Wednesday, April 24, 2019

State University Deliberately Failing Students?

By Professor Doom

     Time and again I’ve covered state universities where faculty were mandated to pass students in their class, regardless of student performance. Mostly these mandates are for lower level courses—nonexistent entrance requirements let hordes of kids who have no business on campus (not making judgements here!) have little choice but to take only entry-level courses. Failing these kids would get them off campus quicker (a good thing, actually), but doing so cuts into that sweet student loan money…quite often admin mandates to faculty an 80% pass rate, if not higher. Such mandates don’t come in writing but faculty “get the memo,” honest.

     A recent alleged scandal at Arizona State University is the reverse: supposedly admin wanted a certain failure rate, no more than 70% passing. ASU is denying everything, of course, but after years of denials of the bleeding obvious at other state schools like Penn State, UNC, and several others…I’m hard pressed to take a denial at face value, even if I support the “innocent until proven guilty” notion in general.

      In this case, despite the strangeness of the claims, I’m sensing some credibility here. The allegation comes from faculty:

     The first reason for credibility is circumstantial: the professor lost his job for making his allegation. I’ve seen many, many, professors fired for daring to tell the truth, and, ultimately, someone doesn’t make that kind of sacrifice for no reason at all. In today’s deranged world, the idea that a man might be willing to lose his job rather than support fraud might sound strange, but the alternative, losing his job to advance a lie at no benefit to himself, is even stranger.

The first accusation from Goegan is that students are forced to pay for an online service to turn in their homework so that the university could get money from the company.

      This first allegation gets a solid “And?” from me. Students are forced to pay for a wide variety of things at inflated prices (Hi textbooks! Hello dorms! Howdy recreation fees! Greetings parking tag! Goodness, this could go on for quite a while…). The university denies this allegation, of course, but it would just be business as usual if they did it. I wonder where they draw the line?

“In order to convince Cengage to give the Provost a large monetary grant, the department agreed to require all ECN 211 and 212 students use MindTap - a Cengage product. This deal requires students to pay just to turn in their homework,” wrote Goegan in his email.

     Wait, a grant? I actually have some familiarity with the company involved here, Cengage…I don’t think they work that way. I could see a bribe or kickback, mind you, but not a grant. What kind of denial does the university give?

The misinformation claims that…Cengage gave ASU a grant for using the program,  

     That denial seems….off. Did the professor really say there was a grant going to ASU? Let’s highlight the key part of the allegation again:

In order to convince Cengage to give the Provost a large monetary grant,

--emphasis added

         That’s not going to ASU, it’s going to the Provost. Reading between the lines, I can’t help but suspect ASU’s “official denial” has been carefully chosen so that when it comes time for a real court, they can say they didn’t lie…just used words to distract from the issue.

      Anyway, I’ve seen the like often enough, this allegation is hardly worth a denial, except our state schools just don’t like to admit how money-hungry admin are.

       The vast majority of admin are paid to make things worse on campus, and that often means doing harm to students. This little alleged bribe also is not much different than business as usual.

       Now to the real allegation, the one which should make students angry:

The second policy was put in place to ensure that the Provost's project was made to look good. All ECN 211, 212, and 221 courses were required to prevent at least 30% of students from passing the class. We were told that we needed to set a baseline against which the Provost's project could be compared. For many instructors, this meant setting students up to fail so it could seem like the Provost swooped in and fixed a problem that doesn't exist.

       We’re looking at 2nd year courses here, what qualifies as “advanced material” on our campuses today, which more and more focus on pre-high school level. By the second year, you’re getting “real” college students who study and care about their grades. There is an ocean of difference between 2nd year students and everyone before that level.

      To succeed as an administrator, you have to either grow the school (get more new students) or increase retention (keep students on campus).

      Trouble is, our schools have expanded to ridiculous levels, and already pull in most students right out of high school…there just isn’t more room for growth.

     To increase retention, well, the easy way is to mandate higher passing rates. But that’s what the previous Provost did, and the previous, and the previous, too. It’s why coursework has dropped to very little while the average grade has risen to A-. How to improve retention when you’ve already sold out the school every possible way? Be extra sneaky.

      So, based on this allegation, I speculate on what the Provost was doing here. He mandated a higher fail rate for a year or two. That was the start of the plan, but this professor exposed him before he could finish the rest of the plan.

     The rest of the plan? The Provost would give a speech to faculty or change the course in some way, and (off the record, of course) would eliminate the “fail 30% of students” mandate. Pass rates would rise, and the Provost could claim his “leadership and innovation” increased the pass rates. Brilliant!

      Faculty are pretty helpless against such machinations, because they know full well that if they complain, they will be fired. And, hey, this faculty member complained, and was fired.

      The university denies it all, of course, and instead says the faculty making the allegations was just a mean meanie-face. Again, I’ve heard the like many times, a faculty with a stellar record and top notch job evaluations suddenly was “a problem we worked with for years before finally letting him go,” and it always coincided with the faculty displaying integrity.

“They are blatantly lying about not requiring students to pay to turn in homework,” she said. “I have had to pay for homework for classes multiple times."

--it’s easy to find students willing to say ASU is lying. I couldn’t find any saying ASU is telling the truth, but I could have missed someone, somewhere.

      It’d be nice if, instead of their weird denials, ASU produced real evidence, such as widespread students saying the guy was terrible (ASU could find some unhappy customers if they existed in any numbers), or produced evidence that classes were not being forced to use Cengage product (via course syllabi, submitted to admin every semester), or produced evidence that pass rates didn’t mysteriously drop to 70% when this Provost came on board (pass rates are tracked very closely every semester, easy to track them down).

      All of the previous evidence should be easy to produce, if the faculty were lying and ASU was telling the truth. Instead, they’re going with:

We generally do not comment on the details of disciplinary matters related to faculty, and there are many reasons that a faculty member's contract might not be renewed, including when a faculty member resists course-correction of multiple shortcomings despite supervisory intervention.

     I’m not buying ASU’s denial here. They could easily produce evidence showing he’s lying, and instead are going with blanket denial and a firing, actions which will only prolong the scandal, instead of snuffing it out.

      I remind the gentle reader every other state school has treated faculty with integrity in this manner, forcing the truth to come out only after years of investigation, investigation against schools far too willing to use cover-ups and retaliation (like blanket denials and firings…) to prevent revelation of the truth.

      I don’t think this particular kind of scandal goes on at many schools, but the bottom line, our plundering administrators are running out of illicit ways to make themselves look “excellent.” I can’t help but suspect we’re going to see ever more imaginative plans, like the one alleged above, in the future.


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