Boston University has long been a leader in helping students with learning disabilities earn their diplomas. Students who have trouble concentrating in class can have assistants take notes for them. Those who don't process information quickly get extra time on tests.
But two years ago, the university began to reevaluate these services, prompted by what the school says were faculty complaints. Learning-disabled students on the Gothic-spired campus objected, and BU is now embroiled in a lawsuit that could define how colleges across the US identify and serve such students.
At issue is whether students with special needs can get an equal education in America's most hallowed halls of learning. But the emotional case now unfolding in a federal courtroom in Boston also points to a broader issue - individual rights versus academic standards.
"The larger issue is, exactly what are the rights and responsibilities of students compared with the rights of institutions to protect their academic integrity and academic standards?" says Salome Heyward of Heyward Lawton & Associates in Cambridge, Mass., which advises universities and businesses on complying with disability law.
Take Elizabeth Guckenberger, a third-year BU law student. She was diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disorder believed to impair reading ability, when she was a college freshman. When she started law school at BU in 1994, BU granted her a reduced course load, which means she will graduate in four years, rather than three. In addition, she takes exams in a quiet room and gets twice the time as other students.
"I definitely need my accommodations to achieve the success that I'm able to," says Ms. Guckenberger, one of 10 students who sued the university in July 1996.
But in 1995, BU told her she would need to be reevaluated - at an out-of-pocket cost of $800. Guckenberger still qualifies as learning-disabled under BU's new policies, but other students do not. "I jumped through all their hoops," she says, "but there were students who didn't who were denied accommodations."
The students' suit charges that the university violates the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. Under the act, universities must provide "reasonable accommodations" for students with disabilities - including those with learning difficulties. The case is expected to settle several key issues:
* What documentation colleges can require of a student to establish that he or she is learning disabled.
* What accommodations they must provide.
* Whether universities can refuse to allow any substitutions for academic requirements.
"What, hopefully, this case will do is give the parties on both sides a sense of where the line is," says Ms. Heyward.
More learning-disabled students
The private liberal-arts university is not alone in reexamining how it serves students with disabilities. Cuts in state and federal funding are forcing other institutions to take a closer look at the programs they provide.
Moreover, the debate is likely to intensify as the number of learning-disabled students increases. In 1994, 3 percent of college freshman identified themselves as learning-disabled, compared with 2 percent in 1991, according to the American Council on Education in Washington.
Students bringing the suit characterize Boston University's reform effort as a one-man crusade by former-provost Jon Westling (now university president). They argue that disparaging remarks he has made in speeches about people in the learning-disability field indicate he is biased and that he is not qualified to evaluate the students' requests for accommodations.
Some outside observers agree. "I think they went overboard is second-guessing their own experts," says Carol DeSouza, ADA compliance officer at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who is watching the case closely.
In defense of academic standards
BU defends its policies, including a requirement that learning-disabled students be retested every three years by a certified psychologist or physician (as opposed to learning specialists). The policy has long been in place but was not enforced, says BU spokesman Kevin Carleton.
It also no longer allows any undergrads to make substitutions for foreign-language or math courses, which the plaintiffs argue is necessary for some learning-disabled students. Instead, the university offers tutoring for those who need it.
"Nobody is suggesting that we have two different sets of grades," says William Hunt, one of the attorneys for the students. The case, he says, is about having an environment that levels the playing field so that students can do work "of the same kind and quality as anybody else."
Boston University says it does not intend to reduce services to the 200 learning-disabled students on its 30,000-student campus. "We do not feel that it is inappropriate for students with a learning disability to have accommodations," says Mr. Carleton. "All we're asking is that they be properly documented, that the accommodations be in line with the diagnosis and be supported by the medical literature."
But those with learning disabilities worry that if Boston University is permitted to scale back its services, other schools will do the same.
"What worries me if Boston University prevails is that it may become too easy for institutions to pretend that learning disabilities don't even exist," says Steven Nelson of Landmark College in Putney, Vt., a two-year college where all students are diagnosed with learning disabilities.
More than a dozen four-year institutions now automatically accept the college's students as juniors upon their graduation from Landmark.
"They want to have students who have been diagnosed with learning problems and come through our program," he says, "because they know they will work hard and succeed."