For many students, minor anxiety at some point during the Duke career is common—after all, Duke is a stressful place. For students confronting serious mental or physical issues, a medical leave of absence can provide the necessary break they need to recover and refocus. The University and its policies should be understanding and supportive of students who are considering taking medical leaves of absence.
However, Duke’s policy is far from understanding. The policy mandates that students placed on medical leave may not participate in student activities, visit campus, or return to Duke until “two semesters following the semester in which the leave is granted or as soon thereafter as they are deemed healthy.” These rules are overly restrictive and do not take into account the needs of students and the varying nature of their health concerns.
The process for returning to campus following a medical leave is also restrictive. To return, students must undergo an extensive reapplication process. A student's prior medical history, medical documentation, application essays and letters of support are all taken in consideration when a student wishes to return to Duke. These requirements give the impression that medical leave is not just a time for recovery, but also a period during which students must re-demonstrate their capacity to attend Duke. The procedural hoops for students returning from leave are unnecessarily burdensome and may deter students from taking a medical leave of absence.
Furthermore, readmission is reviewed by the Office of Student Returns—the same office that reviews applications from students returning from disciplinary leave. The crossover problematically groups disciplinary and medical leave students in the same category when they are very different in nature. Given the technical nature of medical issues, lay admissions officers who are not specifically trained may be ill prepared to properly assess a student’s readiness to return. Ultimately, leaves of absence for disciplinary and medical reasons are different and Duke’s policies should address those differences.
The simple remedy to Duke’s error-ridden medical-leave policy is to personalize the process. Duke should adopt the medical profession’s model where patients are evaluated and treated according to their individual circumstances. Counseling and Psychological Services, academic deans, the student’s medical consultants and the Office of Student Returns should maintain an open line of communication with the student to determine the best course of action. Not all students need a full two semesters off, but others may need more. Some students may benefit from visiting friends on campus as they rehabilitate their conditions, while others may be best keeping a distance. Given that students on medical leave have already demonstrated that they belong by being admitted to the University, the reapplication process should be a mere formality, not a rigorous, stress-inducing analysis of the student’s productivity while away.
If Duke has its students’ best interests in mind, it should recognize the importance of flexibility and understanding to a proper recovery. Considering the persistence of “effortless perfection” as a subtle norm of campus culture, a student’s mere admission of a severe personal problem, particularly a mental illness, takes courage. To couple strict rules for students on medical leave with a misguided and misassessed reapplication process serves only to deter students from making what might be the correct decision to leave. That is both dangerous and counter to the university’s developmental charge.