Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Course Syllabus is Not a Contract

Here's a really great article that came to my attention on the abusive notion (or at least, sloppy analogy) that "the course syllabus is a legal contract": Rumore, Martha M. "The Course Syllabus: Legal Contract or Operator’s Manual?." American journal of pharmaceutical education 80.10 (2016). Some excerpts:
For several decades the literature has referred to syllabi as legal documents and/or contracts between students and professors. A review of the legal precedents reveals that syllabi are not considered contracts because the courts refuse thus far to recognize educational malpractice or breach of contract as a cause of action...

Based on the literature review and the search of university websites, identification or declaration of syllabi as contracts was evident, including widespread use of the term “learning contract.” For the past several decades, much of the literature has referred to syllabi as contracts and invoked the term “contract” or “learning contract” when referring to syllabi. Both faculty members and students appear to view a syllabus as a contract...

Although there have only been a handful of cases involving syllabi, the courts have consistently ruled that a syllabus is not a contract. In these cases, students brought lawsuits for breach of contract where the professor did not follow the syllabus or applied a different grade assessment... Students have been unsuccessful in asserting these claims, and courts remain reluctant to create a cause of action for either breach of contract or educational malpractice. Courts have generally ruled so because it is difficult to define the duty to educate; causation is difficult to determine; courts are reluctant to insert themselves into public policy issues such as the quality of education; and such interference by the courts would open a floodgate of litigation from academically unsuccessful students...

Some authors and university websites explicitly state a syllabus is a contract between the professor and students. Claiming a syllabus is a contract might produce a different legal outcome. While there may not be harm in thinking a syllabus is a contract, there may be legal risk in proclaiming it so...

Contracts are legally enforceable documents; syllabi are not. Syllabi have persisted in the culture of higher education and are foundational parts of the pharmacy curricula that encourage students to develop an acceptance of a lifelong responsibility for learning. For decades, syllabi have been referred to in the literature as contracts between students and professors. In the handful of cases involving syllabi, the claims have been mostly for breach of contract. To date, courts have not recognized claims of breach of contract for syllabi and do not consider syllabi as contracts.  


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