College and University Students

How to Create a Student Choice Policy

Unlike secondary and elementary schools, most colleges and universities do not have an overriding school code that is dictated by the state or an overarching governing body. As a result, individual institutions prescribe their own guidelines on issues such as dissection and vivisection in the classroom. Oftentimes, students are at the whims and personal biases of professors or departments, rather than having a policy on which they can rely. Informal dissection policies can change depending on the professor, the department, and the institution. This produces confusing situations at the collegiate level for students who choose to conscientiously object to dissection and vivisection in the classroom.

In surveys of colleges and university policies on this issue, many science chairpersons have indicated that their institution has an informal policy of offering alternatives to dissection for students who object on ethical grounds. However, offering an alternative to students and guaranteeing that students have the right to an alternative is a subtle, yet powerful difference. Each of these institutions vary in the control they give students in dictating what they are and are not comfortable with. They also vary in the type of alternative that is provided. For some, an alternative may include watching a lab partner dissect or vivisect an animal. Others provide few alternatives, leaving students to learn the necessary materials from the textbook alone. The most proactive institutions have alternative labs, which include computer-simulated dissections.

In all of these institutions, ultimately the professor dictates the amount of academic freedom he/she gives to the student. He/she may also judge who is qualified as an ethical or religious objector and who is 'merely squeamish.' Such judgment calls can have serious ramifications for the student being judged. Without formal policies, even these less than ideal policies are tenuous. When an instructor leaves or changes his/her perspective that change can affect the students. If the instructor who leaves is replaced by an individual who feels that dissection is vital, the students who are dependant upon the new instructor for setting policy will have a far different experience than with the old professor. Informal policies such as these leave the students depending solely on the impulse of the instructor rather than rational policy.

Steps in creating a student choice policy on a college campus

The first step is to start a group or club dedicated to your efforts. Having an official club on campus with the purpose of creating a choice policy for students can have plenty of benefits. Most campuses will grant clubs funding, rooms for events, tabling opportunities, and other forms of outreach. Most schools make it fairly easy to start a club. You may need to get in touch with your Student Government Association for paper work to fill out and information on how your college/university creates clubs.

Once you have started the process, you need to attract members to your club. The larger your club, the easier it will be to accomplish your goals. It is not difficult to find like-minded students on campus, who may be interested in your mission. It sounds very basic, but one of the easiest things to do is simply be friendly. For example, if you see someone around the cafeteria or student union center who tends to eat an animal-friendly diet, or wears pins, shirts, etc., with animal-friendly or environmentally-friendly slogans, chances are they would love to join a club with the purpose of helping animals. It would be worth your time to introduce yourself and discuss your plans.

Promoting your club or student group is a critical part of gaining involvement and awareness. You can make fliers with the exact time and location of your club meetings and post them all over your school. You may also be able to get tabling space in your cafeteria. At your table, you can show videos or offer samples of cruelty-free cosmetics or vegan foods. Be sure to ask your student government association what other options you have for advertising. Many colleges and universities also have campus-wide voicemails that you can send out. Explore your options at your school.

It is important that you communicate with members of your biology and/or psychology departments in order to find out if your school has a student choice policy and if so, what it includes. If your university has a policy, you want to make sure that it is well known. Since you had to ask about the existence of a policy, chances are that there is much more awareness that needs to be raised.

Your Student Government Association is an important alliance in your quest to enact a student choice policy. If the biology or psychology departments refuse your request, you will want to see what you can do as a student to get an amendment passed. Gaining the support of the student government can help you access a meeting with the University Senate, which is the group in charge of making decisions that effect the entire campus.

You will begin to understand the chain of command at your college/ university and how this will impact your efforts. If you approach your University Senate prior to your Student Government Association or the Dean before the Biology Chairperson, you are likely to be re-directed to the appropriate person. It is always best to start at the bottom and work up.

Keeping people on campus aware of the issue is important. Through your tabling efforts, you can help achieve this. You can set up speaking engagements, write letters to your campus and community newspaper, take out an advertisement in your campus paper, and create t-shirts or promotional items to highlight your efforts.

Show your biology department, Senate, and entire school that there is support for your efforts on campus. This can be done through proactive petitioning. You can speak to other student groups for support, and you can have as many students as possible write personal letters to the administration. Many people may not want to write letters, but are willing to sign one, so you can help them by writing several versions yourself and for others to sign. Keep in mind that letters from faculty members from any department are always effective. Finding allies on the faculty is a smart move.

Look for support that is not always right there in front of you. It may significantly help your efforts. If there is a possibility of speaking with anyone on your Board of Trustees, you should try to do so. The Board of Trustees have heavy financial involvement with your college/university, and if they can give any support to the issue, it may help.

You can also get faculty members from other schools who offer alternatives in their classrooms to write letters on your behalf to your department, Dean, or Senate. Remember to keep a copy of every letter on file.

Since parents often lend financial support to students, their input makes a difference. Involving parents in the effort to call the university and write letters may also be a good idea.

Additionally, you will need to get a proactive meeting schedule underway, both with your biology or psychology department, and Dean or Senate, depending where you are in the process at your university. A good schedule is to meet with someone at least once a month to keep the issue at the forefront, and to give the involved parties updates on the support or efforts that are underway. Keeping the meetings positive, while continually offering new ideas on where and how to use/access alternatives can only work in your favor.

Lastly, getting frustrated and giving up won't benefit you or the animals. If things seems like they are at a standstill, continue to set up meetings, have petitions signed, and gather support. In the process, however, you may want to look into taking classes at neighboring or local colleges/ universities, where animals are not part of the curriculum, so you can continue towards your degree without compromising your ethical principals. But first make sure that your university or department will accept/ transfer the credits.

Sample student choice policy

Creating an effective student choice policy must involve choosing the correct wording so that enough students are protected when they want to opt for an alternative. The policy must specify who it protects, whether students in specific departments or in the university.

A sample policy follows:

In an effort to provide all students with a challenging academic environment, the institution will offer alternatives to the use of animals in laboratory exercises. Alternatives will be offered in courses that require live animal experimentation, insect collection, dissection, or any activity that involves animals and their body parts.

1. Responsibility of the Student

The Student must make the professor aware in a timely fashion that s/he would like to use alternatives.

2. Responsibilities of the Professor

The Professor will make students aware at the start of class that they have the option of using alternatives. The professor will not penalize any student for using an alternative.

S/he must ensure that the alternative used does not involve an animal or its parts and does not require the student to observe others who are dissecting an animal or its parts.

3. Responsibility of the University

The University must ensure that the policy is incorporated into existing policy guidelines and the students' handbook. The course descriptions must list if tcourse requires the use of an animal in a lab, and inform students that they have the right to choose an alternative method. Students must not be penalized for choosing to use an alternative, and student complaints about professors who are penalizing students should be investigated.