By Isabella Rosario
Last year, I lived in the dorms, constantly exposed to germs in very close quarters with other people. I got sick a lot — but I still went to class because I knew I’d lose points if I didn’t. After a year of exposing myself and others to sickness, I can confidently attest that my high GPA wasn’t worth the mental and physical costs.
The University of Iowa allows each of its colleges to set its own class-attendance policy, which often grant professors immense flexibility in how they penalize absences. This freedom allows professors to make appropriate policies based on the unique nature of each course they teach. For example, discussion-based courses are reliant on class participation. On the other hand, this leniency gives professors power to require a doctor’s note for the flu. Worse, they can even dock 50 points from a student’s grade if they miss just three classes because of a common illness (colds, flu, pink eye, stomach bugs, etc. — and yes, this information is straight from a class syllabus).
Even if inconsistent with college standards, these policies, at the very least, routinely go unchecked by college administrators.
Two statements from a 2015 UI Provost letter regarding illnesses and class absences are particularly salient:
• “In order to help keep medical services available to people who truly need to be seen by a doctor, university policy is that faculty and teaching assistants cannot require a doctor’s note from a student who is requesting an excused absence from class due to illness.”
• “Students should not be penalized for missing a class due to illness. Faculty and teaching assistants should provide appropriate makeup work for those students with excused absences due to illness.”
When I asked Associate Provost Lon Moeller if these policies still stand (the former literally says “university policy is”), he responded via email that the letter (and a similar one from 2013) was sent out in response to a campus illness outbreak. He did not provide me with a simple yes or no answer.
“It’s been my experience as a UI student, faculty member, and administrator, however, that faculty work with students whose personal circumstances or illnesses prevent them from regularly attending class,” he said.
The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences’ attendance policy is, “… instructors generally have the right to ask for documentation for most student absences caused by illness.” However, several years ago, Student Health stopped routinely providing medical documentation for illnesses. For this reason, the policy also states “… do not refer students to Student Health for [short-term illnesses].” Kathryn Hall, the Liberal Arts College senior director of curriculum & academic policy, said instructors can still ask for a doctor’s note, just not specifically from Student Health.
Assuming this is the case, attendance policies requiring doctor’s notes not only pressure students to make unnecessary doctor’s appointments, but they won’t be covered by their semester health fee, either.
Furthermore, compulsory attendance has little payoff for its potentially harmful costs. It’s no secret that high class attendance is correlated with student success, but mandatory attendance policies do little to improve grades, as evidenced by a 2010 study from the University of Albany.
I can corroborate Moeller’s statement and say I have had some surprisingly positive experiences with professors whose attendance policies are no-nonsense on paper. I also understand the need for students to attend class, and the frustration professors experience when they don’t. But I also know firsthand the consequences of professors doubling down on attendance to force student participation.
The least the university could do is make it clear where it stands.