‘Suffer and maybe fail, or go on medical leave’

On May 28, Imani Mulrain ’23 stood on stage in front of dozens of peers as the student speaker at the Pan-African Graduation Ceremony, one of the many affinity graduations that cap the end of Princeton’s semester. She had been awarded honors in the Department of Chemistry and was a member of a number of student groups.

Despite being chosen to speak, Mulrain did not know if she would be among the graduates. Just five days earlier, on May 23, Mulrain opened an email from Jaclyn Schwalm GS ’12, her residential college dean. According to the email, Mulrain “fail[ed] to qualify for a Princeton degree,” because she had not completed the 31 credits necessary to earn her A.B. degree after failing MUS 514, a graduate-level music course taught by Prof. Simon Morrison GS ’97.


The email capped off months of correspondence between Mulrain, Schwalm, Morrison, and other University administrators.

Mulrain had had serious health challenges through her senior year, and she felt that the University had failed to provide appropriate accommodations. Morrison, in turn, noted that Mulrain had missed almost half the seminars and charged that she did not take opportunities to make up the work in a class where 50 percent of the grade was attendance.

The incident ended with complaints of retaliation, of disability discrimination, and a student without a diploma.  

Mulrain’s experience provides a window into differences between professors and students on accommodations for health conditions and tensions with the University bureaucracy intended to mediate between the two.

“To be frank, this has ruined my life,” Mulrain told The Daily Princetonian in June. She is currently paying for a summer course to earn her final Princeton credit.

The University declined to comment on the specifics of Mulrain’s case. Instead, in an email to the ‘Prince,’ Dean of the College Jill Dolan wrote that the University’s attendance policy “cannot tolerate excessive absences ‘regardless of the reason a student misses a class,’” and noted that “absences degrade a student’s ability to learn the course material and to participate in class discussions and projects.” She added that students should contact their professors and their residential college dean if they have an extended illness to discuss arrangements for completing missing assignments.


Morrison did not respond to repeated attempts to obtain an interview and multiple requests for comment.

A rocky start to senior spring

At the beginning of the Spring semester, just two credits stood between Mulrain and her graduation. Mulrain concentrated in chemistry and signed up for two classes. For one, she applied to take MUS 514, a Pass/D/Fail only graduate seminar on Tchaikovsky. 

In the first week of the class, Mulrain wrote to Morrison, saying that “I’ve never had the opportunity to take any formal music theory courses in my life, although I do arrange music for my local steel band orchestra/a student group here on campus.” Mulrain also had a different musical background than many of her classmates: She played the steel drum, the national instrument of her family’s native Trinidad and Tobago. She founded Tiger Chunes, a student-run steel ensemble, and arranged music for MPP 231, a steel drum course taught by Professor Josh Quillen. 


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“I was completely lost in our first discussion [in class] and was too embarrassed to say anything during or after class,” Mulrain continued.

Morrison responded encouragingly, writing in an email, “You’re not alone: some students have a lot of music theory, specifically the graduate students, but others have none and come to the class with a general interest in Tchaikovsky and/or play an instrument.” He met with Mulrain on February 8 to get her up to speed.

Months later, in a May 18 email to University administrators, Morrison described the meeting differently. “It was mostly a complaining session about the fact that she didn’t know anything about music theory, despite signing up for a graduate seminar that required knowledge of music theory,” he wrote. He noted she never took him up on his offer for guidance beyond that.

Unlike Western classical music, steel drum is traditionally taught by rote, and that was how Mulrain had conducted Tiger Chunes and the steel class. 

“When Imani teaches the band, it sounds like her,” Quillen told the ‘Prince.’ “It’s a real privilege to hear.”

She could read music and had knowledge of classical styles — including some Tchaikovsky — through her time in her high school’s wind ensemble.

A series of absences

Mulrain’s bumpy start continued when she missed the third class meeting on Feb. 16 due to a knee injury from women’s club basketball practice.

Mulrain has Type 1 diabetes and approved accommodations from the University’s Office of Disability Services, such as leaving class periodically to get food to boost her blood sugar. In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ she credited that absence and the subsequent absences that she accumulated over the course of the semester to her chronic illness and health complications that resulted.

“As somebody who’s immunocompromised, I have to take injury seriously, especially when they involve my feet,” Mulrain said. She later contracted Osgood-Schlatter’s disease in her knee, an injury that causes painful swelling.

