In Health, Not Sickness

Arpineh Bagramian woke up one morning knowing that something had gone very wrong with her body. Her heart drummed at nearly twice its normal rate. She tried to breathe, but found her lungs suddenly incapable of extracting oxygen from the air. Her fingers went numb, and after a while, so did her arms. It was Aug. 23, the morning of the first and only midterm for her endocrinology class. The test was worth 40 percent of her grade, but Arpineh knew there was no way she’d be able to take it. She called her doctor and told him what was wrong.

“I wasn’t too worried about missing the midterm at that point, because I’d always thought there was some university-wide policy protecting me. That a professor had to listen to a doctor when he said I was incapable of taking a test,” she said.

When she was taking metabolic biochemistry the previous year, Bagramian had to miss a midterm due to a death in the family.

“[The professor] let me take a makeup exam, no questions asked,” she said.

At the hospital, Arpineh found out that she had suffered a panic attack. She obtained a nurse’s note explaining that even though the condition was not life-threatening, it certainly would have prevented her from functioning in any stressful situation, such as a midterm. In fact, the letter explained, exposure to stressful situations could lead to more severe attacks. She felt calmed by the note, thinking the university’s academic regulations would guarantee her a second chance to demonstrate what she had learned.

She was wrong.

The densely worded Regulations and Policies Manual, penned by the UCSD Academic Senate in 1981, governs academic policy on everything from dropping classes to grade appeals. It is a 6,500 word document that is often vague and somewhat difficult to understand.

“No student may be excused from final examinations,” the Manual states at one point. But just a few paragraphs down, it adds that a request to excuse a student from a final exam must be filed by the end of Week Two.

When it comes to missed midterms, the manual places the burden of judgment and administration on the professor.

“An instructor may administer an examination at an alternative time if a valid reason is given by the student for not taking the regularly scheduled examination. Valid reasons include serious illness and family disasters,” the regulations state. “Illness” is used a total of six times in the Academic Senate regulations. “Serious illness” is used a total of three times. But the manual never defines what a serious illness actually constitutes. It fails to clarify whether make-up examinations are a professor’s obligation, or choice, to administer. And worst of all, it suggests but never defines what a “valid” reason is. These ambiguities open the way for professors to act unfairly, even if they don’t mean to. For instance, it’s easy for a non-psychiatrist to write off a panic attack as a minor inconvenience, or even worse, a ploy.

“When I went to [my endocrinology] professor with the medical papers, he said it wasn’t a valid excuse to miss the midterm. He told me I could’ve come to the test anyway, that he wasn’t accepting them, and that he recommended I drop the course. When I came back with a second note from the RN [the head nurse], it explained that even though [panic attacks] aren’t life threatening, I had a valid reason to miss the test.”

The current regulations don’t even require a professor to have a consistent makeup policy. One of the professor’s TAs told Bagramian that a doctor’s note was all she needed: the professor had dropped midterms for students with a note in previous years. A former student told Bagramian that he wrote make-ups for every midterm.

“He kept asking me for personal information, the nature of the panic attacks” Bagramian said. “I was willing to tell him everything, but I did think, ‘Don’t I have a right to medical confidentiality?’ My physician later told me he had no right to ask me those things. He made his judgment based on the nature of the complaint, which he clearly had a set of preconceived ideas about.”

But in an email to Bagramian, the professor took a different approach altogether. He stated that the best she could hope for was a grade of Incomplete, if she brought a note.

“You may be eligible for a grade of ‘I’ and finish the missing exam at the end of next quarter,” he wrote.

Others expressed their distaste for the inconsistencies the current academic policies allow. Gabrielle Weinhausen, the Associate Dean for Education in the Division of Biological Sciences, stated in an email to Bagramian that although she would talk to professor, there was nothing she could do to make him change her grade.

“I am as disappointed as you are,” she wrote. “The instructor has full authority over grades.”

After Weinhausen, Bagramian and a number of other administrators had talked to professor, he agreed to let her take the final. Bagramian said he refused to give her details about how he would grade her, saying only that he would pass her if she did exceptionally well.

“I got about the average. It was a cumulative final, covering everything the midterm had, and yet he gave me a C- in the class. It was so arbitrary,” she said. “Even if I’d gotten an F—a 50 percent—on the midterm, I would have ended up with a solid B in the class, because the way things were curved. To give me a zero on the midterm and just add 10 percent to my grade afterwards was a completely random and unfair way to deal with things.”

Bagramian said that although a C- is a passing grade, it is inadequate for most pharmacy school programs, which she intends to apply to this year. She said she was disturbed by the unfairness of the process, the lack of oversight and regulation and the inability of administrators to step in.

“That was my last class ever as an undergrad. I was getting ready to move back to LA. I was applying for jobs, and I had a solid GPA,” she said. “It ruined my last quarter, my final memories of San Diego.”

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