May 31, 2018

Family Medicine Faculty and U-M Partners Pen a Response to the Wall Street Journal

The letter, written collaboratively with support from Lisa Meeks, Ph.D. and Philip Zazove, M.D., provides a public response to the WSJ article, “Colleges Bend the Rules for More Students, Give Them Extra Help,” published Friday, May 25, 2018.

Below is a letter submitted to the editors of the Wall Street Journal, in response to a piece they published on May 25, 2018, entitled “Colleges Bend the Rules for More Students, Give Them Extra Help.”


A public response to the WSJ article “Colleges Bend the Rules for More Students, Give Them Extra Help” published Friday, May 25, 2018.

We are saddened by Friday’s article, “Colleges Bend the Rules for More Students, Give Them Extra Help “in the Wall Street Journal. As an institution of higher education, we feel the article took multiple liberties in both its portrayal of students with disabilities and the perceptions and attitudes of faculty. Unfortunately, the article also used outdated language to describe students with disabilities and used dismissive terms such as "special accommodations." We believe that the language and tone of this article is biased in a manner that serves to reinforce incorrect assumptions about students with disabilities.

First, we want to remind the reader that students admitted to our institution are meeting the same standards as their peers. We believe in the value of a diverse student body, including individuals with disabilities. We stand by our decisions to admit, without reservation, individuals with disabilities who meet our admissions criteria and who can fulfill the academic and clinical competencies that we require of all our students. We will continue to work towards an environment where all qualified students with disabilities can thrive.

We wish to correct the assertion that a “doctor’s letter” with a diagnosis represents an accurate picture of federal law, and the requirements for registering with disability services likewise is a misinterpretation of the law and the process.  A diagnosis alone does not warrant accommodations. Instead, disability offices across the country engage in a rigorous and individualized interactive process to determine reasonable accommodations that do not fundamentally alter an educational program and that do not compromise academic rigor. To suggest that disability services is a mechanism for “bending the rules” is truly uninformed and belittles the hundreds of hard-working and dedicated people staffing disability offices across the country.

The claims that there is a rise in psychological disabilities in this age group is correct, but lacked contextualization. In fact, the number of psychological disabilities has increased such that 25% of all U.S. adults now have a mental health issue and nearly 50% of U.S. adults will develop at least one mental health issue during their lifetime. This means that the increase we see in the college population is in line with the population at large. This article does not help to contribute solutions for this crisis. Instead, it serves to perpetuate stereotypes about people who utilize services for students with disabilities and contributes to stigma about mental health, which leads to fear and dissuades help-seeking behavior. We strongly support students who choose to engage in support services, including disability support and counseling, and encourage students to seek and use services that contribute to their wellness.

Finally, to the question of fairness, the article misses the mark. If you grade on a curve, does it lower expectations and disadvantage the class? The answer is no. Does the provision of accommodations suggest that a test is no longer standardized? No. If you are evaluating content knowledge, then your measure of competency is the final answer—regardless of time. Extended time will not prompt new knowledge. Students enter the exam with a level of competency on the topic; time does not increase that knowledge, only the ability to retrieve it. The decision by high-stakes testing agencies to stop flagging examinations was in direct response to the stigma and fear that came with those identifiers. We have made great strides to create an environment where students are evaluated based on their knowledge and abilities, not their disabilities. Articles like this only support and condone the further marginalization of these students. 

At Michigan, we choose to create a compassionate and inclusive environment. We (the school, the students and the patients we care for) benefit when we invite multiple perspectives and experiences into our University. We benefit when we take time and care to support our ideas with evidence. It appears that this article lacked the time and care needed to support the facts about disability and the provision of accommodations. It made sweeping generalizations about students with disabilities that suggested some were “gaming the system.”  We offer our support to these students and will continue to operate under the letter of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but more importantly we will continue to embrace the ”spirit” of the ADA – because it’s the right thing to do.


Rajesh S. Mangrulkar, M.D.

Marguerite S. Roll Professor of Medical Education

Associate Dean for Medical Student Education

University of Michigan


Philip Zazove, M.D.

Professor and Chair

The George A. Dean, M.D. Chair of Family Medicine

Department of Family Medicine

University of Michigan Medical Center


Lisa M. Meeks, Ph.D.

IHPI Clinician Scholar

Faculty, Department of Family Medicine

University of Michigan Medical School


Stuart S Segal, Ph.D.

Director of the Office of Services for

Students with Disabilities

University of Michigan


Charlotte H. O’Connor, M.Ed.

Learning Specialist

Office of Medical Student Education

University of Michigan