Friday, May 16, 2003

Graduation by Lawsuit, Education by Default

Kieran Healy and the Invisible Adjunct are already all over this story, but it needs to be spread as far and as quickly as possible. The story so far, as the Invisible Adjunct summarizes it (based on an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education):

"Apparently, ten students who failed to complete the requirements for the master's degree in criminal justice [at Coppin State College in Baltimore] will nevertheless be awarded degrees at the upcoming graduation ceremony. This after the ten students filed a lawsuit against the college, claiming that the college 'had violated its contract with its students,' seeking 'punitive damages of $2,500' and demanding 'that the college change its requirements to allow them to graduate without having passed the exam or the seminar paper.' In other words, when faced with the prospect of a lawsuit, the president of the college, Stanley F. Battle, caved in to student pressure. 'The president began to take their demands seriously when he was served with court papers,' and, as lead plaintiff Alice Freeman notes with satisfaction, 'That woke him up.'....Meanwhile, student Jocelyn Evans, who did successfully complete the requirements for the degree, is considering a lawsuit of her own. 'Do you think companies are going to hire someone with a master's degree from this school?,' she asks, 'I want my money back. But how do you calculate the value of this wasted effort?' Evans is quite justifiably angry at the injustice of it all, and is of course quite right to point out that the degree she properly earned is now devalued. But note the consumerist logic of her own argument, along with the willingness to pursue her grievance through the courts. It's all about consumer satisfaction.

Appalling...if completely true. But there is more to this story, as the Baltimore Sun relates:

"A criminal justice professor at Coppin said yesterday that the school's new president, Stanley F. Battle, told the department's faculty Monday that the students who filed suit would get their degrees at Sunday's commencement at the 1st Mariner Arena. 'He said, "We have a capital expansion campaign, and we can't afford bad publicity,"' said Richard Monk, a professor at Coppin since 1992. But late yesterday, Battle denied there were any plans to give degrees to students who had not earned them, and he said the allegations in the higher education journal were untrue. 'All of the students who are graduating met the requirements, and the students who did not successfully pass are not graduating,' he said. A graduate school dean said she did not believe that anyone who failed the comprehensive exams would get a degree Sunday. Battle conceded, however, that the episode - the students' complaints and the failure of 11 of the program's 20 graduate students to pass their exams - has exposed serious problems in the criminal justice program. 'There have been challenges in that department for some time. This did not happen overnight,' he said. 'We're making some hard decisions in that department administratively. We're also doing a thorough academic review.'.....According to [criminal justice professor Richard] Monk, the criminal justice program has had problems for years. Early in 2001, he said, he was asked to review the graduate research papers of 10 of that year's students. 'I almost fainted,' he said. 'Some of them were certified gibberish. It was nonsense.' Monk said one paper plagiarized 90 percent of a research paper published in a professional journal in 1994. He also saw the essay responses to questions on the comprehensive exams this spring by Coppin's current crop of graduate criminal justice students. The students are given the questions in advance so they can research their answers. 'Most of them didn't have a single source,' Monk said. 'A few of them would have citations of their teachers. Then there would be citations in a few cases to an undergraduate textbook. There was not a single journal article that I recall.'....When the students' research papers came in, the department chairman, Concetta Culliver, asked Monk to help critique them. 'All agreed with me that they were not appropriate,' Monk said. Some were simply pointless, he said. Others were clearly plagiarized, verbatim, from a textbook. Monk said Evans, choosing to write a thesis in fulfillment of the master's requirements, was laughed at by the others."

For those of you who have never lived in or around Baltimore, let's put some cards on the table. Coppin State College is a historically black college in West Baltimore. It is not a wealthy school. The majority of its students are poor, many of whom come from the immediate urban area, which is also poor. Many also work (Evans, the student mentioned above who was reportedly laughed at because she decided to take the route of writing a thesis, is--according to the Sun--a 34-year-old full-time parole officer in Anne Arundel County, married with children). So what do we have? A school of (no doubt) overworked, (almost assuredly) underpaid faculty, trying to deal with students whose range of educational experience and expectations (if my own experience with students at a couple of heavily minority state universities is any guide) is probably so broad as to make any scholar used to working in more rarified educational environments gasp. Does that excuse President Battle, if he does go ahead and allow some students who failed in every way to receive their degree anyway? Not in the least. Standards must be maintained. But it does excuse, if only a little bit, the sort of confusion and disagreement which apparently reigns at the moment on Coppin State's campus. Students who clearly cannot handle the work are complaining that they were not prepared for or properly assessed in their work, and to what extent is the college president (or even the department faculty) prepared to defend the standards they have imposed in preparing students for and assessing said work? If you look at the Sun article closely, it seems clear: not whole-heartedly.

Yes, this is a sad tale of the consumer mentality continuing to taint higher education, and yes, it must be taken as a warning. But there is more going on here than just the poison of "consumer satisfaction." There is the deeper poison of a society attempting to educate without clearly being able (or willing) to articulate (much less fund!) who should be educated, in what, and how, and to what standards. It is the deeper poison of a social reality growing distant from the model (and it was--and is!--a good and worthy model) of reality that higher education was once imagined to serve.