Faculty seek clarity on study abroad rules

Faculty seek clarity on study abroad rules

Youssef Rddad

University of Minnesota faculty members aren’t allowed to promote non-University undergraduate travel programs, according to a University study abroad policy — and some are concerned this violates student academic freedoms.
 
The state Legislature passed a law last year requiring Minnesota colleges and universities to report student deaths and other accidents during study abroad programs. Some faculty leaders say the University misinterpreted the law to mean professors aren’t allowed to recommend that students pursue programs not offered through the school.
 
The reporting requirement comes at a time where more students are studying abroad than in the past. About twice as many University students studied abroad in 2012-13 than did students in 2000.
 
Outgoing Faculty Senate Vice Chair and associate professor Eva von Dassow said the University’s study abroad policy, which prevents faculty members from advising students on programs outside the Learning Abroad Center, misconstrues the law. 
 
The goal of the new law was to make available the health and safety records of students traveling through study abroad programs, so students considering a trip abroad could make more informed decisions, according to a description of the law written by the Forum on Education Abroad. 
 
Von Dassow said she thinks faculty members assumed the University’s policy stopped them from advertising non-University sponsored programs. When they made the policy, she said, administrators misinterpreted the law, believing it would make the University liable if students ran into trouble while abroad on those programs. 
 
“There’s no liability from this law, [and] there’s nothing that prevents faculty from discussing study abroad opportunities,” said Minnesota Office of Higher Education research analyst Nichole Sorenson.
 
The law requires faculty members to report student involvement in any programs they recommend, Sorenson said. It also requires them to report any student injuries or deaths on the trip. 
 
Faculty members or administrators may misinterpret these requirements to mean they could be at risk of a lawsuit if students have accidents on trips they recommend, Sorenson said.
 
Assistant Dean of Learning Abroad Martha Johnson said some study abroad programs that are not approved by the University could be dangerous for students.
 
“It’s really critical that we make sure that we know that students are going on programs that are safe and quality beyond the academics,” Johnson said. “Safe housing is a huge concern, especially for female students.”
 
Although the policy restricting the study abroad options faculty members can discuss with students did not originate from the Learning Abroad Center, Johnson said, the center is required to follow it.
 
Von Dassow said the University policy may be a violation of several laws, including the First Amendment. 
 
“This gag order violates the academic freedom of faculty and students alike, while undercutting several of the institution’s stated goals,” von Dassow said, adding that she has been trying to bring attention to issues with the policy for several months.
 
The Learning Abroad Center offers five programs for Arabic-learners, but only one of the programs is sponsored through the center. Under the policy, a faculty member wanting to recommend non-University sponsored programs to students would be hindered from doing so.
 
President Eric Kaler said during a May 14 Faculty Consultative Committee meeting that he needs to think about how best to pursue the matter before assigning someone to look into changing the policy.