Saturday, April 3, 2010

How Not to Be a Good University Administrator: Two Case Studies

I promised two more stories that touch on education… here they are.

We turn first to an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education website about Gloria Y. Gadsden, an associate professor of sociology at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, who is now returning to the classroom after having been suspended for (OBVIOUSLY!!!) joking on Facebook about killing students. The offending status updates are as follows: "Had a good day today, didn't want to kill even one student.:-) Now Friday was a different story ..." and "Does anyone know where I can find a very discrete [sic] hitman, it's been that kind of day." Really. She got suspended for that. Or at least that was the story being spun at the time by one Marilyn Wells, interim provost and VPAA at East Stroudsburg.

My initial thought was that Dr. Wells, whose background is somewhere in the health/phys ed/recreation area, is either a). a drone or b). a moron: this response is prompted either by paranoia (“ooh… what if she really means it…[and she kills somebody and we get sued],” even though no rational human being could possibly interpret her remarks that way) or raging stupidity, the inability to tell the difference between a woman who’s had a bad day and one who is legitimately homicidal. Hmm… I suppose “c). possessed of an autistic inability to discern irony or hyperbole” would be another possibility. But I strongly suspect that “d). none of the above” is the correct answer to today’s little multiple-choice quiz.

I have an inkling that about midnight at some tech rehearsal somewhere along the line, I’ve probably told my stage manager not that I’d like to kill some actor or designer or props person, but that I was going to do so. I never followed through, though, curiously enough. I don’t recall ever posting on Facebook that I’d like to kill a student, a colleague, or a boss, but I might have… if I did I, like Prof. Gadsden, would have been careful to ensure that anyone with an IQ over room temperature would know I was joking. And I’m certain that I’ve volunteered to be the “discreet hitman” (I’d have spelled it correctly) for a friend. I was, however, never actually engaged to perform such duties. One of my favorite people, a former student, now a teacher, posted a Facebook status not long ago that suggested her desire to “beat someone to a pulp.” I even endorsed that sentiment because… wait for it… I’m not a moron, and I know—not just think, know--that she didn’t plan, literally, to commit assault. But that whole “not a moron” bit doesn’t apply as well, apparently, to Dr. Wells. I should note here that the overwhelming majority of comments on the first Chronicle article—the one after the suspension, not the one after the return—seem to think Prof. Gadsden is the guilty party. This, I must say, makes me fear for academe. Honestly, I can't decide which these people need more: a whoopee cushion or a laxative.

Here’s the official statement: “Given the climate of security concerns in academia, the university has an obligation to take all threats seriously and act accordingly.” This is, of course, symptomatic of the mindless adherence to silly policies that plagues much of society, with academia certainly at or near the top of the list. It’s the same mentality that gets high school girls suspended from school for giving a Midol to a friend, or kept a high school boy from graduating with his class a couple of years ago for wearing a bolo instead of a standard necktie under his robe. It’s easier for the lazy and feeble-minded, whether they be TSA agents or university provosts, to blindly adhere to some regulation than to think. No, I’m not suggesting that prudence isn’t a good idea, and no, gentle reader, I’m not going to go all Ayn Rand/Friedrich Nietzsche on you. But the official response to an obvious case of venting was remarkably, audaciously, cretinous. Or was it?

It turns out that Prof. Gadsden is unpopular… apparently with students and colleagues alike. And she’s bounced around from job to job a fair amount: that’s a red flag to search committees, but one which the folks at East Stroudsburg apparently ignored. She didn’t help her cause in being perceived as a good colleague by publishing an op-ed in the Chronicle that is, well, pretty whiny. In her world, confrontational students or assertions that she is “intimidating,” or “cannot teach” are unequivocally racist. While I have (obviously) never been called the n-word by a student, I’ve experienced all the rest of the allegedly racially-tinged problems she describes. Still, I have no basis for knowing whether she has a point or not… beyond my mantra that “if you have to tell me, it ain’t so.” And Prof. Gadsden sure does want to tell us about her qualifications and (implicitly) her teaching. Being brilliant—as she may be—doesn’t make one a good teacher or a good colleague. The fact that fellow faculty are telling her that she’s "too sensitive" or "a little paranoid" might mean, as she suggests, that they “fail — or refuse — to understand the complexity of retaining faculty members from underrepresented groups.” Or it might mean that she’s too sensitive and a little paranoid (just like her boss…).

