Blogs > Cliopatria > But Is There a Curve?

Jan 14, 2005 5:49 pm

But Is There a Curve?

A good friend of mine says that he has stopped reading academic novels because the truth about the academy is far more entertaining. How else to explain the story in today’s Chronicle about Benedict College?

The South Carolina four-year, accredited, institution describes its mission as training graduates who are “committed to making the world a better place,” while acting as “powers for good in society”; and continuing “our historic emphasis on providing educational opportunities which will prepare African American students for full and complete participation in American society.”

It's chosen to fulfill this mission in some unusual ways. Benedict recently dismissed two untenured science professors who refused to follow a college policy requiring that 60% (that’s not a typo) of the grades for freshmen be based on effort. (As part of Benedict’s commitment to academic rigor, sophomore grades are only required to be 50% based on effort.) Benedict defends the policy on the grounds that it is the only way to serve the college’s underprepared student body.

As reporter Scott Smallwood points out, the college’s policy “means that students who get an A in the effort categories can pass a course even if their academic work merits an F.”

Leaving aside the utterly bizarre nature of the policy—and the deeply unfair fate of the two dismissed professors—the issue has attracted the attention of the AAUP, which has censured Benedict for it. The AAUP contends that the college’s rigid formula violates professors’ academic freedom to develop their own grading policies. And apparently the Benedict administration is aiming for an additional censure from the AAUP: after the release of the report, the college stripped the two AAUP representatives on campus from their department chairmanships, meaning a $15,000 salary reduction. Perhaps they can ask to recoup their lost money by being paid on the basis of their effort?

(Hat tip to Steve Jervis for this story.)

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Dennis R. Nolan - 1/15/2005

It's not really too hard to figure out. Benedict is a black school, founded just after the Civil War for freed slaves. It's always had an open admissions policy, no discernible academic standards, money problems compounded by very questionable spending, and an authoritarian attitude toward faculty. The stories are legion, but one anthropology teacher was chastised by the administration because his pictures of primitive societies dared to show "people of color" such as Pacific Islanders as, well, primitive. Others were told not to give low grades because the school needed to keep its enrollment up. More importantly, the adminstrators consistently force out faculty who dare to challenge them. These two poor guys are just the latest of many.

Anyway, the accrediting society has always cut it slack because of its mission and constituency.

Julie A Hofmann - 1/14/2005

You'd be surprised. But it sounds like this place changed the grading policy after accreditation. It's a real problem for CC instructors, too. Most transfer course teachers are assiduous about making sure they are teaching at a real transfer level and take pride in that. I have heard of cases, though, where a transfer courses (and their instructors) needed by students in prof-tech programs get flak for being too difficult (we're only a CC) or too time consuming. If the prof-tech program in question means government funding, there are school administrators who will try to bring pressure to ease standards. It seems to be less of a problem where the faculty is unionized, though.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/14/2005

I was going to comment here, but it got out of hand, so I put it here. The fundamental question is "is grading within the realm of academic freedom" and I'm not convinced that it is. I'm not terribly fond of Benedict's policy, and their reprisals are clearly out of line. But I don't know that we are terribly well served by focusing on "freedom to grade" issues.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/14/2005

I agree completely. How could a place like this--which has, among other things, a public school teacher training program--possibly be accredited?

Ralph E. Luker - 1/14/2005

Unfortunately, an AAUP censure of a place like Benedict will do little to change the minds of administrators there. Will any students leave or refuse to apply to there because of AAUP censure? Unlikely. Will faculty members leave or potential faculty members refuse to apply there? Only slightly less unlikely. The Benedict case needs to be brought to the attention of the credentialing agency, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Only after it got into the act were administrators at the University of Southern Mississippi forced to confront the fact that their arbitrary and inept management of the institution, including forcing out two tenured members of the faculty, had threatened the good standing of the institution. Benedict and USM just two recent examples of how badly managed many of our 3rd and 4th tier institutions of higher education really are.

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