“Princeton University is committed to providing access to all individuals, as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Dolan told the ‘Prince.’ “When an accommodation is approved, faculty are notified and work with the student to meet their needs and the requirements of the course.”

Morrison later claimed that he was not informed about Mulrain’s documented disability.

Mulrain’s troubles compounded after she tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-February. Her case was particularly severe, resulting in her being hospitalized at Princeton Medical Center three times for complications and missing a second seminar. As Mulrain put to her professors in a Feb. 22 email, she was “in terrible health.” She asked for Zoom options to be able to participate in class. No Zoom option was ultimately provided for MUS 514.

After her hospitalization, Mulrain wrote to Schwalm for the first time. Given the severity of Mulrain’s symptoms, Schwalm told her not to worry about attending class remotely. “In the long run, it will serve you far better, both for your long-term health and your academics, to take some time to get well,” she wrote in an email to Mulrain.

Residential college deans form a key part of the University’s advising infrastructure, primarily working with upperclassmen. Their responsibilities include handling extended absences from classes and approval of transfer credits from other institutions.

Schwalm, the dean of Whitman College, has worked at the University in various teaching and administrative roles. She earned a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University in 2012 and served as a lecturer in the subject.

“The residential college deans support students in communicating openly and honestly with their professors. They may support them in navigating absences for illness and will seek to give the student the best advice about how to manage a challenge they encounter,” wrote University spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss in a July statement to the ‘Prince.’

Schwalm declined a request for comment.

When Schwalm reached out to Morrison to communicate Mulrain’s absence, Morrison wrote to Schwalm on Feb. 22 to recommend Mulrain drop the class “[t]o avoid unhappiness down the line.” When Schwalm pointed out that it was well past the add/drop deadline, Morrison said he could suggest some “robust” make-up assignments.

“Of course, ultimately, if she is unable to pass the class, that will be what it will be,” Schwalm wrote back to Morrison. “But, at least with respect to this week and her current illness, I would certainly support some flexibility.” 

In Mulrain’s email communication with Morrison, however, no mention was made of the risk of failing the class. When she offered to send him her would-be discussion thoughts from the class she had just missed, Morrison reassured her in a March 2 email, saying “I know you’ve done the work.” 

It was not until Mulrain met with Schwalm for a separate issue on March 3 that she was informed about his concerns for her standing. When she raised the concern with Morrison on March 4, he wrote to her that she should be “fine” if she kept up attendance along with good assignments and a final paper.

“I obviously can’t foresee if I will get sick again in the future during this semester,” Mulrain wrote to Morrison in a March 5 email, adding that she “fully” engages with course material and assignments when she misses class.

Mulrain missed another class on March 20, when Morrison rescheduled the first class after spring break due to travel. The new time conflicted with Mulrain’s work as a tutor at the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning.

“I’m an independent student. I have to pay for groceries,” Mulrain told the ‘Prince,’ also citing the fact that her mom sends money back to family in Trinidad. “I could not afford to miss work.” 

Morrison described the absence differently: “I rescheduled the class after specifically asking Imani if she could make it given her previous absences. The other option, Tuesday, March 21, was no good for her so I made it Monday. She didn’t attend. She didn’t do the makeup assignment I sent out,” he wrote in a May email to University administrators.

Mulrain confirmed to the ‘Prince’ that Morrison polled the class but did not recall him checking her schedule specifically. 

Towards the end of the semester, Mulrain also struggled with a mental health crisis. Between April 12 and April 22, Mulrain spent time at Princeton House Behavioral Health, an intensive psychiatric inpatient facility. She missed her original thesis deadline, in addition to her last two weeks of classes.

She told the ‘Prince’ that she was struggling with the passing of her longtime endocrinologist, who had been with her since her initial diagnosis of diabetes. Right before she was admitted, the company that supplied her medical devices said they could no longer supply her with devices unless they had a prescription from her doctor. 

“I was like, my doctor hasn’t been with us since 2022,” she said. “I had a mental crisis.”

“When you go into an inpatient psychiatric care, especially when it’s in-house, you don’t have access to the internet, nor do you have access to electronic devices,” Mulrain said. “So the first thing I did when I came out was try to reach out to my dean as soon as possible to catch up on makeup work.”

But it was already too late for MUS 514. 

“I’m sorry that you’ve been unwell and hope you can return to full-time study soonest,” Morrison wrote to her on April 24. “There’s no mechanism for me to pass a student who has missed so much of a seminar.”

