Tulane under investigation for not accommodating learning disabilities

Brendan Lyman, Senior Staff Reporter

Former student Matthew Name first came to Tulane University to pursue a public health degree, but left feeling ostracized and three credits short of his degree. 

The Department of Education Office of Civil Rights is currently investigating Tulane after Name filed a complaint against Tulane for not properly accommodating his learning disabilities, according to a Dec. 8 letter from the Office of Civil Rights. The complaint accused Tulane of violating Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which states that no student at a school receiving federal assistance shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability.

A Dyslexic’s Nightmare 

Name is a self-described “untraditional student” who has struggled with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, poststraumatic stress disorder and dyslexia for more than 40 years.

After the crash of his small business in the late 2000s, Name found himself pursuing a new chapter, following his passion for the public health disparities he encountered living in Provincetown, Massachusetts as he watched others struggle to meet their basic health needs. 

Name came to New Orleans, a place he had previously called home, in 2011 to study at the University of New Orleans, but decided to attend Tulane beginning in the Fall of 2012. By May of 2014, however, Name was three credits short of graduating and about to embark on the unfamiliar again.

A Department of Education spokesperson confirmed that there is currently an ongoing Section 504 investigation against Tulane but could not comment on the specifics of the case.

When Name began at Tulane, the university accepted his diagnoses of ADHD and PTSD, though he said that the university would not identify his PTSD as a learning disability. Name was able to successfully navigate the classes in which he enrolled, but toward the end of French 1010 Name began to struggle with the material.

After failing the first test of French 1020, Name asked for assistance from the Office of Disability Services at Tulane. ODS informed him that he could apply for a foreign language waiver, but he would have to produce a formal diagnosis of his dyslexia.

Name said ODS provided information for two psychiatrists; the first was located in Metairie, Louisiana and would cost $1,200, and the second was located in New Orleans and would cost $1,500.

“That was my food budget for the semester,” Name said. 

According to Department of Education guidelines, postsecondary schools are not required to provide an initial evaluation to prove a disability and need for an academic adjustment. The burden falls on the student.

Name was able to produce 40 years of academic records and a written diagnosis from a psychiatrist that Tulane accepted. He was then given a list of approved courses to substitute the foreign language requirement.

The lists of courses, 27 in all, range from art history courses to Jewish Studies. Notably, the list of courses has only five acceptable substitutions below the 3000 level, despite that the majority of required foreign language classes fall in the 1000 and 2000 level.

Name was able to select two 3000 level courses, Classics 3170 Greek Art and Archaeology and Classics 3180 Roman Art and Archaeology, that were offered and fit in his final semester’s schedule in the Spring of 2014, to replace French 1020 and 2030. 

These substitutions presented the same struggles he faced in his previous classes. In the Office of Civil Rights complaint, Name said that he failed Classics 3180, calling it “a dyslexic’s nightmare,” which included a final exam worth 40 percent of the grade consisting of “foreign language vocabulary definitions, identifying slides, writing titles (often not English), location, year and significance.”

The Complaint

After Name failed Classics 3180, he requested that Tulane offer to make the class S/U on his transcript and to provide an explanation about if courses are vetted by an individual with a background in learning disability education.

In a follow-up email from Molly Travis, Associate Dean of Newcomb-Tulane College, she told Name that the courses are chosen by each department’s chairs, though the 2011 substitution list was not chosen by any of the sitting chairs. The list of courses, which was started in 2006, was approved by the Newcomb-Tulane College Curriculum Committee, a committee made up of faculty from all undergraduate schools, but does not appear to be formally reviewed each year.

Molly Travis declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing nature of the case.

Tulane and Name entered into an unsuccessful mediation Aug. 29 with a representative from OCR present.

While Name could not disclose the reason the mediation was unsuccessful because of a non-disclosure agreement, he expressed frustration that it was unclear if disability experts reviewed the university’s approved substitution courses.

ODS Director Patrick Randolph said he could not comment on the status of an open investigation. He also declined to say if a disability expert reviews approved courses. 

For Name, filing the OCR and the investigation have been a constant struggle for him during the last year. He was recently made aware that OCR transferred his case to a new investigator, and though both Tulane and he have responded to inquiries, the investigation has no formal timetable for resolution. Name, however, remains committed to the process.

“I didn’t file the OCR because I have any hope of winning a settlement,” Name said. “It’s not that I want to get a million dollars or that I care about getting my degree … It’s the nuance of setting up someone to succeed and tripping them down the stairs. Tulane systemically doesn’t understand the difference in structuring a culture that views every individual as someone who can contribute.”

Staff Reporter Emily Carmichael contributed to this article.