The Exception to the Rule by Tobias W. Uecker

One of my former supervisors liked to say that the ideal set of policies and procedures for a college or university should be made up of “rational rules with reasonable exceptions” (OK, it might have been “reasonable rules with rational exceptions,” but hopefully the general idea is the same regardless). I’ve been thinking a lot about this description as my current campus has been working through the process of helping students select and confirm their housing for the next academic year.

As anyone who’s worked through a housing process can attest, housing professionals believe they have rational rules that guide their procedures for fitting a particular number of students into a particular number of bed spaces in particular building environments that have particular draws and particular drawbacks in the minds of students. But those procedures are also subject to myriad requests for what students believe to be reasonable exceptions to established processes. This same phenomenon can play out in different facets of any Student Affairs office, from allocation systems for student organizations to admission and scholarship decisions to registration deadlines for campus programs.

How we solicit and make decisions about students’ requests for reasonable exceptions to our rational rules says a lot about our offices or institutions. Depending on who is able to access the required administrative processes, granting exceptions can offer needed flexibility to make systems more inclusive or can create an additional layer of advantage bestowed on those for whom the system is already designed.

An approach college and university offices commonly take with established rules, policies, and procedures is to consider exceptions on a case-by-case basis. This approach doesn’t require a given office to go out in search of exceptions but still grants wide flexibility to address unforeseen issues as they come. In a realm where predicting every unique student situation is impossible, this seems perfectly reasonable.

From an equal opportunity perspective, we can extol this sort of ad hoc system by pointing out that no student is excluded when we say we’ll decide things case by case. Any student at all is free to access the decision-making structure to put a unique case up for consideration. The student who asks for and is granted some sort of exception needs simply to “take initiative” or “self-advocate.” Rationally, that student reaps a reward for taking those desirable actions. Any student could have asked us to consider an exception, the logic goes, so any student could have received the exception. If a particular student actually does take action, then only that student actually does receive the benefit of doing so. What could be unfair about that?

What could be—what is—unfair is that countless factors created by institutional environments affect the degree to which it is actually true that all students have the same opportunity to advocate for themselves. We delude ourselves if we assume that the only distinction between a student who comes to our office to make the case for a personal exception and one who doesn’t is a difference in each student’s level of initiative.

In some cases, what might be labeled “initiative” could also be accurately labeled “privilege.” Having family members who’ve attended college could help a given student know about a policy loophole that would never occur to a first-generation college student. Growing up in an environment that places high cultural value on independence and directness could make a particular student more likely to seek a meeting with a school official than a student whose cultural values focus more on deference and modesty. A student on solid financial footing might be more willing to risk rocking the boat with a policy challenge than a student whose continued enrollment might already be financially tenuous.

To minimize the effects of this privilege gap disguised as an initiative gap, our offices must be known as places of inclusion before the question of challenging a policy or seeking an exception even enters the minds of our students. Student Affairs offices that communicate and operate in daily and systemic ways that not only invite but also empower engagement from students of all backgrounds are more likely to be seen as places of resource and refuge when a student’s individual circumstances appear mismatched with a generalized policy or process.

If we hope to minimize the role that existing privilege plays in who seeks and is granted a reasonable exception, we must also be forthcoming about the operationalized exceptions that often exist in long-standing policies and procedures. If students can fill out a form to waive the fee for intramurals or an established process for seeking a housing reassignment, we should provide that information as clearly and openly as possible. The housing application at my current school, for example, articulates the Regential requirement to live on campus for a student’s first two years but provides a link to the “Request for Release” form that lists common reasons a student might be exempted from the live-on policy. Any student who reads the application knows an exemption process exists and has a sense of how that process works.

I understand that we might hesitate to be so forthright for fear that doing so will lead to a flood of exception requests. However, having truly inclusive policies and procedures requires every step of the process to be open to everyone—not just for the basics to be known to all and the add-on options to be selectively available. If our release or exception process functions like some sort of secret menu that’s only available to those savvy enough to know it exists, we risk leaving out those segments of our student population already most likely to be at a disadvantage in navigating college and university bureaucracy.

Working to have truly inclusive approaches to rational rules and their reasonable exceptions could even mean completely reframing the language we use throughout organizational policies and procedures. As housing professionals work to provide appropriate living environments for students with disabilities, the commonly used language is about “providing accommodations” instead of “granting exceptions.” I don’t equate the scope and importance of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act to the sorts of exceptions I’ve discussed elsewhere in this post, but it’s worth considering that applying a mindset of accommodation to other realms of creating inclusive rules, policies, and procedures—and their exceptions—could put a completely different focus on the process.

How might our whole approach to the standard case-by-case decision-making look and feel different if we think of a fee waiver as way to provide an equal opportunity for a financially disadvantaged student to participate in a campus event rather than as an exception to a required cost recovery policy? What if we discuss a release from an on-campus housing requirement from the perspective of what a student hopes to gain from living off campus rather than identifying why that student doesn’t want to live in University housing? What new opportunities might we discover if we give a student staff member unable to attend a mandatory diversity training session the chance to craft an individualized learning experience rather than thinking of it as getting out of something?

Rules and policies certainly have value in helping Student Affairs educators set up the very institutional environments that attempt to equalize access, opportunity, and achievement on college campuses. However, we risk undermining their value if reasonable exceptions are disproportionately available to those already at an advantage in our system and if we perpetuate a mindset that says an exception is about opting out of the norm rather than opting into a more fitting arrangement.

Maybe I should recast my former supervisor’s guidance to say that policies and procedures are about establishing rational rules with room to reconsider.

Biography: Tobias W. Uecker is Assistant Director of Residential Life for Living/Learning Initiatives at South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD (also his undergraduate alma mater). In addition to earning his M.S. in Student Affairs in Higher Education at Miami University in Oxford, OH, Toby’s work experience outside of South Dakota includes stints in Housing and Residential Life offices at several small, private liberal arts colleges in Minnesota and Ohio.



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