If, How, and When Institutions of Higher Education Grant Requests for Disability Accommodations Upon Parent Demands

Gabriel Castaño
Access and Strategic Enrollment, University of Colorado Denver

Karin Hunter-Byrd
College of Arts and Media, University of Colorado Denver

Janell Oberlander-Haefs
Vice President, Gillette College

Diana White
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Colorado Denver


This case presents challenges and complexities higher education leaders and Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) face regarding process and procedure related to learning disability accommodations, transition of individualized educational plans (IEP) from secondary education to postsecondary education, pressures faculty and staff face related to tenure or job status, and the impact influential community members have on established processes and regulations. Specifically, the case details a first-year Native American student-athlete with a disability whose parent is a prominent community member who did not follow the process for requesting disability accommodations. The parent contacts the president demanding the faculty grant an accommodation, implying that not doing so will adversely affect his donor status.

Keywords: classroom accommodations, disability, learning differences, multiculturalism

Cite as: Castaño, G. Hunter-Byrd, K., Oberlander-Haefs, J. & White, D. (2021). “We shouldn’t have to ask for this”: If, how, and when institutions of higher education grant requests for disability accommodations upon parent demands. Cases on Leadership for Equity and Justice in Higher Education, 2021(5).


This case takes place at Sunset Ridge University (SRU), a private university located in a Southwestern state. SRU is a medium-sized institution which serves approximately 4,600 undergraduate students, 1,100 graduate students, and employs just over 1,000 including full-time faculty, adjunct faculty, and staff. SRU is a teaching institution with a College of Business, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Education, and a newly founded College of Health and Wellness. SRU competes in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II athletics offering 22 men’s and women’s varsity sports teams and has strong community support for its athletic teams.

SRU’s undergraduate student population diversity is 56% Caucasian, 16% Hispanic or Latinx, 12% Black or African American, 7% Native American, 2% Asian or Pacific Islander, (7% Did Not Respond). The diversity mix at SRU does not appropriately represent the demographics of the region it serves which has a significantly higher Latinx and Native American population than these respective percentages. In recent years, SRU has seen modest overall enrollment declines, as many similar institutions have nationwide. Increasing enrollment of these two underrepresented minority groups is central to both the strategic enrollment management goals and to the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals at SRU, and is explicitly detailed in their most recent strategic plan document.

While SRU has long felt that they have effectively and appropriately served their regional tribal population, they also acknowledge that they could be doing even more. The relationship between SRU and area tribal people had strained over decisions made by an SRU president many decades earlier. SRU has made significant efforts to reestablish a relationship with the Native American population of the area over the years with little success until recently, when the new president developed a relationship with an influential member of the tribe. This blossoming relationship can help SRU work toward serving this student population and achieving the related goals in their strategic plan. SRU has recently developed plans to expand curriculum related to Native American history as a part of this initiative.

SRU differentiates itself in the region as a private institution that embraces diversity and is accessible for all students. Its smaller class sizes and low faculty to student ratio allow for strong interpersonal relationships between faculty, students, and staff. SRU touts its relationships with area businesses and the community at large, as it relates to helping students find their way in the world, by creating experiential educational opportunities through civic responsibility, activism, volunteer work, community service, and real-world internship opportunities.

Case Narrative

When envisioning a future career, Jordan knew that digital animation was the only major that felt right. As a student, being on the autism spectrum came with some challenges but creative work came naturally. Jordan was used to operating solo and had a keen and resourceful mind. Jordan wasn’t necessarily smarter than the other students but could often see patterns and designs that others didn’t, especially when it came to animation. Jordan could clearly remember sitting in a darkened theatre the first time, watching this fictional universe come to life, and it felt like coming home. Jordan was hooked by the fantasy and the idea that anything was possible in animation; there were no rules. Furthermore, the visuals were stunning, instantly beguiling, and Jordan knew a career in this field was it.

Jordan knew, as a Native American growing up in the Southwest, that this was not a typical career path for their people. So what? Jordan mused. If Obama can be a trailblazer, I can, too. The struggle was in relaying this information, especially to more than one person. Jordan struggled with the social anxiety that came with growing up “different,” but managed to get through even the most challenging situations thanks to some wonderful high school educators.

