Specialist’s contract renewed after controversy last year
Dalhousie made the decision this July to renew Learning Disabilities Specialist Neera Datta’s contract at Dal, but not without major changes in scope.
Datta’s contract had been discontinued this past March by the same budget cuts that have led to increased tuition rates.
“At first, there was a lot of anger and confusion from students and faculty as to why her position had been cut,” says Jennifer Volsky Rushton of Dalhousie Counselling Services. “There was a lot of confusion with students wondering why they hadn’t been consulted, and how the new bursary system would work.”
Vice-President of Student Services Bonnie Neuman was faced with making the original cut. “I don’t believe in hiding the decisions that have to be made,” she said to the Dalhousie Gazette earlier this spring.
The previous media ban on the topic suggested otherwise. In March 2011, Neuman banned all members of Dal Counseling Services from talking to the media about the issue. That ban is no longer in effect.
Before Datta’s contract was renewed, a bursary program was put in place to support students.
“We believe that since our students will have the means—either through their family’s support or through this bursary program—to purchase these services, that more local expertise will quickly develop to meet their needs, and that these professionals will locate their offices close to our campus and their campus clients,” said Neuman before Datta was re-hired.
A smaller scale version of the bursary program is still in effect.
Datta offers preliminary assessments (which can cost upwards of $1,500), and a specialized study-technique education to students with learning disabilities.
Psychology student Matthew Fleischmann says, “Students like me decided to take a stand. Tons of parents bombarded the president’s office. Even students without disabilities stood up and said, ‘This is wrong.’ I was very impressed with how the DSU took charge.”
“Ultimately the university realized how important the service was, so President Tom Traves and the DSU agreed to fund the position. It was underestimated the type of response the issue would get,” says Rushton. “We had not given up on keeping Neera here.”
Many students wondered why it was considered appropriate to make this cut in the first place.
“I think a big issue is a lot of people don’t understand what it means to live with a learning disability. Dal really just provided the bare minimum, and I think it has a lot to do with what is viewed as fair,” Fleischmann says. “What lots of other students don’t understand is that students with a learning disability don’t start on the same level.”
With financial support from the DSU and Tom Traves, Datta’s highly demanded services remain intact. But though her contract is now renewed, many students are still left without support.
University of King’s College students were initially left out of the new contract, but after King’s President William Barker spoke to Dalhousie administration, that decision was reversed.
For Nova Scotia College of Art and Design students, the options look bleak. “Many of us have been left feeling like we have nowhere to go. We are overwhelmed and do not have the money to pay for private help,” says NSCAD student Morag Schonken.
Neuman says NSCAD was left out because demand on Datta was too great. “There was a greater level of need than what Neera was able to manage with all three schools,” she says.
“No one has ever debated the need or value of this service,” says Neuman. “The challenge was that a cut needed to be made.”