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Report Assigns Harvard Failing Grade for Leave of Absence Policy

Massachusetts Hall houses the offices of the University President.
Massachusetts Hall houses the offices of the University President. By Megan M. Ross
By Shera S. Avi-Yonah and Delano R. Franklin, Crimson Staff Writers

A study on leaves of absence at Ivy League colleges released this month gave Harvard’s procedures a failing grade, critiquing policies that mandate a minimum length for leaves and set a strict deadline for applications to return.

Harvard received a D-minus, tying it with Cornell for the third lowest grade overall. Researchers working at the Ruderman Family Foundation — a disability rights advocacy group founded in Boston — chose to study Ivy League schools because “they represent the most elite institutions of higher education,” according to the study. A press release sent alongside the Foundation’s findings concluded all eight Ivies “fail students with mental illness.”

Miriam Heyman, a developmental psychologist and disability inclusion programs director for the foundation, authored the paper and scored each member of the Ivy League’s leave of absence policies on 15 indicators of “institutional support for students with mental health disabilities.”

The universities received scores ranging from one to three for each of the indicators, with one being the lowest. The ratings measured aspects of leave of absence policies like transparency and language about accomodations. Harvard scored 28 out of 45 possible points based on policies in the College and Harvard School of Public Health handbooks, earning it a failing grade.

None of the eight schools Heyman surveyed scored higher than a D-plus.

To take a voluntary leave from the College, students have until the first day of reading period to petition the Administrative Board with their reasons for requesting leave, according to the student handbook. The policy adds that, “under certain circumstances,” administrators may also decide to place a student on leave without their consent — a rule the study sharply criticized.

Roughly one in 20 undergraduates takes voluntary or involuntary leaves each year, according to data provided by the Ad Board. In the 2014-2015 school year, the Ad Board approved 242 petitions for a leave of absence and placed 54 students on involuntary leave.

Harvard earned a score of one on several aspects of its leave of absence policies, indicating those policies are “problematic.” The policies criticized in the report include Harvard’s restriction on taking leaves of absence after the start of reading period each semester and the school's requirement that returning students must register with their Resident Dean at least 12 weeks before the start of their next term.

For other policies, like allowing students on leave to visit campus and maintaining transparency in procedures for petitioning for a leave of absence, the study indicated that Harvard already maintains the “best practice.”

Heyman and her colleagues wrote that Harvard and peer schools should revise leave of absence policies the researchers consider discriminatory against students with mental illness.

“The grades noted above convey that the Ivy League schools still have a lot of work to do in order to meet these ideals,” researchers wrote. “Only then will they live up to their reputation of leadership.”

Harvard spokesperson Aaron M. Goldman declined to respond immediately to a request for comment on the Foundation’s findings Thursday.

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @delanofranklin_.

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