High school classmates would sometimes grow frustrated by Jordan’s lack of social connection, lack of interaction, and lack of ability to form real relationships. Despite that, Jordan was accepted by peers but also occasionally ignored. Jordan’s high school teachers learned how to work around the social anxiety issue, often allowing Jordan to skip group projects in favor of solo work. Jordan was secretly thrilled to see a “Jordan original” up on the screen in front of the class. The feedback—overwhelmingly positive and full of praise—made Jordan feel invincible and further convinced that animation was the right path.

Jordan worked as hard as any determined high school student, spending hours studying, taking exams, writing papers, and preparing for standardized tests. Jordan could usually talk with family members, having spent a lifetime making those connections and having them understand how to interact with someone with autism. Jordan disclosed to the family that the goal was to apply to SRU’s animation program. Initially Jordan’s family was skeptical about sending Jordan to college at all. The tribal history with SRU was contentious, but sending Jordan to college far from home would not be an option. Jordan’s enthusiasm and zeal for animation combined with the research Jordan did on SRU’s animation faculty proved that this was something worth considering and eventually won them over.

Other than animation, Jordan loved distance running most. The solitude, being outside, and the physical challenge were all right in Jordan’s wheelhouse. Cross-country is a team sport that required the occasional interactions with teammates, but the high school coach created practices that allowed Jordan to train alone. Jordan loved the test of physical stamina and endurance, loved that the only real competition was against oneself, and loved the way running could clear the mind and spirit. Jordan often thought of stories, visuals, and other elements for future animation projects while running and felt it was the perfect complement to animation. That SRU also had a strong cross-country program was a bonus, and Jordan’s father said that making the team would be no problem. The sport that had so enriched Jordan’s life could continue to do so through participation on the college team.

Jordan’s father, one of the tribal elders and a person of substantial influence in both the Native American and surrounding communities, felt this might be the perfect time to mend the bridge with SRU. Many years ago, an arrogant University president had taken advantage of the generosity of Jordan’s people as well as their land, which resulted in strained relations between the institution and the tribe. Now, many years later and two Presidents removed, Jordan’s father saw the value of revisiting a relationship with SRU and how this could benefit his tribe and the community. Jordan’s people felt that by partnering with the University, they may be able to encourage more of their tribe to attend college. They could raise awareness for the tribe and the lands, as well as interact with the surrounding communities, building connections so that all would benefit.

After conversations with President Steele at SRU, Jordan’s father was comfortable with both ideas. Knowing that Jordan would have small class sizes and attentive faculty—which helped in high school—he supported Jordan’s decision to pursue higher education at SRU. The relationship between the tribe and the University looked promising and mutually beneficial. Jordan’s father even considering gifting the University with some sacred tribal artifacts, which the Anthropology and Art History Departments could maintain and display in the University’s library gallery. Additionally, for those tribal members who were skeptical of SRU, he felt that having his child enrolled there would be symbolic in the effort to repair and rebuild the relationship.

The application and art portfolio that Jordan submitted was impressive, and that, along with decent test scores and a solid GPA, resulted in the “golden envelope” arriving from the admissions office.

Fall came and Jordan began college studies. The animation classes were all any college student could hope for: fun, challenging, and providing the type of experiential learning in the field that one could only dream of. In these classes, Jordan found a group of kindred souls, connecting with classmates over their shared passion for animation. Jordan may not have been the most popular first-year student on campus, but the connection with this small group of fellow animators was enough.

When Professor Barnes assigned a group animation midterm project, Jordan cruised along as usual. Jordan had always submitted individual assignments whenever group work had been assigned in high school—why would college be any different? The due date arrived, and Jordan presented a solo project that was of particular pride. Professor Barnes refused to accept it in lieu of the group assignment, giving Jordan a failing grade of zero points, explaining that all students were expected to participate in a group project as indicated in the syllabus.

