Take a look at this article from The Washington Post. It covers a controversy that has been roiling the campus of my alma mater, Mount St. Mary’s University, in Emmitsburg, MD, for the past few months. It seems that the newly-installed president initiated a survey for all freshmen to take early in their first semester. It was presented to the students as a way of helping them get to know themselves better as they transition from high school to college, and to help them understand better “the person you are and could become.” Fair enough. Everyone likes taking personality inventories and surveys like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It’s helpful to know what instruments like this tell you as you begin your academic career.
Only that’s not what the survey was really about. It was designed to help the university identify which students were at the greatest risk of dropping out so that administrators could encourage these students to leave early in the semester. And it was done in the hopes of boosting the school’s retention rate, thereby getting it better ratings in places like the US News ranking. The information in the survey was meant to be shared and discussed, not just scored and returned to the students for them discuss with their advisors.
Probing, Inappropriate Questions.
Now, the misrepresentation of the survey’s purpose is bad enough, but what’s worse is the fact that some of the questions are one-sided and not really related to its stated goal. Have you experienced a death in the family in the past year? Are you taking on major student loans? I don’t see how questions like these can help the students come to know themselves better.
But wait—it gets worse. An entire section of the survey is dedicated to the student’s mental health. They are asked how strongly they identify with statements like: In the past week . . . I felt depressed. I felt that people disliked me. I thought my life had been a failure. These are very personal questions, and the students should never be asked to divulge this kind of information—especially in a survey that is not kept confidential. They are also asked if they think they are calm and emotionally stable. Can they be trusted with money? Are they a hard worker? Have they been obsessed with a certain idea or project and then lost interest?
Then comes the final indignity. The closed-ended section of the survey ends with a question that comes out of the blue: Do you have a learning disability?
A Breach of Trust.
The best word I can find to describe the survey and its intended use is repugnant. Targeting for removal students who report feeling unstable is bad enough, but then expecting them to divulge whether they have a learning disability crosses several lines.
First, a student with a disability has the right not to disclose that disability to the school. At all. Ever. It is no one else’s business except the student’s—and anyone to whom he or she wishes to reveal it. It’s like Federal HIPAA guidelines; this information is protected by law.
Second, if a student does disclose a disability, the school is obligated to work with that student to determine the appropriate “academic adjustments” that will ensure that he or she is given an equal education opportunity. While not as stringent as the IEP process for elementary and high school students, the Americans with Disabilities Act lays out specific requirements for colleges—at least for those colleges, like Mount St. Mary’s, that accept government funding.
Finally, the school is obligated to keep this disclosure confidential. A teacher may not tell other teachers or students without the student’s permission. An advisor may not tell the president or dean. Again, it’s up to the student to decide who should know and to inform the appropriate people.
What is disturbing in this story is the implication that someone with a learning disability doesn’t belong in college. Or that someone struggling with anxiety or depression should drop out. It turns colleges—especially small, private ones like The Mount—into enclaves for the elite and privileged, for the well-adjusted and socially savvy.
But there are plenty of people with disabilities and disturbances who are more than capable of succeeding in higher education. What’s more, plenty of these people have the potential to go on and do great things with their lives—and great things for the people around them. Robin Williams comes to mind. So does Theodore Roosevelt. Or Charles Shulz. And, of course, Temple Grandin.
Not to mention, the presence of students who “deviate from the norm” is a great gift to any campus. Not to get too maudlin, but students like these challenge their peers’ assumptions and prejudices. They redefine the word “ability” for their teachers. They are a humanizing influence, opening people’s minds and hearts at a time in their lives when they are making crucial decisions about the kind of person they want to be.
I have children who would absolutely bomb on this survey, but who are earning As and Bs in high school. How would they fare? Or worse, what would they think of themselves when asked all of these questions? I hope they would have the common sense to either lie or leave them unanswered. I would be thrilled if they had the courage to challenge the whole thing and refuse to answer a single question. But I don’t know how they would respond. I can’t help but think of how questions like the ones above could convince someone that he or she really doesn’t belong . . . when it’s just not the case.
Praying for a Turn-Around.
I spent four wonderful years at The Mount. I graduated Summa Cum Laude and went on to earn a masters degree and pursue a meaningful, successful career in Catholic ministry and publishing. Much of that I owe to the education I received there and to the spirit of camaraderie and Christian charity I experienced there. But the first semester of my freshman year was hell. I was homesick and depressed. I felt overwhelmed by the work load. I started off in a dorm room with obnoxious, mean-spirited roommates. I didn’t know how to navigate the social mores of a college campus. It took me a while to adjust, to find my niche, and to settle in. Once I did adjust, however, there was no stopping me.
I would have failed that survey; I would have been encouraged to leave. But that didn’t happen. There were enough faculty and upperclassmen who knew how to help freshmen like me find their way. They embodied the best of The Mount—and the best of the Catholic faith. It saddens me deeply to see this happening at an institution that means so much to me. I can only pray that things will turn around soon.