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Professors granted discretion over excused absences

| Wednesday, September 3, 2014

This semester, the University initiated a new excused absence policy to include religious holy days, official military duties and mandatory off-campus legal proceedings and to exclude mild illness, such as a headache or cold, Cathy Pieronek, associate dean for the College of Engineering said.

Pieronek, who worked with a group of faculty members to revamp the policy, said it is “a near-complete rewrite of the old policy.” Under the new rules, professors maintain discretion over what constitutes an excused absence, except in cases explicitly mentioned in the updated code. These cases fall under three categories: University-excused absences, planned absences and unplanned absences.

Pieronek said the most significant change for students is the process for obtaining an excused absence for personal illness.

“We have completely changed the way student personal illness is managed,” she said. “For non-acute illnesses such as a mild cold or stomachache or headache, students are expected to attend class. For acute or contagious illnesses, the absence must be excused if a treatment provider indicates that the student should not be in class.

“For chronic illnesses the Disability Services Office will determine the appropriate action. Also, rectors are no longer allowed to notify faculty of a student’s personal illness. Only a treatment provider may provide documentation of a personal illness.”

The new policy, which is part of the Undergraduate Academic Code, specifies that the University Health Services (UHS), the University Counseling Center (UCC) and off-campus medical providers “can provide a medical confirmation note only if those medical professionals are involved in the medical care of the student.” The medical note must be presented to the student’s professors within two days of his or her return to class, the code states.

Additionally, students must provide professors with at least a week’s notice for a planned absence.

Pieronek said students who miss class for official University business will not see any change in procedure. The Office of Student Affairs still will handle all University-business absence requests, as well as excused absences for death or serious illness in the family.

The old policy included only death in a student’s immediate family but has been expanded to include a family member’s serious illness.

Pieronek said the new policy also formalizes the procedure for seniors missing class for job or graduate school interviews.

“We have formalized a policy to allow excused absences for seniors who are going for job or grad school interviews that the student is unable to reschedule,” she said. “This policy was in place informally for several years, but we have made it formal by including it in the Undergraduate Academic Code. It also restricts this particular excused absence to two class days per semester.”

Seniors are expected to minimize these types of absences and use fall, winter and spring breaks to schedule interviews.

Pieronek said the changes became necessary after professors and other faculty members observed a startling spike in student absences in recent years.

“We were noticing a major increase in the number of excused absences for illnesses,” she said. “In engineering, for example, the number of excused absences for illnesses tripled between 2011-12 and 2012-13. The number of students didn’t triple, but the number of absences did, and it caught our attention.

“I know Business experienced something similar. It was clear that excuses for personal illnesses were becoming an epidemic.”

Other professors, Pieronek said, said they did not need as many excused absence notifications from deans offices and Student Affairs.

“Professors who didn’t have absence policies were telling us that they didn’t need the excuses, so we were doing unnecessary work notifying them, but we didn’t know who did and who didn’t need the excuses, so we notified everyone,” she said.

Pieronek also said professors complained that students did not give them absence notifications in a timely manner, and therefore the time limits went into effect in the new policy.

In essence, Pieronek said the new rules aim to streamline the excused absence policy by focusing it on the relationship between professors and students.

“The new policy requires students and faculty to communicate directly about absences, rather than relying on an e-mail or memo from a dean to communicate an absence,” she said. “Faculty are in charge of classroom policies at all times, so it only made sense to have faculty directly involved in managing absences in their own classes.

“From an educational perspective, we want students to know that the sum total of any excused absence policy is the policy as written in the Undergraduate Academic Code, plus whatever the instructor puts on the syllabus.”

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About Jack Rooney

Jack is a 2016 graduate of Notre Dame, and The Observer's former managing editor. He is currently spending a year living and working for the University in Ireland, and writing columns to keep him busy. For more random thoughts and plenty of news links, follow Jack on Twitter @RooneyReports.

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