When Sada Jacobson ’04 led the Yale Womens Fencing Team against Harvard University, she was granted a Dean’s Excuse. But when the Morse College student and two-time NCAA Division I National Champion asked for a Dean’s Excuse because she missed work to compete in the World Cup, she was turned down.
When Matt Ciesielski ’06 had multiple assignments stacking up one week, he e-mailed his dean for help. The Pierson College student was granted a Dean’s Excuse — no questions asked.
The 12 residential college deans are scattered across the spectrum regarding their policies for granting Dean’s Excuses, many students said. While the Yale College Dean’s Office sets specific guidelines for the deans to follow, some deans follow the rules to the letter, often frustrating students who claim they do not budge a bit. But other deans admit to interpreting the guidelines “to the best advantage of the students,” earning them reputations for being “easy.”
Excuses of Olympic proportions
Jacobson took two weeks off of school the fall of her sophomore year to compete in the Senior World Championships for fencing in France — her biggest competition of the year. When she spoke with Morse College Dean Rosemary Jones, Jacobson did not get a Dean’s Excuse. Without a Dean’s Excuse, she said she was left no option but to spend her first three days back at Yale making up two weeks worth of work for her classes.
“I always try to get all of my work done before I leave, but sometimes I’m gone on a weekday and I miss a midterm or something,” Jacobson said.
Jones was not available for comment.
Jacobson said it was upsetting to her because she saw students around her getting Dean’s Excuses for “claiming” to be sick.
“It was upsetting to me because I know so many people who blatantly lie to get a Dean’s Excuse when I can’t get a Dean’s Excuse for something completely valid,” Jacobson said. “You’re conveying the wrong message when that’s what you hold to be a valid reason to miss work.”
And Jacobson said she sometimes feels used by the University when it advertises all of her accomplishments — and those of other students in similar situations — but does not grant her Dean’s Excuses when she needs them.
“Yale puts their name on the accomplishments of these people,” Jacobson said. “Yale loves to play that up. They love to say their students are doing extraordinary things, but when it comes down to it, you’re not being helpful in allowing us to accomplish those things.”
Jacobson said this is not Jones’ fault, but is the fault of the Dean’s Excuse system as a whole.
“Dean Jones just followed the rules set down by the school, but I think it’s something people need to try to change,” Jacobson said.
But Morse College is not the only college that is “strict” in granting Dean’s Excuses.
An alarming trend
When his alarm clock did not go off one morning, Roger Edwards ’06 could not even imagine the consequences.
The Jonathan Edwards College freshman felt sick that morning and his alarm clock’s malfunction kept him from attending his morning classes. On the syllabus that day for Elementary Spanish: an in-class composition, worth eight-percent of the semester grade.
Edwards said when he went to class the next day to ask about a make-up composition, his instructor, Sybil Alexandrov, said she was not allowed to allow him to make-up his work without a Dean’s Excuse.
“I went to [Jonathan Edwards College Dean John Mangan] to get an excuse and he said unless I’m really sick and go to [Yale University Health Services], he couldn’t give me an excuse,” Edwards said. “I went to class the next day and [Alexandrov] told me I needed a Dean’s Excuse, but my dean wouldn’t give it to me.”
Alexandrov and Mangan did not return repeated requests for comment.
Edwards said Mangan refused to give him a Dean’s Excuse, which Edwards said left Alexandrov no choice but to give him a zero for the composition.
At the end of the semester, Edwards did not receive a B-minus, as his academic work might suggest. He received a C-minus — a near-failing mark — because of the zero.
But a failed alarm clock and illness are not the only reasons Mangan turns away students begging for a Dean’s Excuse.
Another Jonathan Edwards freshman, who asked to remain anonymous, said she woke up sick one morning. She was so sick she could not attend her morning language class, where a poor attendance record would hurt her grade.
But when she went to see Mangan about getting an excuse, he told her that he could not formally excuse her for an absence, but only for an assignment.
“Other deans make some kinds of exceptions,” she said. “He wrote a note to give to the instructor — not a Dean’s Excuse, but just a note — and he said that he would never do that for me again.”
The Dean of Pierson College lies at the other end of the spectrum.
One week last semester, Ciesielski had a large amount of work due. The Pierson freshman decided to ask for a Dean’s Excuse for one of his assignments.
“I had a ton of work due on one week and it all came down at the same time,” Ciesielski said. “I’ve never heard of [Pierson College Dean Christa Dove] turning anybody down.”
Ciesielski simply e-mailed Dove and she granted him a Dean’s Excuse immediately.
“I do whatever is in the best interest of the students,” Dove said. “I interpret the guidelines to the best advantage of the students.”
Many students said Dove is the most lenient of the residential college deans, but Ciesielski said her liberal ways do not entice students to postpone work or skip exams.
“I personally think it works well because since everybody knows that she gives them out pretty easily, people don’t want to take advantage of her,” he said.
Another Pierson freshman, who asked to remain anonymous, has already received two Dean’s Excuses from Dove — one during the second week of classes.
“I was clowning around and not really doing anything,” he said. “I sent her an e-mail saying that I had been ‘sick’ and that I’ve had a tough time getting back into ‘the working mode.’ She said it was ‘OK.'”
