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Punished for Poll on New Mother

May 10, 2011

When the story first surfaced in January, it struck some as so unlikely that they questioned its veracity. Many women in science, however, said that the story rang true to them. Maybe they hadn't experienced exactly the same thing, but they said they had seen plenty of senior male faculty members who were clueless at best and discriminatory at worst about responding to students or faculty members who become mothers.

The story was that a department chair in the veterinary school at the University of California at Davis had polled a class on what grade he should give to a student who had to miss some quizzes because she had given birth. On Monday afternoon, the university released a statement from Edward Feldman, chair of the medicine and epidemiology department, in which he apologized for the incident in his class, and said that he was complying with the university's request to step down as chair.

"I accept responsibility for my poor judgment in handling a student absence from my VMD 444 course this past winter quarter. This will acknowledge my acceptance of the sanctions you have proposed, which includes my compliance with your request that I step down as chair of my department," said Feldman in the statement. "I deeply regret any offense or embarrassment I may have caused the student, the School of Veterinary Medicine, or UC Davis for this incident. Although I had the best interests of the student and the School of Veterinary Medicine at heart, I recognize now that some of my actions were inappropriate."

The university said that it does not release the results of its personnel reviews, but was providing Feldman's statement with his permission. Feldman did not respond to an e-mail Monday evening.

The first report on the incident came on a blog -- On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess -- that has a wide following among those interested in issues faced by women in science. The blog featured an e-mail from a student at Davis, who described an e-mail sent around by the presidents of her class:

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

When Inside Higher Ed reached Feldman at the time, he said, "I don't care what people say. It is between me, my students and my school." But many at Davis were outraged, saying that a woman who gives birth is entitled to a plan that allows her to finish the course with appropriate accommodations and support -- as required by university policy and federal law. And the idea that a professor would poll a class on how to handle the situation, including options that would effectively punish the student for giving birth, left many stunned.

As reports about the incident circulated, Linda P.B. Katehi, chancellor at Davis, pledged an investigation, and said that she would be "profoundly disappointed if the reported events did in fact transpire." She added that "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."

The female student who had a child has never been identified, and so can't be reached for an opinion on the action taken at Davis.

But the blogger who shared the letter about the incident said in an interview Monday night that she applauded the university for taking the matter seriously enough to punish Feldman. "I am surprised because these are things that so many women face in academia, and they usually fly under the radar. So to see a strong response from a university is fairly out of the norm, and I'm pleased," said Isis the Scientist, the pseudonym of the blogger. (Isis is a scientist at a major research university.)

Isis said that it may well be that Feldman and others like him are "not acting maliciously, but based on decades of reinforced beliefs."

But she said that the vote on the student's grade reflects a challenge faced by many women as they enter science at the same time some of them are becoming mothers. "If other students had medical conditions or illnesses, everyone would expect an accommodation, but pregnancy is treated differently, and it is treated as a problem and a disruption and as the fault of the [pregnant] person," she said.

Science programs need to accept that some women will become parents, and need to have established, supportive ways of keeping those women in science, she said. "I hope people who have seen this case will take it as an impetus to educate themselves."

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