Immediately after class, Jordan approached Professor Barnes and stated that due to the extreme social anxiety, Jordan “didn’t do” groups and fled the room in tears. This was the first Professor Barnes had heard of these challenges from Jordan, and he had not received a request for modifications or accommodations from the disability services office.

This was indeed the policy of the institution, as some years in the past, a student sued when denied admission to the upper-level animation classes, asserting that other students were given alternative assignments that allowed them to receive better grades, and hence they were admitted to the competitive major instead. Focused on avoiding a repeat of this situation, the institution made it very clear to Professor Barnes that no accommodations were to be granted without involvement of the disability services office. Professor Barnes, being about two years away from applying for tenure, was not about to skirt the rules and jeopardize his future at the institution.

Date: 28 October 2019
From: Barnes, Howard <howard.barnes@sru.edu>
To: ‘Jordan at SRU - Student List’
Subject: Today after class

Hi Jordan,

I’m sorry about the incident after class today. I am a bit concerned about you after you left so abruptly. College level work is challenging for all students, especially for students in their first semester. Thank you for letting me know about your anxiety, I appreciate you sharing that with me, and you should know that you are not alone. SRU has a supportive culture, and we have resources available that you might find helpful. If you think you may need additional help, we have tutoring options that you can explore, or if you would like to speak with someone about your anxiety, we have health and counseling services available for you here at SRU as well. I have provided contact information for both departments below. I look forward to seeing you back in class next week.

Prof. Barnes

Later that night, Jordan called home, explaining the grade received and the email from Professor Barnes. Jordan’s mother was reassuring and said, “A zero?! That just won’t do. But, don’t worry honey, we will take care of this,” and promptly went to find her husband. Once Jordan’s father heard about the situation, he was troubled. How could this even happen? he thought. Why would this teacher expect a student like Jordan to submit a group assignment? I thought we were building a new relationship with SRU, even to the point of creating a partnership. Now Jordan is there less than one semester and this happens. They’d better do right by my child. I’ve already contacted the President’s Office about the donation of artifacts, and we’ve got that meeting set for next week to talk about the land share plan and all the other projects. He thought about all the work they had already put into this partnership: zoning reviews, legal teams, anthropologic and social studies, town halls with the communities, talking with the Student Government Association. The elders had even performed a ritual to bless the land and wish good fortune for all involved. They now had piles of data illustrating the projected growth of community medical care and public health, increased access to higher education, improved safety and wellness, developments for decaying blocks of real estate; months of work had already been completed. He thought of all the good these projects would do for his people, as well as the city and surrounding areas. I don’t want to abandon all of this hard work and the good relationships we are building, but my child comes first. If Jordan’s mother and I aren’t looking out, who will? Kids like Jordan often fall through the cracks, exactly for reasons like these. He looked out over the expanse of land in front of his house. Let’s see what SRU comes up with, and it’d better be good. Then I’ll know whether we can stay in the game. He turned out the light and went to bed.

Date: 29 October 2019
From: <Number1Dad@email.com>
To: ‘Office of the President’
Subject: We need to talk

President Steele,

As you know I have worked hard with my elders to secure a partnership between our tribe and SRU. We have extended the proverbial olive branch to provide you with artifacts for your museum and letting you use our land for educational purposes. I have trusted you with my most valuable treasure… my child. Last night, Jordan called home in tears, having received a zero on a class midterm assignment because it was not done as part of group work. I am not naive and realize college is a challenge, both academically and socially, but I thought we had an agreement. You assured me that Jordan would be in good hands at SRU due to your small class sizes and attentive faculty. Is this how you treat all of your students? My people have long been marginalized, as have students with learning differences. I expected SRU to be different, especially based on our conversations. I am having second thoughts about our upcoming meeting and partnership. I am a reasonable man, so please consider the following requests: I would like Professor Barnes to accept the individual assignment. None of Jordan’s professors should expect any group work moving forward. Please reply to confirm when this is complete so that I can be assured of Jordan’s success and therefore continued enrollment at SRU. If it is not, then we have no reason to meet next week as planned.

