Prof flunks students, loses job

Zoologist Steven Aird is out of a job. He was denied tenure as a biology professor at Norfolk State, a historically black university in Virginia, for flunking too many students. In some classes, he gave D’s and F’s to 90 percent of students. Inside Higher Education reports:

Aird believes most of his students could succeed, but have no incentive to work as hard as they need to when the administration makes clear they can pass regardless.

“Show me how lowering the bar has ever helped anyone,” Aird said in an interview.

Many Norfolk State students are poorly prepared for college and many work 30 or 40 hours a week, which makes it hard to attend classes and complete assignments. Although other professors back Aird’s claim that they’re pressured to pass at least 70 percent of students, Norfolk State graduates only 30 percent of students in six years.

Aird’s students are surprisingly supportive.

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.

Aird believes 20 percent of NSU students are prepared for college, 20 percent aren’t capable of doing college work and the middle 60 percent could succeed if they knew they had to work hard and attend class consistently.

“If everyone here would tell students that ‘you are either going to work or get out,’ they would work, and they would blossom,” he said. “We’ve got to present a united front — high academic standards in all classes across the institution. Some students will bail, and we can’t help those, but the ones who stay will realize that they aren’t going to be given a diploma for nothing, and that their diploma means something.”

The Virginia Pilot has more.

Via Instapundit.

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Comments

  1. Reality Czech says:

    “Show me how lowering the bar has ever helped anyone”

    It helps the administration’s statistics for handing out pieces of paper called degrees.  If the university can hand out degrees which mean nothing, why is it still accredited?

  2. Someone should keep track of things like this so that employers can evaluate which colleges have meaningful degrees and which do not.

  3. superdestroyer says:

    Norfolk State is an HBCU where (according to PrincetonReview.com) 92% of the students are black and only 27% graduate. Over 75% of the student body has less than a 1000 on the SAT (old scoring system).

    Is it any wonder that the African-Americans who run the place are not going to put up with a white professor failing students. All he was doing was exposing the fraud that was going on.

  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    If Aird is describing the situation accurately, then of course he is right and the university wrong.

    But the university is between a rock and a hard place. It’s a historically black school that serves underprepared students. If it fails 90% of the students, no one will go there.

    The students at Norfolk State work 30-40 hours a week. Even a well-prepared student will have trouble working fulltime and succeeding in college, and it’s harder for a student who has to make up for his poor secondary schooling.

    If I were the President of Norfolk State, I’d announce that we were stopping awarding those sham degrees today. I’d encourage kids to either work less or take fewer courses. I’d say that we expected many of our students to take eight years to graduate, and I’d support that. I’d try to find money for work/study jobs for my students. I’d try to find donors to fund a fulltime summer school for incoming freshmen, so they’d be more ready. I’d have all freshman take a small, intensive writing class.

    But talk is cheap, and I understand why Norfolk is doing what it’s doing.

  5. Cardinal Fang says:

    Superdestroyer–

    I don’t think this is a racial problem. As it happens, the professor is white and the school is mostly black, but we’d be naive to think the same kind of grade inflation isn’t happening all over in schools with a mostly white enrollment as well as historically black schools.

  6. Independent George says:

    Cardinal Fang – I generally like your idea, but I’m bothered by it because it essentially makes the college responsible for teaching material that was supposed to have been mastered in high school. It might be necessary, but it seems to be putting a band-aid on the much, much larger problem with primary/secondary education.

  7. Cardinal Fang says:

    If I’m the President of Norfolk State, that’s the business I’m in– taking the students my college accepts and making them succeed academically.

    Secondary education in the US needs to improve. You and I agree about that. But that’s not the job of Norfolk State; its job is to educate its students, not rail about the inadequacies of primary and secondary schools in Virginia.

    One day, maybe, it won’t be necessary to remediate all these students. Today, it is, so Norfolk State ought to roll up its sleeves and get busy.

  8. “we’d be naive to think the same kind of grade inflation isn’t happening all over in schools with a mostly white enrollment as well as historically black schools.”

    Grade inflation, yes. This is more than grade inflation. This is completely incompetent students at school and not even expected to try. And no, that’s not happening all that often at state schools with “mostly white” enrollment.

  9. SuperSub says:

    Although I do have a personal story where a professor was justly penalized for not satisfactorily teaching his students and one year 70% of his students failed, this sounds more similar to a situation at the high school where I’m currently working.

    Our chemistry teacher was recently drawn over the coals for demanding too much of his students, who are mostly juniors and seniors. Of course, those same students who complain of his classes being too hard never come by after school for help or bother with their homework. One student recently remarked that it was ok if she didn’t do well in chemistry because it isn’t important for her desired career – being a pediatrician.

  10. From the article,

    “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.”

