03 May 2015

Epic fail: universities scared of dealing with bad behaviour

If a student called me a “f*cking moron” to my face, do I have the right to fail that student in my class?

Because that happened recently, just not to me. This story broke a few days ago: a Texas A&M professor decided to fail his entire class. The professor involved reported a host of issues with his students, including clear academic misconduct, but it seems that a lot of the problem arose because students were behaving badly. Calling a professor a moron is... not the way to win friends and influence people.

The university, predictably, is responding thus:

Dr. Patrick Louchouarn, the vice president of Academic affairs at the university made it very clear that although they respect Horwtiz, his failing grades won’t stick.

This is a problem, because a professor’s ability to assign grades is usually one of the places were the instructor has a very high degree of autonomy. It is very, very unusual for an administrator to meddle with the grades assigned by a faculty member.

From this article:

Henry Reichman, chairman of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom... said faculty members generally do have the right to assign grades, but there are some extreme circumstances under which this may be limited. He said, for example, that if a college found that a professor was failing students for clearly inappropriate reasons, the institution would be correct to intervene. ...

It should be the right of a professor to grade on behavioral issues and not strictly academic ones, whether that means failing a student who engages in academic misconduct or taking off points for people who miss class or turn in work late.

Reichman understandably goes for clear cut cases in his examples. Academic misconduct is an academic issue, not really a behavioural one. There is a well-established tradition and understanding in higher education that late work is penalized, and that also seems to be an academic issue.

What about students lack “honour and maturity”? Or, to use the case I started with, a student says something hateful to a professor? Can a professor fail a student for that?

I have a problem with that approach. I don’t think I have a right to give a student a lower grade because he or she yelled at me. Grade assignment should be related to the content of the work.

That is not to say that I don’t think the student should have no consequences for bad behaviour. Quite the opposite; I want there to be robust ways for me to report and censure such students. But I don’t have a simple toolkit for doing so. Assigning a grade is easy and involves only me. Report a student acting badly, and suddenly there are whole other levels of administrative machinery that kick into gear. I’m guessing three levels of administration (department chair, a dean, maybe a vice-president) and an investigating committee of faculty will be involved, minimum. And it’s not clear that those other levels of the university will support me. Suddenly, you are worried about retaliation, leniency, and more.

I suspect that trying to fail the student is how many, many professors would deal with the problem. They try to turn a behavioural problem into an academic one. It’s just easier.

And it’s not just professors relating to students.

A new professor who is demanding and abusive is more likely to have his or her department try to get rid of them by saying, “You didn’t publish enough papers in the right journals or get enough grants for tenure” rather than saying, “You’re a jerk who is making everyone around you miserable.” The American Association for University Professors specifically recommends that collegiality should not be a criterion for evaluating faculty.

I’ve said this for a long time. Universities are extremely bad at handling behavioural problems head on. The usual approach is to try getting rid of bad players by giving them a rough ride over academic issues, and not addressing the fundamental problem.

Related posts

Their grades were too... high?

External links

Slam flunk
Professor at Texas A&M Galveston fails entire class

Picture by Nicolas Raymond on Flickr; used under a Creative Commone license.

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

The problem with Horwtiz's action is not that he failed any given student for that stident's specific behaviour, but that he failed an entire class, which surely contained many blameless members. Frankly his behaviour was childish. However bad some of the students were, he's supposed to be better than that.