In the latest and probably final chapter of a closely watched case testing how far universities must go to accommodate disabled students, a federal judge has ruled that Boston University did not have to allow liberal arts undergraduates with learning disabilities to substitute other courses for a two-year foreign-language requirement.
The university said that allowing students to circumvent the requirement would fundamentally alter the nature of its program. No substitute course in the history, literature or art of another country, the university said, would give students the same "insider access" to another culture.
The ruling Friday by U.S. District Judge Patti B. Saris in Boston resolved the last remaining issue in a broad discrimination lawsuit filed by students with learning disabilities in response to a 1995 crackdown on accommodations ordered by Jon Westling, then the university's provost and now its president.
In August, Saris ruled that the change in policy had been based on "uninformed stereotypes." The policy violated federal anti-discrimination laws, she said, by failing to accommodate the academic needs of students with learning disabilities and by requiring students to periodically have the diagnosis re-evaluated.
The judge criticized Westling for an earlier speech in which he told of a student he called Somnolent Samantha, whom he portrayed as a real-life freshman who had asked him for extra help because she fell asleep in class. Under questioning in the course of the lawsuit, however, Westling acknowledged that there was no such student and that he had created Samantha to drive home his argument that many students were claiming disabilities with no scientific basis.
"Somnolent Samantha represented Westling's belief -- fueled mostly by popular press and anecdotal accounts -- that students with learning disabilities were often fakers who undercut academic rigor," Saris wrote in August. She awarded a total of $30,000 in damages to six of the students in the class-action lawsuit. She also ordered the school to reassess its policy of prohibiting exemptions from the foreign-language requirements and to come back to court to explain its position.
The panel that took up the question recommended that the strict requirements stay intact. On Friday, Saris accepted that universities have the right to set their own academic standards, ruling that a "liberal arts curriculum cannot be fit into a cookie-cutter mold."
Lawyers for the students who sued portrayed the foreign-language policy as irrational, saying that it created a hardship for those who could handle college-level work but lacked the capacity to master another language. Any across-the-board policy against course substitution violates the American With Disabilities Act, the lawyers said, because it makes it impossible for some students with learning disabilities to succeed.
They also argued that allowing substitutions would not have much effect on the university program because only about 15 of the university's 26,000 students would need such a modification.
Boston University has portrayed the case as a battle over academic freedom.
"As long as an academic institution rationally, without pretext, exercises its deliberate professional judgment not to permit course substitutions for an academic requirement in a liberal arts curriculum," the judge said, "the Americans With Disabilities Act does not authorize the courts to intervene even if a majority of other comparable academic institutions disagree."
Most colleges and universities either do not have a general foreign-language requirement or allow course substitutions for learning-disabled students. More common accommodations are extra time on tests and note-takers.
The number of college students with learning disabilities has mushroomed. More than 3 percent of full-time college freshmen say they are learning disabled.
In the early 1990s, Boston University's Office of Learning Disabilities Support Services was seen as one of the leaders in the field. But after Westling tightened the rules on accommodations, top officials at the office resigned, and some students who had chosen Boston University because of the DTC office said they feared that the school was no longer interested in students like them.
Pub Date: 5/31/98