    One has to wonder how these same students will react when they leave the cocoon of the university, take a real job, show up only 66% of the time and then find themselves in the ranks of the unemployed. Are the professors and administrators at Norfold State not complicit in creating an expectation of accomplishment that anywhere else in the world is unacceptable? Just “askin”.

  11. Reality Czech says:

    It sounds like many of these students are already showing up at work.

  12. Folks, take it from a 29 year professor (who unfortunately has eight more years until retirement): The typical college in the US is a business. (Ritual disclaimer–I understand there are exceptions.) Colleges and universities are not “in the business” of education, for the most part. They are in the “business” of giving their customers what they want. What most of their customers want is training, which some of them get. What some of their customers don’t want, but get anyway, is indoctrination. The customers tolerate the indoctrination as well as the occasional course that educates to get the certificate (diploma) that says they have received the requisite training. Don’t kid yourselves–the average customer does not want education.

    The President of Norfolk State is doing what businesses do–arranging his business to please his customers. This will not change until higher education is no longer subsidized in any form by the government. Remember, there is a version of NCLB for colleges and universities–No Customer Left Behind.

  13. Anthony says:

    Anon is wrong when he says “This will not change until higher education is no longer subsidized in any form by the government.” Businesses can sell useless services with no help from the government.

    This will only change when employers (and grad schools) make it clear that they consider degrees from places like Norfolk to be on par with mail-order diploma-mill degrees, and word gets back to the high schools. When the kids figure out that Norfolk’s degree isn’t as good as any other non-prestigious college degree, they’ll stop applying.

    Norfolk’s students might be well-served if the school adopts Cardinal Fang’s suggestions, but that won’t actually help the school much if the threat of being treated as a diploma mill isn’t there.

  14. Anthony said, “Anon is wrong when he says “This will not change until higher education is no longer subsidized in any form by the government.” Businesses can sell useless services with no help from the government.”

    Businesses can indeed sell useless services with no help from the government. But, there is a distinct difference between a real business that is not subsidized by the government and a “business” that is subsidized by the government. The business not subsidized by the government can sell a useless service but it always has the distinct possibility of going out of business if it does not satisfy its customers. In contrast, a business subsidized by the government cannot suffer the same fate–it receives its money whether or not it satisfies its customers (or society) and it can always tell its customers (and society) to go to hell if it does not like the service. With all due respect to my own profession, this is one (but not the only) reason that our public schools are so poor. There is little or no incentive to satisfy its customers–kids and their parents. In fact, public schools now try to satisfy their subsidizer–the government–because they HAVE to do so.

    Likewise, Norfolk and my own college have absolutely no incentive to change if the government continues to provide them with large amounts of money. They are given this money to provide a service, i.e., training, which leads to a certificate that its customers need and many employers want. Students will continue to apply because they need the training (certificate) and they know the certificate is not that difficult to earn. The certificate becomes easier to earn when customers (students) learn that professors who give poor grades are fired and know that others are intimidated into assigning high grades for low quality work. (The fact that groups of 19 year olds with an average ACT score of 17 can make or break professors’ careers through so-called student “evaluations” just adds to the problem.) Graduate schools cannot do the job becasue they too are dependent on the government money and have no incentive to change lest they lose the money.

    The nonsense that you see at Norfolk and most other colleges will not change until the government subsidies are withdrawn, real competition is introduced, and they have the real and distinct possibility of going out of business. The only other way that change could occur even with the subsidies from the government is if enough employers decide that the training colleges and universities provide is unnecessary to perform a particular job and the employers themselves can do the minimal amount of training necessary to do that job.

  15. Cardinal Fang says:

    There are some for-profit colleges, and from what I’ve heard the pressure to pass unqualified students is just as strong there.

  16. Cardinal Fang said, “There are some for-profit colleges, and from what I’ve heard the pressure to pass unqualified students is just as strong there.”

    Yes, but to my knowledge, these for-profit colleges accept students who bring with them government money. The flow of subsidies still comes from the same place, government, not the individual. In addition, at least in my area, the for-profit colleges accept the least qualified students. There is likely to be pressure to pass them because the money from the government will not continue to flow if the institution gets a reputation for being “tough.” (In fact, the for-profit colleges in my area are similar to Norfolk.)

  17. “What most of their customers want is training, which some of them get”…in all too many cases, the customers are *not* interested in training, but only in a piece of paper. They don’t really expect to learn any skills which will be useful to them in their job; what they want is the certificate which will allow them to get past the gatekeeper.

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    David Foster.

    Which means gatekeepers might need to be a bit smarter.
    It doesn’t look good for a gatekeeper to let somebody through who immediately demonstrates flaming incompetence. So pointing to a degree will become, I presume, less important.

  19. David said, “What most of their customers want is training, which some of them get”…in all too many cases, the customers are *not* interested in training, but only in a piece of paper. They don’t really expect to learn any skills which will be useful to them in their job; what they want is the certificate which will allow them to get past the gatekeeper.”

    I stand corrected, or at least modified!