The student said he would not try to get a Dean’s Excuse again this semester because he said it was not fair to take advantage of Dove.
“We’re the most liberal,” he said. “She really hands them out. It’s not fair [for me] to try again.”
A push for common ground
While these examples rest at the extreme ends of the spectrum and although most of the other 10 residential college deans are considered by many students to be more moderate than Mangan and Dove, it remains clear to many students that something needs to be done to make the system more equitable.
According to the current regulations of Yale College, a residential college dean only has the authority to give permission for a student to make up missed or delayed work during the term if the student has an incapacitating illness, has observed religious holy days, was required to participate in varsity intercollegiate events, or suffered from the death of a family member or a comparable emergency. In all other situations, the student must get permission directly from the instructor to make up work.
The Yale College Council and Freshman Class Council have investigated this issue, but have so far been unsuccessful in convincing the administration that reform is needed.
“We don’t see any need to reform the Dean’s Excuse policy,” Yale College Dean of Academic Affairs Mark Schenker said. “There are going to be some differences because people are not identical. As much as possible, every effort is made to make sure that those differences are not idiosyncratic or whimsical.”
Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said all the deans go through “dean school” and their policies on Dean’s Excuses make a difference when they are evaluated.
“Our effort is to have the policy the same from college to college,” Brodhead said. “We want to ensure that the same rules are enforced in all the colleges.”
But David Gershkoff ’06, an associate on the FCC, said it is important that professors are willing to work with students and offer them work extensions in dire circumstances. Gershkoff stressed the importance of increased communication between professors and students and said that students should approach professors first for an extension before trying to get a Dean’s Excuse.
“The Yale College Dean’s Office can work to prevent professors from putting a requirement for make-up work as Dean’s Excuses and therefore putting themselves in a position of either having them make an exception or being unable to make an exception,” Gershkoff said.
And Schenker agreed, saying it is important that students work with their professors to work out arrangements. But like many things in a large institution, he said there will be differences between professors’ policies. He said it is frustrating for students because many professors have different policies and different ways of granting extensions.
YCC President Andrew Allison ’04 said the Yale College Dean’s Office should ask professors to invite students to meet with them if they have a problem completing work on time.
“The Dean’s Office says that students should talk to their professors if they have a conflict that does not meet the criteria in the academic regulations, but more and more professors say that they will not accept any excuses except those from deans,” Allison said. “Such a policy dissuades students from approaching their professors, which not only inhibits professor-student relationships but also limits students’ options.”
Seeing the big picture
Some professors include policies in their syllabi stipulating that students must have a Dean’s Excuse in order to make up work, while others are willing to grant extensions on an individual basis depending on the situation at hand.
“It’s part of the whole range of differences,” Schenker said. “Some things can’t be legislated. [There’s an] expectation that the permission will come directly from the professor.”
Allison said the YCC will continue to look at this issue closely and try to work with the Yale College Dean’s Office to craft a workable policy.
“I hope we can at least ask faculty members to drop their ‘Dean’s Excuse Only’ policies,” Allison said. “I think that change will improve students’ relationships with their professors without inviting many requests for illegitimate extensions.”
Schenker said the Dean’s Excuse is not an effort to try to cut off the student from an instructor. Rather, he said it is a way for a student with an extraordinary circumstance to get an accommodation from a residential college dean.
Andrew Cedar ’06, the YCC representative leading the organization’s investigation on the issue, said the current system is not equitable. He said he agreed with Allison and added that professors should be willing to work with students on an individual basis.
“A Dean’s Excuse to me is when for some legitimate reason your time has been taken away from school work, it gives you the ability to make that work up,” Cedar said. “Clearly, you shouldn’t be able to get a Dean’s Excuse for playing a [Nintendo] Game Cube.”
Cedar said what attracted him to Yale was that there are world-class musicians, actors and athletes.
“The truth is that the world for these people is greater than New Haven and they have to leave and are ineligible for Dean’s Excuses,” Cedar said. “[Jacobson] is eligible for Dean’s Excuses when she’s playing against Brown, but not when she’s playing against the best fencers in the world. The system seemed to be saying that fencing against Ivy League schools was good use of her time when fencing against the world’s best wasn’t.”
Cedar said he has met with Schenker and agreed with some of Schenker’s points. But he said he believed the problem would not be solved by changing Dean’s Excuses, but by changing the way they are perceived.
“A majority of the people in this school are not eligible for Dean’s Excuses,” Cedar said. “There are a lot of legitimate excuses that are not eligible for Dean’s Excuses. The primary avenue should be talking with professors.”
While it remains important to follow the rules in granting Dean’s Excuses, students still agree that professors should be more willing to work with them on an individual basis to accommodate unforeseen circumstances.
Many said it is unfair that Jacobson cannot get a dean’s excuse for international Olympic-level competition, while students like Ciesielski and his fellow Piersonites are granted excuses for a variety of reasons that not all deans would consider legitimate.
Clearly, Cedar and Allison said, something needs to be done to correct this system to make it more equitable for all Yalies.
“Sometimes you get so caught up with playing by the rules that you don’t see the whole picture,” Jacobson said. n