How Not to Deal With a Student Mother

UC Davis investigates incident in which professor allegedly polled a class on how to grade a student who had just given birth.
January 14, 2011

The chancellor of the University of California at Davis is pledging an investigation and "swift and appropriate action" over an e-mail in which a class was polled on the grade that should be given to a student who had to miss some quizzes because she had given birth.

"I take very seriously any allegations that a student’s welfare, dignity or academic rights have in any way been compromised. And as a woman, who has experienced firsthand the challenges of melding academic and family life and has experienced discrimination, I am especially sensitive to this issue," said an e-mail message that Linda P.B. Katehi, chancellor at Davis, provided to Inside Higher Ed last night and that she planned to send to all the students who complained to her on Thursday.

"This alleged action, if found to be true, would present a serious deviation from the values and principles that guide our campus and our School of Veterinary Medicine, and I would be profoundly disappointed if the reported events did in fact transpire on this campus."

Katehi stressed that UC Davis and its veterinary school (at which 85 percent of students are female) in fact has ways of helping students who become mothers. "During a student’s pregnancy, the school customarily works with her to help catch up after being away for childbirth or to arrange for an extended leave after which she can resume her academic program. And for mothers of infants, the school provides a lactation room so that students can continue breastfeeding their babies," Katehi said.

The professor who is alleged to have handled the class in this way is Edward C. Feldman, chair of the veterinary college's medicine and epidemiology department. Reached by phone on Thursday and told that his handling of the situation had been of concern to many students, Feldman said, "I don't care what people say. It is between me, my students and my school."

Asked if he wanted to explain why he would use a student poll to grade a student who had just given birth, he said, "No comment."

Davis officials confirmed the authenticity of an e-mail that was first quoted on the blog "On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess," by a female scientist at a major research university who blogs, as "Isis," about issues in academic science, particularly for women.

The e-mail was sent by the presidents of the third-year class to its members and reads as follows (in italics):

Dear Colleagues,

One of our classmates recently gave birth and will be out of class for an unknown period of time. This means she will undoubtedly miss one, or more, or all quizzes in VMD 444. Dr. Feldman is not sure how to handle this and has requested the class give input and vote. He has provided us with 6 options on which to vote and is open to any other ideas you may have. Most likely a CERE poll will be up next week and a voting will close no later than Wednesday. If you have other suggestions please email them to Dan or I ASAP. We will alert you to the opening of voting. Below are listed the options that Dr. Feldman has suggested. Please reserve comment on these options and provide us your opinion on them by voting when the time comes. Thank you for your understanding in this matter.
a) automatic A final grade
b) automatic B final grade
c) automatic C final grade
d) graded the same as everyone else: best 6 quiz scores out of a possible 7 quiz scores (each quiz only given only once in class with no repeats)
e) just take a % of quiz scores (for example: your classmate takes 4 quizzes, averages 9/10 points = 90% = A)
f) give that student a single final exam at the end of the quarter (however this option is only available to this one student, all others are graded on the best 6 quiz scores and the % that results)

Please let us know if you have other thoughts on how to handle this situation and please keep your eye out for the upcoming vote.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Your Presidents

The presidents of the class did not respond to e-mail messages from Inside Higher Ed seeking their comment. Isis blogged that after the e-mail was forwarded to her, she contacted Feldman, who she said responded with an e-mail saying: "I have no comment on the e-mail you received which was to be sent only to members of the UC Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, current 3rd year class."

The readers of Isis's blog have raised a variety of criticisms of the e-mail sent to students, ranging from fairness issues, to the rights of new mothers to have reasonable methods offered for them to complete coursework, to potential privacy violations.

Isis wrote: "My heart breaks for this woman to have been shamed in front of her peers this way. To have been presented as a problem that must be voted on and dealt with. I can't imagine what she must have felt like to know that her peers were given the option to assign her an 'A' or a 'C,' depending on what they thought she deserved. How are her peers in any position to determine her performance in a course in which they have no expertise?"

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