Who decides your fate? Who has the right to make life-and-death decisions on your behalf? You may not know it, but, for many of you, it happens be the University of Texas at Austin. I am writing this article to bring to the student body’s attention a policy that, at its very core, violates a right to which each and every one of us is entitled. It is the right of medical determination that many of us may be signing away without even realizing it.
Let me start by describing who I am and why I am writing this. My name is Vance Roper, and I am a graduate student and disabled Army veteran. I am writing this as a student, disabled veteran and concerned citizen. I suffered a severe, traumatic brain injury during my service, and, as such, have very specific medical needs. I do not speak about my injury often or publicly, and I hesitate to do so now; however, my history drives my motivation and action on this issue. I joined the Army and served my country proudly with the belief that, as a country, we stand for so much that is right: the freedoms we espouse and the rights we hold firm. When we, as a people, lie down in the face of violations of our rights, we are no better than those who strive to strip our rights away from us.
Time and again, courts and public opinion have affirmed that a student does not give up his or her rights just by attending a particular school. Yet that is exactly the situation we face today. I recently learned that the University of Texas at Austin requires any student traveling to an event that happens to be sponsored/sanctioned by the University to fill out a medical authorization form titled Authorization for Emergency Medical Treatment. This form, in its complete and utter vagueness, removes the medical determination right from University students. Take the phrase at the bottom of the form:
“I, the undersigned, do hereby authorize The University of Texas at Austin and its agents or representatives to consent, on my behalf, to any medical/hospital care or treatment (including locations outside the U.S.) to be rendered upon the advice of any licensed physician.”
This statement is problematically vague. The term “agents or representatives” can be construed to cover just about any University of Texas employee or representative. This could include secretaries, landscapers, cooks, clerks at the bookstore and a plethora of other personnel. These individuals, while talented, are likely not medical experts. With consent to this form, though, any of these agents or representatives can authorize a wide array of medical treatment as long as a licensed physician recommended it. In essence, any of the people I mentioned could authorize an amputation, brain surgery, blood transfusion or innumerable other medical procedures.
I attempted to clarify what this statement meant with the administration; I was told that procedures are in place that require any request for medical treatment to be forwarded to the Dean of Students’ office. At the time of this writing, it is still unclear if these procedures are written or merely a verbal policy.
There are several problems with this system. First, procedures are not always followed and mistakes can be made. Second, verbal directions or information on how a policy is supposed to work does not supersede a signed authorization. The fact that a person is supposed to pass the decision on to the Dean of Students does not mean that he or she is required to do so. Further to this point, there is no liability against the University’s agent or representative if the decision is not passed up to the Dean of Students’ office.
It is not the place of the University to insert its will in place of our individual rights. It is not the place of the University to supersede our family in making medical decisions for our well-being. A family member or loved one should have the right to make medical decisions in the event that any of us are unable to do so. However, this document, if signed, would brush aside those rights with the stroke of a pen. A stranger who has no idea of our needs or wishes is placed in a position to decide our fate. Is that truly what we should accept? Should the school we attend have the power to decide what happens to us regardless of our wishes and the wishes of our family?
I am truly saddened that the University of Texas denies students the opportunity to participate in University-sponsored events unless they relinquish their right to medical self-determination. No student should be required to give up any rights in order to fully participate in the University experience. We should certainly not have to give up rights in order to represent the University. A school of higher education should strive to protect the rights of students. Expression, understanding and thought are the hallmarks of what we expect out of the student body, and the University ignores these hallmarks when its thoughts on our medical determination are substituted in place of our own.
I do not write this piece to be difficult, confrontational or denigrate the school that I love. I bring this issue to the forefront out of my sincere desire to rectify an obvious wrong and hold the University to the high standards of individual opportunity to which it aspires. I have fought too long and too hard and sacrificed so much for my beliefs in this country; I watched many of my closest friends perish before my eyes in the name of defending our rights. I cannot stand idly by and have those rights held hostage in order to participate in the University experience.
In fairness, several administrators have been supportive of my concerns and have attempted to address this situation. I greatly appreciate this, but ultimately the policy remains in place. An exemption applied to me does not solve the issue of students’ rights being superseded by this policy now or in the future.
I feel it is my responsibility to continue to fight for the individual rights of myself and of other students. As such, I intend to work with rights groups and the Texas Legislature to right this wrong. I encourage any of you who feel the same way to join me in this endeavor by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roper is a public affairs and community and regional planning graduate student.