles, chair of the Accommodations Policy committee, said. “We’ll see whether that happens and how those are being treated.”

For Clark, the bottom line is that a college-level education requires considering and evaluating alternative viewpoints, including viewpoints that conflict with one’s own beliefs. So warns Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard University: ‘By compromising basic academic principles, universities tamper with ideals that give meaning to the scholarly community and win respect from the public'” (Ethics, 2004 Annual Report, U of U Office of the VP for Research).

The best way to ensure both academic integrity and religious/secular freedom is to base curricular decisions on pedagogical criteria.

–Sarah Smith