The wrong way to react when being asked for help…

Reported earlier this month, professor of atmospheric sciences and noble prize winner, Michael Schlesinger was placed on immediate leave at the University of Illinois. Professor Schlesinger is on leave due to a series of massive missteps and transgressions in responding to an accessibility accommodation request from a student in his large lecture.

Accommodation requests are widespread, and typical to most instructors at an R1 university and vary across the board of the type of accommodation needed. An accommodation request could include (but is not limited to) a need of more time in taking tests, sign language interpreters, note takers, or captions added to course content (if not already available).

Make no mistake; they are literal requests for help from students. 
In short, Professor Schlesinger refused to comply with a university accessibility accommodation (digital copies of his slide deck) because he felt it would give the student an unfair advantage over other students.

Photo Dr. Schlesinger from University of Illinois News Service (2006)

There seems to be discussion and misconception on the comment threads of stories like Dr. Schlesinger that accommodations are handed out to students to circumvent academic rigor and undermine faculty autonomy.

Let’s be clear. Accommodations are NOT outrageous advantages for these students over their peers. They are a means to provide students with disabilities the opportunity to fully achieve successful learning outcomes in a way that showcases their full academic potential.

In fact, at most institutions, there is an entire process of verification for students to complete to receive an accommodation. Many of the students seeking these accommodations are navigating the complexities of the available resources at a large institution and are missing the personalized support they’ve had in high school. When talking to students with either physical or mental disability about these issues, they’ve identified that it leads them to feel marginalized or stigmatized when asking for help; the exact opposite feeling we want them to experience.

Dr. Schlesinger perpetuated this misconception in the worst way possible. He sent out an email blast to anyone and everyone he thought he could hurt including the student making the request. We can all agree that there is room for an honest discussion of expectations between the administration and the academy when it comes to the accommodation process, but there is no room for debate when it comes to demeaning students directly.

“I think the university needs to rethink having people such as you. Nonetheless, I look forward to spending the remainder of my life in Kona, Hawaii.” — Dr. Michael Schelsinger

So while Dr. Schelsinger is catching some sweet waves and rays in Kona, he has, in turn, helped to single out and stigmatize a student in need. Neat.

This sort of behavior is the exact opposite approach to take when someone is asking for help.

I can’t speak for all instructors everywhere, but in my experience of teaching and supporting teachers, we all want to help our students be successful. Unfortunately, for the student in need in this situation, they’ll need to find it elsewhere.

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