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McGill’s late course withdrawal policy passed by Senate

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The McGill Senate passed a motion last Wednesday to make official a late withdrawal policy that would allow students facing extreme circumstances to withdraw from all the courses they are taking in their current semester without the withdrawal being marked on their academic transcripts.

The revised University Policy on Late Withdrawals was originally brought to Senate on November 4, 2014, after the Senate Subcommittee on Student Affairs Policies assigned a working group to examine the implications of late course withdrawals documented on official transcripts in the case of serious mental health issues. Due to conflicting concerns amongst senators in December, the policy was tabled to the Jan. 21 meeting.

 In its examination, the working group found that the current practice of recording a “W” as the final grade on an official transcript has negative implications for students.

“The recording of a ‘W’ on an official transcript reportedly causes anxiety and prejudice to students, especially when applying for graduate school or professional programs,” the revised policy states. “The goal of this Policy is to set accurate, fair, and compassionate guidelines to address difficult situations students may encounter, such as mental and physical illness and personal tragedies.”

According to Senator Claire Stewart-Kanigan, SSMU Vice-President University Affairs, the working group also found that the presence of a “W”  on their transcript can cause distress for students as it is often reflective of a very difficult time in students lives, when they were unable to perform at the highest academic potential. 

During the previous meeting of Senate on Dec. 4, 2014, student senators argued that the policy should be extended to individual courses. Stewart-Kanigan also advocated strongly for this extension. 

“The student senators and myself voiced our concerns that we should seek to accommodate students who are able to continue with a reduced course load,” Stewart-Kanigan said. “Students experience unique situations and what might be manageable for one student may not be manageable for another.” 

Professor of Linguistics and Associate Provost (Policies, Procedures, and Equity) at McGill Lydia White who presented the motion to Senate,  explained that some senators voiced concerns about the integrity of the official transcript if the withdrawal policy were to be approved.

 “A number of senators who are members of the academic staff spoke against such an extension on the grounds that the McGill transcript is widely recognized as providing an honest record of the student’s performance and that the proposed policy would endanger the reputation and integrity of the McGill transcript,” White said.

Dena Coffman, a third-year Environment student, explained that she believes the policy revision will aid students experiencing difficult circumstances.

“I think it’s important for the university to support students who are dealing with issues of mental health or other forms of distress,” Coffman said. “These issues are already extremely difficult to manage, especially in the context of a university institution [….] This revision is a way for McGill to make it easier for students to care for themselves during difficult times.”

To address remaining concerns about the policy, White accepted an amendment from Stewart-Kanigan that the policy be reviewed during 2018.

“[The amendment] will allow us to assess the extent to which exceptional late withdrawals for a full term are requested under the policy and whether or not the aspects of the policy might need to be amended,” White explained. 

Now that the policy is in place, Stewart-Kanigan notes that data will have to be gathered to ensure that the policy is effectively supporting students.

“We will have to make sure that the policy remains on the university radar and ensure that the administration is critically examining the policy to see how it’s being applied and whether students are aware of this new practice,” she said. “We also want to ensure that administration is aware that we acknowledge that this policy isn’t perfect and keep them on task in looking at peer institutions.”

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