Mulrain attributed the majority of her absences, including her stay at Princeton House to her chronic illness and Type 1 diabetes. In total, she had missed five classes, nearly half of the seminar’s meetings.

A dean makes a difference

Mulrain’s situation is not unprecedented on a campus where debates about balancing academics and student well-being have been in the spotlight. In some cases, residential college deans can play important roles in guiding a student through those challenges and helping them graduate.

During the fall 2022 semester, Sydney Bebon ’23 also struggled with a serious health challenge that caused her to miss a substantial portion of her classes. 

“It was just a terrible experience — as someone who really has loved Princeton, especially Princeton’s academics, and had such an amazing experience, learning and working and researching,” Bebon told the ‘Prince’ in August. “It was just really hard. And maybe [it made me] a little bit jaded about my Princeton experience.”

Bebon was able to graduate with her class on May 30, which she credits to support from her professors and residential college dean.

“I would have not graduated without that,” Bebon told the ‘Prince.’

During Princeton’s annual Halloween weekend, a traditionally raucous Princeton occasion, Bebon suffered a concussion at an eating club. In the weeks that followed, she developed a number of debilitating symptoms, including balance issues, vertigo, and sensitivity to bright lights.

“It was making me really nauseous to read and to look at computer screens,” she said. “I couldn’t go to multiple classes in a row … I just couldn’t process things.”

Bebon estimated that, after Halloween, she was only able to attend roughly half of her classes. However, she was able to get extensions to finish some of her end-of-the-semester work over winter break, a feat she credits to her residential college dean, Michael Olin of Mathey College.

“May he go down in history as the best dean to ever exist, because I would not have graduated without him,” Bebon said. She added that her professors were “so understanding and so generous,” granting her extensions and encouraging her to seek help from the University administration.

But Bebon still struggled. She contracted COVID-19 over winter break as she was finishing her work and like Mulrain, suffered from a severe case. “I was lying with frozen food on my head because I had such a high fever trying to write term papers,” she recalled. “It was just a terrible experience.”

Mixed messages

Following her stay at Princeton House, Mulrain met with Schwalm to discuss her academic standing, including a new thesis deadline. According to Mulrain, Schwalm did not suggest any paths for Mulrain to complete the course and graduate on time.

“My dean said that there was no point of me going to the last week of classes or turning in the final paper because I was going to get an F anyways,” Mulrain said.

Mulrain turned to Professor Reena Goldthree, her only other professor that semester.

“I told her my situation to get advice, because she’s actually been my only Black professor throughout my Princeton career,” Mulrain told the ‘Prince.’ “I just felt a connection with her class.”

According to Mulrain, Goldthree encouraged her to see the course through. Mulrain attended the final seminar of the semester on April 27.

Goldthree did not respond to a request for comment.

Afterwards, she spoke with Morrison about her final paper and standing in the class, while recording the conversation. According to the recording obtained by the ‘Prince,’ the two agreed that Mulrain would complete the 12–15 page final paper, and would be able to receive an extension until May 19, the last day of exams.

“My approach to this is, I’m not going to stop you from getting your degree,” Morrison told Mulrain during the exchange.

Faculty may not grant extensions for papers of more than 24 hours past Dean’s Date without approval from a residential college dean or assistant dean of studies; the extension of Mulrain’s final paper deadline to May 19 required approval from Schwalm.

Mulrain and Morrison also discussed the requirements for the final paper. The two agreed the paper would be 12–15 pages discussing Tchaikovsky’s perspective on the inevitability of death.

Mulrain did not hear from Morrison or Schwalm about the extension until May 15, when she reached out. There, Morrison replied that he was told May 16 would be the paper deadline. 

At the time, Mulrain was still finishing her thesis and independent work, due that night on the 15th. Additionally, as part of her return to campus from Princeton House, she was required to attend six hours of intensive outpatient therapy every day.

“It would be extremely difficult, unreasonable, and non-conducive to my mental health to be expected to write a 12 page paper in less than 24 hours,” Mulrain wrote to Schwalm in a May 15 email. 

One day later, Schwalm approved the extension to noon on May 19, and Mulrain turned in her final paper minutes before the deadline. In an email later that night to Joyce Chen Shueh, a dean overseeing disciplinary matters for undergraduate students, Morrison acknowledged receipt of Mulrain’s paper.

