Over 100 students sign petition to change policy

Every January, hundreds of students from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s College, and Holy Cross College travel to Washington, D.C. for the annual March for Life.  Last year, a record-breaking 692 students from the schools participated in the event.

Currently, Notre Dame and Holy Cross students receive excused absences for classes missed as a result of attending the March. Students at Saint Mary’s College, however, do not receive excused absences.

Erin Hoffmann Harding, Notre Dame’s Vice President for Student Affairs, said to the Rover, “The absence has been handled through the undergraduate academic code, specifically section, which provides for excused absences for participation in a university authorized activity.”

Andrew Polaniecki, Director of Campus Ministry at Holy Cross College, told the Rover, “Holy Cross College does give an official excused absence, like Notre Dame does. The unwritten rule here at Holy Cross has always been that students going on the March need to email professors in advance and then would be responsible for any work that would be missed. As long as students did this, it is understood that faculty would not penalize any student who attended the March. We are small enough that this informal and unwritten rule for the most part works.”

According to the “Academic Policies” page on Saint Mary’s website, “Excused absences may be granted to students who must miss class(es) for legitimate and documentable reasons of personal health, family concerns (illness, funeral, wedding) or participation in varsity athletics or other officially recognized activities. However, every absence carries the penalty of the loss of instruction given during absence, which may result in a lower grade for the course. Limited excused absences for personal health or family concerns are granted by Academic Affairs and First Year Studies.”

Susan Dampeer, Special Assistant to the President at SMC, explained the policy to the Rover on behalf of SMC President Carol Ann Mooney. “Our Associate Dean of Faculty for Academic Advising, Susan Vanek, explained our policy in this way. Excused absences are only given for conferences or other academic ventures. Under the guidelines of our policy, the March for Life does not qualify as such,” Dampeer said.

“However, because Dean Vanek knows how important it is to students every year she emails all the faculty and asks them not to penalize students for missing class for this event,” Dampeer continued. “Because it is at the beginning of the academic year there are almost never any tests at this time. She has never heard of a student being penalized for attending the March.”

Some Saint Mary’s students, however, have experienced difficulty due to Saint Mary’s policy.

Senior Sofia Piecuch explained to the Rover, “Most science majors are not able to attend the March because they have labs and tests that cannot be rescheduled. This is why I believe that Dean Vanek has not heard about students being penalized: students know ahead of time that their grade will be docked if they miss a lab or test, so they decide to remain at SMC and not risk their grade.”

Last January marked sophomore Morgan Kinniry’s fifth time attending the March and her first time attending with SMC. “Like all other marchers from Saint Mary’s, I was not granted an excused absence. While this did not [affect] any of my exams, I was still penalized in a class where attendance is a factor in the grading. Although the hit to my grade was small, I did technically lose points for not being present, and that could have been avoided if my absence was officially excused,” Kinniry told the Rover.

“Also, as a biology major, it was tricky to re-schedule my labs for my science classes,” she explained. “While the professors did work with me in switching the lab dates, they very well could [have chosen not to help] me because my absence was not officially excused by the college.”

Senior Deirdre O’Leary has attended the March for Life with SMC for the past three years. She told the Rover, “It is frustrating that these absences are not excused because many classes have a policy where students are only able to miss one or two classes per semester before their grade goes down.”

Mary Robin, a senior at Saint Mary’s, said that planning to attend the March with SMC has been a disappointing experience. “Every year I hope—this upcoming year more than any other, what with the exposed videos [of] Planned Parenthood—that SMC Academic Affairs will take a page from ND’s courageous encouragement to its students in the extension of an excused absence for the March,” Robin said to the Rover.

“Sadly, this is not the case, and to us students, it simply says that it is not a priority,” she added. “There are few events in SMC’s academic year where students are offered excused absences (Diversity Board Conference is one of them, but I am not sure what the exact name is), but the March for Life is failing to be put on the top of the list.”

O’Leary also remarked upon the discontinuity she perceives between SMC’s mission as a Catholic institution and the current policy.

