January 13, 2011

The Astonishing Case of Dr Friedman, the Third Year Presidents, and the Student Who Dared to Have a Baby

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:32 pm by mariawolters

According to Dr Isis, the Presidents of the Third Year Students at the University of California, Davis, sent the following email to their classmates:

Dear Colleagues,

One of our classmates recently gave birth and will be out of class for an unknown period of time. This means she will undoubtedly miss one, or more, or all quizzes in VMD 444. Dr. Feldman is not sure how to handle this and has requested the class give input and vote. He has provided us with 6 options on which to vote and is open to any other ideas you may have. Most likely a CERE poll will be up next week and a voting will close no later than Wednesday. If you have other suggestions please email them to Dan or I ASAP. We will alert you to the opening of voting. Below are listed the options that Dr. Feldman has suggested. Please reserve comment on these options and provide us your opinion on them by voting when the time comes. Thank you for your understanding in this matter.

a) automatic A final grade
b) automatic B final grade
c) automatic C final grade
d) graded the same as everyone else: best 6 quiz scores out of a possible 7 quiz scores (each quiz only given only once in class with no repeats)
e) just take a % of quiz scores (for example: your classmate takes 4 quizzes, averages 9/10 points = 90% = A)
f) give that student a single final exam at the end of the quarter (however this option is only available to this one student, all others are graded on the best 6 quiz scores and the % that results)

Please let us know if you have other thoughts on how to handle this situation and please keep your eye out for the upcoming vote.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Your Presidents

A full account of the circumstances can be foundhere, together with some reactions from UC Davis students.

I would like to comment on this from the perspective of somebody who worked as a lecturer at the University of Bonn for three years (November 1997 – Februrary 2001) and who has been a guest lecturer and supervised MSc and Honours students at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and Queen Margaret University, UK.

First of all, such a dilemma is unlikely to occur in the UK and Germany, countries who are familiar with the idea of granting multiple months’ Maternity Leave to women as opposed to the few weeks US women often get. In my time, I have taught many students who interrupted their studies or took on a reduced course load when they became parents. Students negotiated these solutions with their directors of studies (UK) or devised them on their own (Germany). In case of problems or conflict, they would contact the lecturer directly, and the lecturer would maintain total discretion.

Even though I have never worked in the rigid, family-unfriendly structures that UC Davis appears to foist onto its veterinary students, there are a couple of ethical guidelines of conduct that lecturers throughout the world should follow, such as confidentiality and a commitment to fostering and nurturing each student’s abilities.

From those principles, it follows that, on learning about the student’s pregnancy or new baby, the very first thing Dr Friedman should have done was to review the relevant institutional policies. I’m sure student services would have had some pretty good suggestions, as well.

Next, he should have conferred with the new/expectant mother. In the UK, the student would also have had a director of studies, a personal mentor who is responsible for pastoral care, and would normally help students with maternity leave arrangements. With the best interests of the student at heart, professor and student should have reviewed the available options, and discussed what fit best with the student’s previous performance, professional aspirations, and the postnatal support available to the student. As a lecturer, I would see this as the basic minimum required to fulfil the duty of care I have towards my students.

If there were any doubts or uncertainties, the case should have been referred to upwards, student services should have become involved, and due process should have been followed. Note the passive voice – I am assuming that there are processes and guidelines for such cases. I don’t for one moment believe that this was the first time a student has had a baby, or for that matter fallen very ill, or required an extended break, in the middle of a semester. I would be astounded to hear that UC Davis requires its lecturers to reinvent the wheel every time they encounter a tricky situation.

No matter how this played out in the end, at NO STAGE IN THE PROCESS should this decision have been left to the fellow students. It is a gross violation of the professional ethics I have been taught to respect as a lecturer. It doesn’t matter how many teaching awards a lecturer has, this is a matter of basic human decency.

However, I am even more disgusted at the students. If I had attempted such a stunt while still a lecturer at Bonn, the Fachschaft, who represent the students in each discipline, would have hauled me over hot coals the minute they heard about this. Never would they have let a fellow student down like this. I mean, not even the local Conservative student organisation, which at the time mainly consisted of over-ambitious young law and economics students, would have condoned such behaviour.

Now, I don’t know whether Friedman did indeed try to talk to the student and work out a solution with her in private. But that does not change one startling and horrifying fact – that it was the students themselves who turned on one of their own.

Why did the Presidents of the Year let themselves be used as a cover for a lecturer who was either not willing or not capable of following the procedures that would be common practice at almost every university I am familiar with?

Truly, a sad story. I hope it is reblogged and discussed widely.

(P.S.: Before you go off on an extended rant about the selfishness of reproducing breeders in the comments, replace “new baby” with “a couple of weeks in hospital after an accident” and consider whether that would change your point of view.)



  1. Dulcinea said,

    I have always been appalled at the hypocrisy of Americans when it comes to “family values”. There are so many perfectly willing to provide opinions on what others should do, but when the rubber meets the road — when it comes time to actually support women and families after children are born — their voices are silent. I have asked colleagues who have spoken about only having 3 weeks maternity leave what they did with their 3-week old babies. So far, no one has realized I was actually asking a serious question.

    The U.S. is NOT a family-friendly country at all!

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dr. Isis, Maria Wolters and others. Maria Wolters said: The Astonishing Case of Dr Friedman, the Third Year Presidents, and the Student Who Dared to Have a Baby: http://wp.me/pzc5g-1J […]

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