Students Fail—and Professor Loses Job

Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Education, May 14, 2008

Who is to blame when students fail? If many students fail—a majority even—does that demonstrate faculty incompetence, or could it point to a problem with standards?

These are the questions at the center of a dispute that cost Steven D. Aird his job teaching biology at Norfolk State University. {snip}

A subtext of the discussion is that Norfolk State is a historically black university with a mission that includes educating many students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The university suggests that Aird—who is white—has failed to embrace the mission of educating those who aren’t well prepared. {snip}

{snip}

Sharon R. Hoggard, a spokeswoman for Norfolk State, said that she could not comment at all on Aird’s case. But she did say this, generally, on the issues raised by Aird: “Something is wrong when you cannot impart your knowledge onto students. We are a university of opportunity, so we take students who are underprepared, but we have a history of whipping them into shape. That’s our niche.”

The question raised by Aird and his defenders is whether Norfolk State is succeeding and whether policies about who passes and who fails have an impact. According to U.S. Education Department data, only 12 percent of Norfolk State students graduate in four years, and only 30 percent graduate in six years.

Aird points to a Catch-22 that he said hinders professors’ ability to help students. Because so many students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and never received a good high school education, they are already behind, he said, and attendance is essential. Norfolk State would appear to endorse this point of view, and official university policy states that a student who doesn’t attend at least 80 percent of class sessions may be failed.

The problem, Aird said, is that very few Norfolk State students meet even that standard. In the classes for which he was criticized by the dean for his grading—classes in which he awarded D’s or F’s to about 90 percent of students—Aird has attendance records indicating that the average student attended class only 66 percent of the time. Based on such a figure, he said, “the expected mean grade would have been an F,” and yet he was denied tenure for giving such grades.

Other professors at Norfolk State, generally requesting anonymity, confirmed that following the 80 percent attendance rule would result frequently in failing a substantial share—in many cases a majority—of their students. Professors said attendance rates are considerably lower than at many institutions—although most institutions serve students with better preparation.

{snip}

Aird said that figure was repeatedly made clear to him and he resisted it. Others back his claim privately. For the record, Joseph C. Hall, a chemistry professor at president of the Faculty Senate, said that DeLoatch “encouraged” professors to pass at least 70 percent of students in each course, regardless of performance. Hall said that there is never a direct order given, but that one isn’t really needed.

“When you are in a meeting and an administrator says our goal is to try to get above 70 percent, then that indirectly says that’s what you are going to try to do,” he said. (Hoggard, the university spokeswoman, said that it was untrue that there was any quota for passing students.)

{snip}

Dean DeLoatch’s report on Aird’s tenure bid may be the best source of information on how the administration views the pass rate issue. The report from the dean said that Aird met the standards for tenure in service and research, and noted that he took teaching seriously, using his own student evaluations on top of the university’s. The detailed evaluations Aird does for his courses, turned over in summary form for this article, suggest a professor who is seen as a tough grader (too tough by some), but who wins fairly universal praise for his excitement about science, for being willing to meet students after class to help them, and providing extra help.

{snip}

What she faulted him for, entirely, was failing students. The review listed various courses, with remarks such as: “At the end of Spring 2004, 22 students remained in Dr. Aird’s CHM 100 class. One student earned a grade of ‘B’ and all others, approximately 95 percent, earned grades between ‘D’ and ‘F.’” Or: “At the end of Fall 2005, 38 students remained in Dr. Aird’s BIO 100 class. Four students earned a grade of ‘C-’ or better and 34, approximately 89 percent, received D’s and F’s.”

{snip}

DeLoatch also rejected the relevance of 16 letters in Aird’s portfolio from students who praised him as a teacher. The students, some of whom are now in medical or graduate school or who have gone on to win research awards, talked about his extra efforts on their behalf, how he had been a mentor, and so forth. DeLoatch named each student in the review, and noted their high grade point averages and various successes. Some of the students writing on his behalf received grades as low as C, although others received higher grades.

But although DeLoatch held Aird responsible for his failures, she wrote that he did not deserve any credit for his success stories and these students, by virtue of their strong academic performance, shouldn’t influence the tenure decision. “With the exception of one of these students, it appears that all have either excelled or are presently performing well at NSU. Given their records, it is likely that that would be the case no matter who their advisors or teachers were.”

{snip}

The problem at Norfolk State, he said, isn’t his low grades, but the way the university lowers expectations. He noted that in the dean’s negative review of his tenure bid, nowhere did she cite specific students who should have received higher grades, or subject matter that shouldn’t have been in his courses or on his tests. The emphasis is simply on passing students, he said.

{snip}

Aird—who is applying for teaching jobs—acted on such a belief and stuck to it. While administrators have noted that they urged him to change his ways, his defenders note that he was always clear with his students about his belief in high standards. In a letter he sent to students at the beginning of last January’s semester, he wrote: “You can only develop skills and self-confidence when your professors maintain appropriately rigorous standards in the classroom and insist that you attain appropriate competencies. You cannot genuinely succeed if your professors pander to you. You will simply fail at the next stage in life, where the cost of failure is much greater.”

{snip}

Topics:

Share This

We welcome comments that add information or perspective, and we encourage polite debate. If you log in with a social media account, your comment should appear immediately. If you prefer to remain anonymous, you may comment as a guest, using a name and an e-mail address of convenience. Your comment will be moderated.

Comments are closed.