Students eye reforming bereavement policies

Campus leaders are urging the U to modify how it gives time off to students for grieving.

by Parker Lemke

When neuroscience junior Zakir Waliany found out his grandmother died in early February, he quickly reached out to his professors and asked to be excused for the funeral.

Most agreed to accommodate the funeral in Atlanta and allowed him extended time to complete his classwork. But one instructor told Waliany that he’d have to find time to study for an exam set for the following week while he was away.

“I feel he infringed on my cultural rights,” said Waliany, whose family comes from Pakistan and adheres to a 10-day mourning period.

Rather than cope with the situation on his own, Waliany reached out to student government representatives who have since developed proposals to create clearer bereavement guidelines at the University of Minnesota.

The Student Senate will vote on a resolution recommending that the University set a minimum length for excused absences for grieving and clarify which relationships they should apply to at its Thursday meeting.

Student senator Mitch Fuller, who drafted the resolution, said he was surprised to find that according to University policy, faculty members have discretion on when to grant absences to grieving students.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “[The University] might have found it best to leave that interpretation to the instructor … but what we’ve found is that the instructor holds a little bit too much power.”

The Minnesota Student Association passed a similar resolution in favor of modifying the policy last week.

MSA President Joelle Stangler said the student government group had looked at this issue in the past, and Waliany’s story reignited interest in it.

MSA’s previous work included examining how other schools address grief absences, she said. The resolutions from both MSA and the Student Senate use Purdue University’s policy as a guideline.

That policy defines how many days of absence students are allocated depending on their relationship to the deceased and the distance of the funeral from the school. Students can also petition for grief absence for family members or friends not explicitly included in the policy.

Additionally, Purdue students request bereavement from the Office of the Dean of Students, which sends notifications of their absence to their professors.

A student-led effort at the Indiana school led to its current bereavement policy, said Heather Servaty-Seib, a counseling psychologist and Purdue thanatology associate professor.

“When you have such a large institution, you need to have polices to deal with these issues because faculty don’t know what to do,” she said. “They’re not experts on grief. They need direction.”

Basing its recommendation on the policy of a peer institution will help the student proposals gain ground, said plant biology professor Sue Wick, who chairs the University Senate Committee on Educational Policy.

Although the resolution could make its way to a Faculty Senate committee soon, Stangler said there likely won’t be a policy change until next year.

“There’s a lot of moving parts to it,” she said, adding that a University department will likely have to take on the responsibility of reviewing student bereavement requests to prevent abuse. “That’s more administrative-type work at an institution that’s really trying to cut down on administrative spending.”

Ultimately, a working group would probably need to evaluate the proposal, Stangler said.

“The intent of the resolution is really more to start a conversation and to show student support,” she said.

Time to grieve

When he came back from his grandmother’s funeral, Waliany said he had to cram for his early week anatomy exam.

“It was hard for me to focus and study, and at the same time I missed a few lectures,” he said.

Not all students can focus on classwork after losing a loved one, and the grief can be isolating for some, said Barb Titus, a communications instructor who facilitates weekly grief support groups at the University’s Duluth campus.

Once, Titus said, a student had to accept a zero on an exam to spend time with her mother, who was in the last stages of cancer.

“Not everyone understands the impact that grief can [have] on students,” she said. “Life is happening all the time. … How do we fit that with our academic life?”

Professors with large lecture hall classes, for instance, might have concerns about dealing with student absences.

“In classes where I know students, I would never question if they say their grandfather died,” said Wick, adding that she would be less sure if they are telling the truth in a larger class.

She said if the policy were to change, it would need to balance the needs of both faculty and students.

Because some faculty may be resistant to syllabus changes, the student senator Fuller said, it will be vital that students push the proposal forward.

“Students will still have to be the driving force behind this,” he said.