Upon opening her email, President Steele immediately emailed Professor Barnes and members of her cabinet requesting a meeting to gain clarity on the situation and to develop a plan on how to respond.

Teaching Notes

This case was designed for use in graduate courses or professional development settings related to higher education administration and may also be helpful to students or others interested in learning and teaching self-advocacy. It presents a complex and multifaceted scenario representative of those faced by today’s academic leaders and institutions. The case encourages readers to consider challenging legal, political, and social issues while balancing the needs of students, academic standards, and personal integrity. It specifically explores issues pertaining to students with learning differences, disability and accommodation services, academic freedom, diversity and multiculturalism, political influence, and power.

This study features a specific course within a program at a private institution of higher education with limited history of serving underrepresented student populations. This institution is working to expand enrollment of Native American tribal students in the region and enhance curriculum pertaining to Native American history. This scenario asks readers to consider the political implications faced when outside pressure threatens to create a divide between a tribal leader who is critical to the university’s advancement agenda, the President’s strategic implementation of the desired Native American history curriculum, and between college administrators and officials themselves. Central to this case are the admissions office, office of disability services, athletics department, a faculty member, the President, and members of the President’s cabinet, including officials from the office of advancement.

This case highlights the complex relationships that must be navigated throughout institutions of higher education and offers a variety of themes to explore. It will be helpful to professionals who wish to consider the political implications of leadership from various perspectives, what influence professionals have across the institution, and the role of power and privilege in this higher educational context. Those who study may wish to debate this case from the perspective of a student with a disability learning to navigate services in higher education and their family. They may also wish to think about political implications the President must consider regarding the relationship with the influential tribal leader who is partnering with the institution. Yet another potential perspective is to view the case through the lens of a faculty member who is navigating the manner in which they approach offering accommodations for students with disabilities or who could find themselves receiving these requests from university leadership as opposed to receiving them from the office of disability services.

From a human resource frame, one might consider that “organizations are cooperative systems, not the products of mechanical engineering” (Perrow, 1973). In what way would this line of thought influence the decision making of the leaders involved in this case?

Maslow (1943) suggests that humans are motivated by a hierarchy of needs. In what ways might you apply this theory to the key individuals in this case? How might Jordan’s safety and security needs be impacted by the group work? One might also consider, “It is possible that students without services in an academically rigorous setting would struggle until they begin to fail, and only then begin to search for the help they were entitled to and should have been informed about prior to the beginning of their college career” (Cawthon& Cole, 2010). Utilizing the lens of Maslow, where on the hierarchy would you focus to develop procedures to ensure students are aware of services?

