Tenure and Honest Grading – a Connection?

Scales of Justice

Finally.  A judge ruled last week in Colorado that not only is tenure a good thing for the professors who enjoy it, it is valuable to the public! Further, the court ruled that the value (to the public) of tenure outweighed the value of giving colleges flexibility in hiring and dismissing. That is a principle that faculty members say is very important and makes this case about much more than the specific issues at play.

The ruling came in a long legal battle over rules changes imposed by the board of Metropolitan State College of Denver on its faculty members in 2003. While noting “countervailing public interests” in the case, Judge Norman D. Haglund wrote that “the public interest is advanced more by tenure systems that favor academic freedom over tenure systems that favor flexibility in hiring or firing.” The ruling added that “by its very nature, tenure promotes a system in which academic freedom is protected” and that “a tenure system that allows flexibility in firing is oxymoronic.”

AAUP banner

In a related development, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP)  voted on June 13 to censure Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, because it had terminated Maureen Watson after 12 years of work as a non-tenure track faculty member, with one day of notice — even though she had earned consistently good reviews. The AAUP faulted Nicholls State for not providing due process appropriate for someone with that much of a work history at the university, and for not even acknowledging Watson’s right to know why her teaching career was being ended. The association also noted plausible evidence — not refuted by the university — that Watson lost her job because her rigorous grading was resulting in too many students receiving low or failing grades in her mathematics courses.

The AAUP report stated:

The Nicholls administration’s efforts to reduce failing grades seem to have been detrimental to the climate for academic freedom by causing faculty members in affected departments to believe that they did not have the right to assign grades based on their own knowledge and judgment. Ms. Watson exercised her own academic freedom by grading as she saw fit, despite the administration’s pressure for a reduction in failing grades. Her dismissal, if the investigating committee’s conclusion on the matter stands unrebutted by the administration, was therefore in violation of her academic freedom. The investigating committee commends her determination to grade according to her best professional assessment of the merits of student performance…

No plausible reason for the administration’s dismissal of Ms. Watson can be ascertained other than its displeasure with her having assigned a large percentage of failing grades to her students in college algebra. Dismissing her for that reason, assuming the reason remains unrebutted, violated her academic freedom. Her insistence on grading in accordance with her best professional judgment of a student’s academic performance warranted not dismissal but commendation.

Ernst Benjamin, former interim general secretary of the AAUP, said that the case was important both because of Watson’s adjunct status and because of what the issues say about academic freedom. While people associate academic freedom with controversial research or teaching topics, Benjamin noted that for “most faculty, the ability to maintain professional standards” through honest grades is of great importance to their academic freedom.

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