Monday, August 23, 2004

It's not just how you study 

Two untenured science professors at Benedict College in South Carolina were fired for refusing to adhere to a grading policy that makes effort 60% of the course grade for freshmen. The policy applies only to the first two years of school (the sophomore year applies a 50/50 formula), and then the students are allowed only in the junior year to be "judged strictly on academic performance." The professors, Milwood Motley and Larry Williams, had gone along with it for awhile, but finally could not accept the consequences of the policy.
Motley, who came to Benedict five years ago from the Morehouse School of Medicine, said he was uncomfortable with the concept from the beginning. But he went along with it grudgingly until he was confronted with an academic dilemma: giving a passing grade to a student he believed had not learned the course material.

Awarding a C to a student whose highest exam score was less than 40 percent was more than he could tolerate.

�There comes a time when you have to say this is wrong,� he said.

This spring, he defied the SEE policy, as did department colleague Williams. Neither has tenure. Williams would not comment for this story.

�I did it (awarded grades) strictly on academic performance,� Motley said. �They told us to go back and recalculate the grades, and I just refused to do it.�
Despite a faculty grievance committee vote to recommend reinstatement, college president David Swinton refused.
�The record makes it abundantly clear that Dr. Motley has committed this infraction,� Swinton wrote in a July 13 letter to the chairwoman of the committee. �Moreover, the transcript of the hearing reveals that he admits to refusing to comply with college policy and states that he would not comply if reinstated.�

Swinton said professors have some leeway in calculating what goes into effort, factoring in attendance, completion of assignments and class participation.

The students �have to get an A in effort to guarantee that if they fail the subject matter, they can get the minimum passing grade,� Swinton said. �I don�t think that�s a bad thing.�


�If anybody manages to do effort for two years, they are going to learn something and develop the study habits that they need as a junior,� he said.

The Harvard-educated Swinton acknowledged he would not implement such a policy at a more selective institution and does not know of a similar policy at any other college.

But he said Benedict is unique. Founded in 1870 to educate freed slaves, the college has been a haven for students who must overcome barriers to obtain higher education. Many are the first in their families to attend college.

With its open-admissions policy, Swinton said, many students arrive at Benedict with poor study habits and weak high school records. His job, he said, is to help them succeed.
Since the institution is already under censure from the AAUP, it suffers no additional penalty (like "double secret censure") for the actions taken against these professors.

I'm not sure what to make of this case. When Prof. Motley says "Trying to learn is not sufficient", that appeals to me. While I certainly sympathize with any claim for academic freedom, it appears that in this case the school (I hesitate to call it a college when it freely admits it's using the first two years as remedial high school) has a mission for at-risk students. That is, they not only knew they were going to bring students who could not pass university-level exams, they were actually promulgating a mission to attract those students (via open-admission). If the faculty members had understood this when they arrived and later decided they couldn't do it, I think they should have slipped out the door. It depends on how the school presents itself to prospective faculty, something about which we can only speculate. Regrettably, if you had read only the Chronicle article (subscribers only), you might miss this part of the story.

UPDATE (8/26): See also Heavy Lifting do a better job of fleshing the economics.