A Hill to Retire On?

A famed atmospheric scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is on leave after refusing to heed administrators' request that he give electronic lecture slides to a student with disabilities.

September 15, 2017
 
Michael Schlesinger

A dispute over electronic lecture slides and accommodations for a learning-disabled student may have ended the teaching career of Michael Schlesinger, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Schlesinger said Thursday that he's learned from his lawyer that he is on paid administrative leave over the matter, pending a hearing. He said he has not resigned, despite previously having indicated otherwise to students.

“Although you have a doctorate, I doubt that you teach. Although you have a doctorate, I doubt that you do research,” Schlesinger wrote to a disabilities services specialist at the university, announcing his departure last week. He accused the staff member of writing him “coercive emails” about the accommodation and copied his entire class on climate and global change on the exchange.

“Yet,” he continued, “it is you who have pressured me, who has taught and researched for 41 years in university and is a Nobel Prize recipient, to do that which I will not do, advantage a single [Disability Resources and Educational Services] student over the 100-plus non-DRES students in my course by providing that student with my lectures electronically.” (Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to clarify Schlesinger's Nobel connections. He was one of many contributors to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.)

Schlesinger continued, “I think the university needs to rethink having people such as you. Nonetheless, I look forward to spending the remainder of my life in Kona, Hawaii.”

Parts of the email exchange have been posted online by students, and Schlesinger confirmed their authenticity to Inside Higher Ed. The messages say that Schlesinger offered to pay for someone to take notes for the student in question, so the professor’s main contention was sharing his slides with the student to supplement the notes.

Schlesinger told Inside Higher Ed that when he sent the email about leaving for Hawaii, he thought he'd already been terminated. 

"I have not resigned and do not tend to resign," he said via email. "Rather, I intend to fight for a more balanced approach to assisting disabled students, an approach that does not disadvantage non-disabled students."

Robin Kaler, a university spokesperson, said she couldn’t comment on a personnel matter, and one with implications for student privacy, other than to say that Schlesinger is not currently teaching. But Illinois, she said, “has always been an international leader in disability resources and support, and we take very seriously our responsibility to provide reasonable accommodations to students who are living with disabilities.” (Kaler has co-authored opinion pieces for Inside Higher Ed in the past.)

In online discussion forums, some students have suggested that lecture slides may have been of use to someone using the note-taking software Sonocent. The program records lectures and students can then add notes to the lecture slides -- if professors provide them. Advocates of such technology say it's not an easy way out, though -- just a way of better organizing notes. And of accommodations in general, scholars of special education say they level the playing field instead of giving anyone an advantage.

Schlesinger declined an immediate interview request, saying he was “too bruised emotionally” to talk about the case, or rather about how he’s been treated. But he forwarded an email he wrote to Robert Rauber, chair of the department of atmospheric sciences, explaining this decision. That's after Rauber wrote him an email saying his duties had been "removed pending further review of your recent actions. ... I also want to reiterate that you are to have no further contact with students or teaching assistants until further notice."

After teaching the climate and global change class 16 times and accommodating various students with disabilities, Schlesinger wrote, he was for the first time this year asked to provide electronic copies of his slides before each lecture.

While he gave all of his students hard copies of his lecture notes before class, he said, he didn’t provide electronic copies because “based on my experience of providing all my students my lecture slides after each lecture for most if not all of the 16 times I have taught this course, I knew that one-third of my class would cease coming to my lectures if I provided them my lecture slides electronically. And their ceasing to attend my lectures would lower their course grades.”

For some reason, he said, “this was deemed unacceptable by DRES. The person at DRES responsible for this decision was concerned about only one student in my class of 108 students.”

The emails on which the class was copied did not contain the name of the student who required accommodation. 

James Basham, an associate professor of special education at the University of Kansas, said he was familiar with Sonocent, which he called “a nice program for supporting students with disabilities, but could really be useful for supporting all learners.”

Basham explained that the tool supports instructional alignment to the Universal Design for Learning framework, which is designed to make digital postsecondary content accessible to people with disabilities. That has been identified as among the top five instructional issues facing higher education.

“While I don’t know the details of this case, it would seem that this professor is holding on to traditional instructional practices that have nearly Luddite-type tendencies,” Basham said. “If the professor has such strong beliefs about sharing slides with an individual student, he should simply share with all of his students.”

Many professors have been sharing their slides with students -- those who require accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act and those who don’t -- for years, he said, encouraging his colleagues to “reflect on how we might be more learner-centered.” That includes providing access to the learning environment, whether "physical or cognitive."

The written word was once considered disruptive to the learning process; now perhaps it’s technology such as Sonocent and in the future it could be something else, Basham said. “Rather than fight progress, it is necessary for us to continually view the process of learning from the perspective of the learners.”

Of course, not all professors have such deep insight into pedagogy, and some prefer to focus on their research areas instead of changing their teaching styles. And sometimes meeting learners where they’re at can mean extra work for faculty members.

Kaler said that at Illinois, a professor is responsible for providing electronic notes to students who need them. For an accommodation that is beyond the capability of the instructor, such as one that requires special technology, she said, DRES provides support.

Schlesinger wrote an email addressed to his former students in the class Thursday, mourning the planned destruction of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, which had been in Saturn’s orbit since 2004 and whose mission dates back to the 1980s. He shared it with reporters and administrators at Illinois.

“Although the university has forbidden me to communicate with you, on pain of ???, I am,” he wrote, saying that Cassini is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. “We puny human beings have learned incredible things from Cassini … It is important for you to understand the past, the present and the future. It is you who will decide the future of our planet, this island Earth, as I have taught you. Learn well.”

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