Philosophy Professor vs. University on Accommodations


A philosophy professor at Queen’s University in Canada has been booted from the logic course she was teaching owing to a dispute between her and the university’s Exams Office over accommodating students who require the use of a computer for taking exams.

It does not seem that associate professor of philosophy Adele Mercier refused to grant the accommodation. Rather, it seems like she might have been, from the point of view of the Exams Office, overly accommodating, though the details are somewhat unclear.

The following is from the Queen’s University Journal:

It all started when Mercier decided to modernize her exam to accommodate two students enrolled in PHIL 260 [Introduction to Logic] requiring a computer to write examinations. Mercier and [her TA Tianze] Chen worked all semester to computerize the students’ exam, using a “cheat proof” software. Students have been using the software throughout the semester to complete homework exercises…

On Oct. 26, Mercier contacted the Exams Office to inform them of the new format for the midterm exam. Problems arose when Mercier learned policies restricted the Exams Office from allowing students with accommodations to use their personal computers to complete exams. To adhere to the policy, the Exams Office required all [non-accommodated] students enrolled in the course to revert to a paper-based exam…

In response, Mercier filed an official complaint, objecting to the imposition of “para-academics” to modify the exam format, citing infringement on academic autonomy and the adverse impact on students who were prepared to write a computerized midterm.

Mercier told the Exams Office despite their advisory, she was going to offer students the option of a paper-based or computerized exam. She maintained students who required the use of their laptops for exams would be allowed to do so in her classroom.

The Exam Office told Mercier this wasn’t an option. They reiterated all non-accommodated students had to write a paper-based exam. As for accommodated students, they gave her two options: let the Exam Office step in, or privately administer the computerized exam meeting all the students’ accommodations. Mercier chose the latter.

“We’d been booking Gordon Hall 400 for those who had accommodations for private rooms or dim lights or things like that, and they could bring their own laptop to Gordon Hall. We arranged our own proctors so that everyone gets to write the exam on the computer,” Chen said.

As students prepared for their exam the following morning, they received an email from Haley Everson, faculty associate director (academic consideration, appeals and advising) cancelling the exam.

Two days later, students received an update, apologizing for the disruption and claiming the faculty was “working with Professor Mercier and the Exams Office to set up exams that meet Queen’s accessibility requirements.” They claimed the decision was made due to a scheduling conflict between the exam time for students with academic accommodations and their other classes.

In her own email to students explaining the cancellation, Mercier told students the “para-academics [are running] the show now, not your professors,” and she was “gravely disturbed by ever increasing infantilization of students, and victimhood-fostering attitudes towards persons with disabilities.”

The administration then replaced Mercier and Chen with another faculty member, Mark Smith, and said that it “will allow students to drop the course after receiving their final grade with a full tuition refund.”

It’s unclear why matters escalated as they did.

The Journal reports that “a student in the class told Mercier they withdrew their accommodations because they ‘felt the alternatives [she] gave were just fine and very fair.'” Another student suggested that “the situation is potentially an infringement on [Mercier’s] academic freedom.”

There’s some more information here.

A few years ago, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ordered Queen’s University to pay Mercier $20,000 in general damages and $5,000 in punitive damages owing to how it treated her after she raised issues of gender discrimination in her department.

 

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Colm
Colm
2 months ago

This seems pretty ridiculous. I feel poorly for the professor, as well as the TA, which it says in the article was dismissed and replaced. I don’t see the big deal in writing logic assignments on a computer. I certainly did in my undergraduate logic course. Granted, my exams were still on paper, but I see no reason as to why they couldn’t be done as effectively on a computer with the right software (which it seems both the professor and TA had used).

Will Behun
Will Behun
2 months ago

This rollercoaster did not end up where I expected.

Afsana Faria Haque
Afsana Faria Haque
2 months ago

“para-academics are running the show now not your professors”. They creep up in society too such as the work place after graduation etc

T.J.
T.J.
2 months ago

I don’t really understand the situation. Is it that the exams office wouldn’t allow students to use their personal computers and also wouldn’t provide computers with the relevant software? And then since the exams office refused to accommodate the students by providing computers with the relevant software, they required all students to take a paper exam instead?

Milan Ney
Milan Ney
Reply to  T.J.
2 months ago

My impression from this post is this: There is a regulation in place that says that students with accommodations to take exams on a computer have to use computers provided by the school and cannot use their own computers. When this regulation was put in place, I assume, nobody considered the possibility that other students may be allowed to use computers at all. The professor decided to let all students take the exam on their own computers, with a special software they installed. However, because of the regulation mentioned above, students with the accommodation are not allowed to use their own computers. The school’s computers don’t have the software installed on it. So, the students who receive accommodations would actually be at a disadvantage. That’s unacceptable. So in what’s a preposterous solution, but perhaps the only one that is compatible with the rules as written, the administration ordered the professor to do the exam in pen and paper instead.

Jason Aleksander
Jason Aleksander
Reply to  Milan Ney
2 months ago

Lacking any awareness of other relevant facts or context, Milan’s interpretation is the one that makes the most sense to me. It shows a lack of capacity for exercising good judgment about how best to follow a policy that results in absurd outcomes, but that isn’t entirely uncommon in cases like this.

I am somewhat surprised, however, that this bulletin does not mention that Mercier was ordered by Herr Klam to appear before a mysterious tribunal at das Schloss at some point in this process.

T.J.
T.J.
Reply to  Milan Ney
2 months ago

Why is it impossible for the exams office to provide computers with the appropriate software?

Milan Ney
Milan Ney
Reply to  T.J.
2 months ago

Good question. Perhaps they use a technological set-up that is meant to prevent cheating and makes this difficult. Often, computers used for test-taking are configured so that every change to the system is reversed when they are restarted. Installing new software might require an IT expert who’s not available on short notice. De-installing the software may be similarly difficult, and the office may be worried that students who receive accommodations in other logic courses could use it to cheat. There could also be an involved bureaucratic procedure in place to approve software on these computers.

Wayne Fenske
2 months ago

Sadly, there are more and more people in positions of influence in the university who see their role as ensuring compliance with arcane policies, rather than fixing problems. This is a clear case in point.

Dave
Dave
2 months ago

“Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” -Stephen Stills

cecul burrow
cecul burrow
Reply to  Dave
2 months ago

Well this was definitely not a case in which everyone was wrong.

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
2 months ago

This has started to come up a bit at my own university as well. In some courses, there are a substantial number of students (~25-30%) who have some kind of accommodation. Changing assessment items in ways that benefit all students has been taken as violating the accommodations: they seem to think that accommodations means that the other students cannot also get the benefit, or it fails to be an accommodation. If one student is entitled to 50% extra time, and everyone is given 50% time, then this violates the accommodation. So: if it is an accommodation to use a computer, then, it sounds to me, the accessibility folks at Queens are reasoning that it is unfair when everyone gets to use a computer. Some students have to suffer more, using paper, in order for the computers to count as a bonus or differentiating helpful action for the students with accommodations. For my own part, I have deep reservations about the idea that accommodations are somehow intrinsically comparative or competitive: that if other students get better conditions for concentration, like dim lights and quiet space, that somehow harms the accommodated student who also gets a quiet space and dim lights. If those things help the student, then that is accommodation. Accommodation for a student should, in my view, help them demonstrate their skills/learning, etc in conditions that let them display it; it is not appropriate to treat it as a way to get a leg up on other students so they have to deal with suboptimal circumstances in which to get their learning assessed.