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Jul 24, 2023

Every Exception Tends to Become a Precedent

A common saying in the legal world goes, "Hard cases make bad law." This proverb warns us that unique or extreme circumstances can lead to decisions that set undesirable precedents. When transferred to the academic setting, it takes on a similar cautionary tale: every exception tends to become a precedent. And in universities, as in many other organizations, flexibility is indeed an expensive luxury.

Universities are institutions governed by rules, regulations, and policies that establish a predictable and equitable environment for all. They are designed to ensure that everyone understands what is expected and how to achieve success. These rules aren't intended to stifle innovation or creativity but to create a fair and level playing field. 

However, the urge to accommodate exceptional circumstances or individual needs can sometimes lead us down a path of creating exceptions. Whether these exceptions are made out of empathy, a desire for inclusivity, or to facilitate academic progress, the result is the same: a divergence from the rule. And once an exception is made, the challenge begins: how to explain to everyone else that the rules still apply?

The dilemma becomes more complex when we consider that the criteria we thought were exceptional might turn out to be more common than anticipated. Perhaps a request initially deemed rare becomes increasingly frequent. Should everyone then be allowed the same leeway? The idealistic answer might be a resounding "yes," but the practicalities of running an educational institution often dictate otherwise.

Moreover, keeping exceptions a secret does no one any good. Even with the best intentions at heart, such hidden variations can create an atmosphere of mistrust and perceived unfairness. Suddenly, the act of kindness towards one individual morphs into a source of discontent among the masses. Compassion and good intentions can, paradoxically, damage group morale.

Yet, it would be unrealistic and even inhumane to argue that exceptions should never occur. Life is messy, complicated, and unpredictable. Exceptions will inevitably be needed and made. The challenge then lies in how we handle these exceptions.

To navigate this conundrum, it is crucial to establish a transparent process for exceptions. Such a process should have clear and consistent criteria, ensuring that exceptions are not arbitrary but based on well-defined circumstances. This approach does not merely promote fairness but also allows for flexibility where necessary without undermining the broader system of rules and expectations.

Each exception has the potential to become a precedent. Be mindful of the rules you bend today, for they may become the expectations of tomorrow. By handling exceptions with care, transparency, and consistency, we can maintain the trust and respect of our academic communities while still attending to the unique needs of individuals.

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