“Many students and I do not understand why these absences are not excused because the March for Life is an opportunity to show solidarity with those whose lives are not being respected and upheld, something directly in line with Catholic teaching,” O’Leary stated. “As a Catholic college, it would make sense for Saint Mary’s to support the March for Life and students who choose to attend.”

Kinniry said that SMC’s policy has the effect of discouraging pro-life students on campus. “I think it is extremely inconsistent with [the college’s] Catholic identity,” she stated.

“I went to a diocesan Catholic high school (Bishop Dwenger High School Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend), and there was never an issue … regarding being excused from school,” Kinniry explained. “Because Saint Mary’s is also a Catholic institution, and the Catholic Church is explicitly clear with its stance on life issues, I do not understand why Saint Mary’s would not excuse its students for the March for Life just like my high school did.”

Senior Jana Zuniga, president of the club Belles for Life, said SMC’s mission statement implies support for the pro-life cause. One section of the statement reads: “The College nurtures awareness and compassion for a troubled world and challenges students to promote human dignity throughout their lives. In preparing women for roles of leadership and action, Saint Mary’s pays particular attention to the rights and responsibilities of women in the worlds of work, church, community, and family.”

“I strongly believe that if SMC is serious about this noble statement,” Zuniga added, “it should encourage and help their students to participate in events such as the March for Life, whose purpose is to continue responding with action in a broken and unjust society.”

In response to the policy, several SMC students have organized a petition asking for official excused absences for those attending the March for Life. Last Tuesday, Piecuch presented the petition to Vanek with the signatures of 101 Saint Mary’s students.

“This would mean that students would not be penalized for missing a class, and they would be able to reschedule a test or a quiz,” Piecuch explained.

“I have spoken with the students who presented me with the petition,” Vanek told the Rover. “I told them that I would bring the excused absence policy to the Academic Standards Committee for review in the spring semester. In the meantime, at the beginning of the semester, I ask faculty members not to penalize students who are attending the Right to Life March. I hope that all students who want to attend this March will do so. I do not see how it can seriously affect their grade.”

“Dean Vanek assured me that she would love for as many students to go on the March for Life as possible,” Piecuch said. “This year, she will graciously send out the same email as she did last year to all the faculty, asking them to be aware of the students that will be missing classes and not to penalize for going. This year, she also asked me to tell students to contact her personally if a professor was unfairly penalizing them for going.”

But Zuniga maintains that a policy change would be the best protection against unfair treatment. “Excused absences would allow us to avoid being subject to the standards of our professors, who currently use their own discretion and sometimes their own personal sentiments about this issue to determine our penalization for missing class on behalf of the March,” she said.

“Receiving excused absences for the March for Life would be a huge encouragement to the students,” Zuniga added. “We know that abortion is not promoting the ultimate happiness of women and hope that our college will acknowledge this reality in a more concrete and tangible way.”

Meanwhile, Piecuch encouraged students who want to attend the March to find a way to go even without an excused absence. “Notre Dame offers different departure and return dates; hopefully one can be chosen that will allow the student to miss the least class possible,” she suggested. “They should talk to their professors early, look into extra credit opportunities, ask if there is the chance to ‘drop’ a test score later in the semester, see if the specific professor allows the student a certain number of absences.”

Students also noted a variety of reasons for attending the March for Life.

O’Leary plans to attend her eighth March for Life this January. “It is beautiful to see hundreds of people coming together from far distances to show that all people, from conception to natural death, possess inherent dignity and value that nobody has the right to ignore or trample on,” she said. “I am pro-women and pro-life. For me, feminism means being pro-life and standing up to say that women deserve better than abortion.”  

Zuniga said attending the March fueled her interest in the pro-life movement. “It was the March for Life trip that brought me to the realization that this was a cause worth fighting for. It was a cause I wanted to fight for and begin dedicating my time and energy to,” she said.

“The petition has to go through a few committees and—if approved—won’t be official until next academic year,” Piecuch added. “[so] the suggestion to our SMC students who want to go on the March for Life is that they talk with their professors beforehand. … That way they will have enough time to reach out to Dean Vanek if they need to.”

Stephanie Reuter is a sophomore studying PLS and theology. She recommends listening to Handel’s Messiah on Spotify to get in the holiday spirit. Contact her at sreuter@nd.edu.