But less than an hour later, Morrison contacted Chen Shueh and Cheri Burgess, the director of institutional equity, to allege that Mulrain had violated University policy. He claimed that Mulrain “attempted to gaslight [him] into believing that she was present when absent and submitted assignments that she did not submit,” and “used what I consider to be threatening and harassing language to coerce me into passing her.” 

Morrison also said that Mulrain had not yet turned in her final paper — an hour after telling Chen Shueh that he had received it.

Morrison was responding to an email he sent the previous day in which he laid out an annotated timeline of events that Mulrain had sent him. “She missed class, and I have no way of knowing if she prepared, since the assignment was reading and listening meant for seminar discussion,” he wrote regarding one seminar.  “There was no presentation assignment for her and her ‘partner,’” he wrote underneath where Mulrain had written that she had come to the seminar ready to present. Morrison also cited a lack of participation in the seminar.

Mulrain noted in an interview with the ‘Prince’ that she had on at least one occasion written to Morrison to note her participation and Morrison had written back acknowledging her participation. On Feb. 9, Mulrain had emailed Morrison her week two assignment, and he had responded the next day, acknowledging her assignment and thanking her for her contribution in the day’s seminar.

A University investigation into the matter is ongoing.

“This has been decided and completed”

Mulrain did not pass. On May 23, she received an email from Schwalm notifying her that she would not be graduating that week due to her being short of the required 31 course credits. Mulrain attempted to appeal the grade, submitting a formal appeal to the Department of Music and Committee on Examinations and Standing on May 24.

As part of the appeal, two faculty members of the department read an anonymized copy of Mulrain’s final paper; both determined it did not meet passing standards. Mulrain was informed of this outcome on June 1.

“My issue was that I was never given a document saying what the paper requirements were,” Mulrain said. She cited the fact that Morrison had said that the final paper should be on a topic of her choosing, and that it didn’t even have to be musical, but biographical or historical if she preferred. In a last-ditch attempt, she wrote to a number of University administrators to request the criteria used to evaluate her paper.

Dean of the College Jill Dolan replied.

“I can assure you that the grading process has been fair.  This has been decided and completed; your final grade will stand,” she wrote to Mulrain on June 2. Dolan added, “I’d urge you to decide on a course to take this summer to fulfill your degree requirements.”

“I’m the lowest I’ve ever been in my life mentally,” Mulrain told the ‘Prince’ on June 6.

Claims of discrimination

Mulrain told the ‘Prince’ she felt Morrison was retaliating against her and playing into “this angry Black woman stereotype.” She also claimed that he demeaned her background in Caribbean music; for example, in his May 18 reply to her claims of attendance, Morrison claimed that Mulrain could not read music.

Mulrain ended up filing complaints of race and disability discrimination and retaliation with the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity

The University declined to refer Mulrain’s allegations of race-based discrimination to an investigation. An investigation into her claims of retaliation and disability discrimination is ongoing.

Mulrain is also planning to pursue legal action against the University, and her GoFundMe “Help Black Princeton Senior Afford Legal Counsel” raised $3,180 from 113 donations. The page was circulated on the social media accounts of Princeton students, who encouraged their classmates to pitch in.

An ongoing story

Mulrain currently has an A in a Genetics course at Boston University, which she expects to finish this month. The course cost her $3,100, and her family paid out of pocket. The credit has to be reviewed by the Department of Molecular Biology and the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing before they determine whether or not to award her degree to her this fall. 

Mulrain connected her experience to the historical marginalization of students of color at Princeton. “I hope that by sharing my story, other students will come forward and just shed a light on this university that claims to care so much about all these underrepresented students,” Mulrain told the ‘Prince.’

Morrison is not scheduled to teach any classes in the fall. He recently submitted his latest book, a biography of Tchaikovsky, to Yale University Press.

Perspectives on the University’s responsibility to provide accommodations continue to vary.

“When students are ill, we encourage them to take good care of themselves,” Dolan wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “Class attendance is very important, but if a student has a communicable disease and can’t make it to a session, it’s their responsibility to speak with the faculty member about how to make up missed work, and to ask classmates for notes and information.”

“The reality is, when you have a serious health condition, and it impedes you in some way from performing academically, your choices are: suffer, and maybe fail, or go on medical leave,” Bebon said.

Miriam Waldvogel is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’

Lia Opperman is an associate News editor and the Investigations editor for the ‘Prince.’

Please send corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.

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