Discussion Topics

  1. Politics - From a political approach, one might wish to explore the concept that power is dependent on where resources come from by identifying what stakeholder groups are in conflict in this case. Sleznick suggest that leaders are concerned with critical decisions, rather than routines. “The first task Selznick describes is the creation and maintenance of the organization’s character” (Washington, Boal, & Davis, 2008).
  2. How might this lead to conflict with the others involved in this case?
  3. Consider what “loose networks” are involved in this case. Discuss the various coalitions and what their interests are. What might the divergent interests be?
  4. Consider the political implications of not addressing the situation brought to the attention of the President. What consequences are there? When, if ever, is it appropriate for an executive administrator to override a faculty member’s decision? To choose to deviate from a policy?
  5. Looking through a slightly different political lens, one can view organizations as political systems that have power struggles over resources. Jordan’s father has the ability to provide a lot of resources for the institution. How might this play into the president’s decision on how she moves forward?
  6. Human Resources - From a human resource lens, one would consider that the people involved in this case should be given consideration throughout the decision-making process (Perrow, 1973). In what way would this line of thought influence the President?
  7. How might looking through this theoretical lens influence the approach the President takes with the leadership team?
  8. At the basic level of human relations theory is the notion that leaders are kind, courteous, loyal, etc. (Perrow, 1973). What are the limitations of this thinking as applied to this case?
  9. Given that, “Psychological disabilities are the least understood and least academically supported disability at institutes of higher education” (Belch, 2011; Megivern, Pellerito, & Mowbray, 2003), how might a leader develop strategies that would lead to a positive learning environment for students with these disabilities?
  10. Structural - Consider this case from a structural perspective, by looking at formal rules, policies, and goals.
  11. What policies need to be taken into consideration?
  12. What alternative options can the faculty member offer? Is the faculty member obligated to do so? Does this impact learning outcomes?
  13. How do you manage the tension between the policy and the misunderstanding that has occurred?
  14. How might tenure concerns be impacting Prof. Barnes’ reaction?
  15. As part of Herzberg’s (1959) Motivator-Hygiene Theory (also known as the two-factor theory), policies and administrative practices can adversely affect job satisfaction. How might this play into Prof. Barnes’ feelings about this situation? How the president feels?
  16. Power - consider the five bases of power based on the work of French and Raven (1959): coercive, reward, legitimate, expert, and referent. Go through each stakeholder in this specific case and discuss the types of power each has.
  17. Communication – Consider this case from a communication lens by reviewing how written, verbal, and nonverbal communication may have influenced the scenario development and escalation.
  18. What is the student’s perspective of how the faculty, staff, and the institution itself created and managed this situation?
  19. How can institutions of higher education create and evaluate policies and processes to ensure that they are student focused as opposed to institutionally focused?
  20. Consider the implications of what communication methods were selected for this case study? How might other communication methods come into play, such as involving social media or connection to media outlets?
  21. How do titles, roles, positions, gender, and/or identity impact the power and privilege exhibited in communication styles, approaches, and outcomes in this case?
  22. Context - The case is deliberately vague in several regards. It is never made clear what gender Jordan identifies with and neither masculine (him/his) nor feminine (she/her) pronouns are used for Jordan throughout the case. Also, minimal detail is provided regarding President Steele’s background other than she is the current President and female. What bearing does this lack of background have on the case analysis?
  23. Might this case be viewed differently if the reader knew more about the gender Jordan identified with?
  24. Would the analysis shift if we knew more about President Steel’s background, such as if she previously occupied a different position within the organization, such as Provost, or if she sat on the Board of Trustees?
  25. What if President Steel herself was Native American and an active part of a tribal community?


Belch, H. A. (2011). Understanding the experiences of students with psychiatric disabilities: A foundation for creating conditions of support and success. New Directions for Student Services, 134(1), 73-94.

Cawthon, S. W., & Cole, E. V. (2010). Postsecondary Students Who Have a Learning Disability: Student Perspectives on Accommodations Access and Obstacles. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 23(2), 112–128.

French, J. R. P. & Raven, B. The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright and A. Zander. Group dynamics. New York: Harper & Row, 1959.

Herzberg, F. (1959). The motivation to work.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0054346

Megivern, D., Pellerito, S., & Mowbray, C. (2003). Barriers to higher education for individuals with psychiatric disabilities. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 26(3), 217.

Perrow, C. (1973). The short and glorious history of organizational theory. Organizational Dynamics 73 (2), 2-15.

Washington, M., Boal, K., & Davis, J. (2008). Institutional Leadership: Past, Present, and Future. The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism, 720.

About the Authors

Gabriel Castaño

Gabriel Castaño has spent his career in Strategic Enrollment Management. As a first-generation college student, he is passionate about and committed to supporting equity through access to higher education. Gabriel is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado Denver where he also serves as Assistant Vice Chancellor for Strategic Enrollment.

Karin Hunter-Byrd

Karin Hunter-Byrd (she/her/hers) is currently the Director of Advising & Student Services at the CU Denver College of Arts & Media. Karin holds master’s degrees in Humanities and Social Science, as well as undergraduate degrees in French and Photography. She is a native Coloradoan who enjoys reading, baking, fitness, and spending time with animals.

Janell Oberlander-Haefs

Janell Oberlander serves as Vice President of Gillette College in Gillette, WY. She is passionate about access to education in rural communities, two-year colleges, and technical education. Oberlander is a first-generation student and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado Denver. She is the mother of two daughters and has been married to her husband, Steve, for twenty-seven years.