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chin-athlete-absence-01
Credit: Caroline Chin

"Leges sine moribus vanae" — the motto of our University. Roughly translated from Latin, it means “laws without morals are useless.” 

Why, then, are class absences due to varsity sport competitions not recognized under school policy as excused absences? 

Penn has no official policy on excused or unexcused absences. The closest consideration for an “excused” absence is when a student reports that they will be missing class due to the observation of religious and secular holidays. This means that the only time that students can miss class without penalty to their grade is for religious reasons. 

The Course Absence Report was created to promote better communication between professors and students for absences, but at the end of the day, whether or not an absence is excused is “up to the discretion of the professor.”

That discretion means professors apply the policy unevenly. Many professors have been extremely accommodating, allowing me to take exams at meets or complete them beforehand. 

However, there have been a number of times where despite filling out a course absence report, I was told by professors that competition was not a valid excuse. My grade often suffered as a result. 

This felt like a slap in the face. The undertone of their dismissal was, “your athletic contribution to the school means nothing to me.”

The reasons for Penn’s policy date all the way back to the formation of the Ivy League itself. Ironically, the formation of the elite Ivy League was premised on sports. The 1954 Ivy Group Agreement joined eight schools as a separate NCAA Division I athletic conference. The universities decided to form the League in an effort to preserve Victorian ideals of athletics — namely, amateurism. They believed in denying athletic scholarships, as it would protect the value of sport and emphasize higher education. 

Varsity athletics are differentiated from other extracurricular involvements because athletes are specifically recruited to compete against other schools in the League for prestige and pride. Sports add value to the university.

Ivy League student athletes do not receive scholarship money for participation in varsity sports. Indeed, by participating in varsity athletics, athletes are doing the school a service. 

To be clear, I am an avid proponent of amateurism. I’ve been a member of Penn women’s swimming for four years and was previously captain. I wouldn’t have committed to Penn had I desired financial compensation to swim. I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.

What I didn’t realize upon coming here was that my absences for competition would be blatantly disregarded by the school. 

This is not a matter of “special treatment.” It’s a matter of fairness. 

Say a professor allows for two absences without penalty. If I have to miss a week of class representing the school at an Ivy League competition, those absences count towards that total. What am I supposed to do if I get sick later in the semester? A non-athlete would be able to take advantage of the attendance buffer. Because I’m an athlete, I don’t get that same advantage. 

I know I am not the only student athlete who has experienced this. 

Changing absence policy to explicitly excuse athletes that miss class for sports competition would have a huge impact. The university could provide professors with a list of student athletes in their class at the beginning of each semester and coordinate with coaches to make accommodations accordingly. Course absence reports, despite their good intentions, can often not be effective with especially stubborn professors.

At an institutional level, this would reflect Penn’s commitment to supporting both the student and athlete. Leaving excusal of absence up to “discretion of the professor” leaves room for pre-existing biases that professors may have against athletes to take hold. This is ultimately unfair to student athletes. 

It’s time to truly rethink how adequately Penn is supporting the success of its student athletes — not only in the classroom, but also in their respective sports. At the very least, the University should realize that promising student athletes to be fully supported in both their academic and athletic endeavors but not supporting them at an institutional level is morally wrong. And if the absence policy as it relates to student athletes lacks moral precedent, is it really that useful?


NANCY HU is a College senior from Sarasota, Fla., and a former captain of Penn women’s swimming. Comments can be directed to dpsports@thedp.com.

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