A Struggle By Degrees

FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY, CERTAIN GRADUATION requirements at Boston University's College of Arts and Sciences have remained unchanged: no math and foreign-language credits, no diploma. So two years ago, when Jon Westling, BU provost at the time and now president, discovered that about a dozen learning-disabled students each year were substituting classes like ""Anthropology of Money'' for algebra and ""Arts of Japan'' for Spanish, he says he was ""astonished.'' While course substitutions are granted to learning-disabled students at many colleges, they're not required by law. And Westling was adamant that BU abolish them. ""We have a responsibility to ensure that our degrees mean what they say,'' he says.

Twenty years ago, learning-disabled students were largely unheard of at the college level. But with greater support in earlier school years, many now consider higher education a reasonable goal. Since 1988, the number of college freshmen reporting a learning disability has more than doubled nationwide to about 45,000. For years, many enrolled at BU, drawn to the university's Learning Disabilities Support Services (LDSS), long considered one of the nation's best. By 1995, about 500 LD students were enrolled at the 30,000-student campus.

But Westling, a historian and former Rhodes scholar, had his doubts. He was the protEgE of John Silber, BU's colorful and cantankerous president who buffed the school's image while never hesitating to speak his mind. Once he was named Silber's successor, Westling went on the attack himself. Despite having no training in learning disabilities, Westling reined in the LDSS. He halted course substitutions and reviewed the files of all students seeking such extra support as note takers, tape recorders and extended time on exams. And he declared BU would no longer accept LD diagnoses that were more than three years old, requiring students to be retested.

The reaction was swift and chaotic. Two LDSS officials resigned. And BU's learning-disabled students were incensed. ""I was born dyslexic, I still have dyslexia and I will have it till the day I die,'' says Elizabeth Guckenberger, a BU law student. ""Retesting at the college level is absurd.'' Last year, Guckenberger and nine other students sued Westling and BU, charging that the new policies discriminated against students with disabilities. Federal laws require that educational institutions provide ""reasonable accommodations'' to LD students. Aggravating matters was the personal nature of the conflict. The students claimed that Westling had humiliated them with speeches decrying ""the plague of learning disabilities.'' In one address, Westling described an LD freshman he called ""Somnolent Samantha,'' whose requirements included a recap from the professor when she dozed off in class. There was a problem with the anecdote. When the case went to trial last spring, Westling testified that ""the figure of Samantha is a fiction.''

Two months ago, in a landmark decision, U.S. district Judge Patti Saris ruled that, despite revisions in BU procedures since the lawsuit was filed, Westling's 1995 policies violated federal law. BU had failed to give proper notice of its policy changes, and had thus delayed or denied reasonable accommodations. Saris ordered BU to pay nearly $30,000 in damages to six of the plaintiffs. And she criticized Westling for actions motivated by ""uninformed stereotypes.''

But Westling won several points, too. The judge dismissed complaints about the mathematics requirement and gave the university till January to explain why its foreign-language requirement was reasonable. In a complex decision, Saris said BU was not required to permit course substitutions that it felt diluted its academic standards. Westling insists that he recognizes that ""genuine'' disabilities exist. But he still worries that extremists seek to ""turn every intellectual deficit into a disability.'' The truce at BU remains tense.