What I’m not saying outright (because I don’t know) but strongly suspect is that Prof. Gadsden is a thorn in the side of all and sundry at East Stroudsburg. The USA Today article suggests that she fears the incident may hurt her chances for tenure (interesting that the Chronicle piece doesn’t mention her tenure status, leaving the reader to assume—falsely, apparently—that, as an associate professor, she’s already tenured). Gee, you suppose there’s a link, there? Tell me that some little gnome isn’t whispering in the provost’s ear, “maybe if we humiliate her, she’ll just go away, because you know she’s going to sue us for racial discrimination if she doesn’t get tenure.” Ultimately, I’m reminded that Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion. If I had to guess, I’d say that proving someone can’t teach—even with reams of supporting evidence—is harder than claiming recklessness and ginning up a little fear-mongering. From where I sit, I’m glad she’s not a colleague, and I’m even happier that my provost has a brain.

The other story was released on April 1, and it’s silly enough that, if comments on the Chronicle of Higher Education article are to be believed, both the reporters and/or editors at the Chronicle and at least one person their reporter called for comment thought it was an April Fools’ joke. Alas, apparently it isn’t. No, it actually seems to be true that Loyola Law School Los Angeles has decided to retroactively raise the grades of current students and recent graduates by 1/3 of a point: a plus or minus, in other words (a B becomes a B+, a B+ becomes an A-). In the words of Elie Mystal on the Above the Law blog, “That’s not just inflation; that’s a rewriting of history.” Perhaps someone there is running for a slot on the Texas Board of Education?

You see, Loyola’s average students were being treated in the workplace as if they were average, and Dean Victor J. Gold just couldn’t stand for that: “We concluded that the grading curve was sending incorrect information about our students, and, frankly, it was putting them at an unfair competitive disadvantage in a pretty tough job market." In other words, “We have very, very special snowflakes here at Loyola. This isn’t Lake Woebegone, where all of the children are merely above average; this is Loyola, where they’re all brilliant.” The support for this absurdity comes from one Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired associate professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke, who argues that “There are employers that have GPA cutoffs, and by inflating grades, you increase the number of students who meet those GPA cutoffs." Can’t argue with that, can we? The most rational solution by this logic, of course, it to give everyone an A+ in everything, thereby ensuring that even the most dim-witted and lazy of our brood can move directly into senior partner positions with high-powered firms. Because the reason some of our students can't find work isn’t a tight economy or the fact that our average students really are average, it’s that we didn’t have enough grade inflation.

Give me a damn break. First off, the Dean’s claim that class rank will be unaffected is true only because—and this is so laughable I can barely type—“While most grades of A+ will receive 4.333 grade points, those A+ grades that earn 4.667 grade points will be accompanied by an asterisk. The asterisk will lead the reader to an explanation on the transcript making clear that, as a result of the change in the curve we have now implemented, there are two possible grade point values for an A+.” This phenomenon is aptly described by Mystal as “a ‘double’ A+; an A+ with a bright, shiny, happy star — just so that employers all know that these kids are the super-most-awesome kids in the bunch!” [Note: If nothing else comes of this, Mr. Mystal has a new fan.]

Secondly, if employers (including government agencies) are using a GPA limit instead of a class percentile limit, they’re idiots and you don’t want to work for them. Moreover, those limits are minimums: in this economy—hell, in any economy—you’d better exceed, not merely meet, the minimum criteria if you want to get hired, and those criteria are more than likely to include skill sets not measured by grades. Note also the lawyerly cherry-picking of statistics by Mr. Gold: a B- is what the old first-year average was. Those grades inflate over the ensuing two years, so a Loyola student with a B average isn’t even average: by Gold’s own argument, a Loyola student with a 3.17 GPA (a little closer to a B+ than to a B) is in the 25th percentile. In other words, that B average required by some agencies is already being achieved (if that’s the word) by well over three-quarters of Loyola students. Speaking as someone whose life might conceivably be affected by one of those government agencies, I really don’t think that it imposes an incredible hardship on a prospective employee to be, well, within hailing distance of mediocre.

Thirdly, any rational prospective employer is going to know something about the reputation of the various institutions from which it might draw its new employees. These are lawyers, after all: the people hiring them are likely to be lawyers, too. It’s the job of someone in charge of hiring new people into a firm or an agency to keep abreast with what programs are good where. When I was applying to PhD programs, I was looking at one school that said something like “generally, we require a 3.5 GPA in your undergraduate work.” My undergrad GPA was 3.46 or something like that; it was considerably better in my major, but I didn’t meet the stated criteria. Still, there was that word “generally” in their statement. So I called them up. Their response, paraphrased, was “You have a 3.46 from Dartmouth? Of course we’re interested in you!” That’s what Loyola students used to have going for them: the reputation that a Loyola grad, relative to alums from a different school, was better than his/her GPA. Now the entire place is—or at least ought to be—a laughing stock. Oh, what a brave new world.

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