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  • A Is For Effort!

    Filed at 8:43 pm under by dcobranchi

    A private college in South Carolina fired two professors for—get ready—“awarding grades strictly on academic performance.” What were the professors supposed to grade? According to the school’s president, effort is more important than achievement:

    COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Benedict College has fired two professors who refused to go along with a policy that says freshmen are awarded 60 percent of their grades based on effort and the rest on their work’s academic quality.

    Benedict President David Swinton says the Success Equals Effort policy gives struggling freshmen a chance to adapt to college academics. He expects students to improve – the formula drops to 50-50 in the sophomore year and isn’t used in the junior or senior year. But he says he’s “interested in where they are at when they graduate, not where they are when they get here.”

    Students “have to get an A in effort to guarantee that if they fail the subject matter, they can get the minimum passing grade,” Swinton said. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

    Science professors Milwood Motley and Larry Williams defied that policy and Swinton dismissed them. Neither had tenure, which could have protected them from firing.

    Motley, a veteran five years at Benedict, said he didn’t like concept from the beginning but went along with it grudgingly. Then he faced an academic dilemma of passing a student he thought had not learned course material. In his case, giving a C to a student with a high exam score of 40 percent was too much.

    “There comes a time when you have to say this is wrong,” he said.

    Now here’s the fun twist—Benedict is a “historically black college.” It was founded in 1870 to educate freed slaves. President Swinton told the AP that, “The school’s open admissions policy means many students arrive with poor study habits and weak high school records.”

    I don’t have a problem with Swinton’s actions. It’s a private school, and he’s free to establish whatever grading policy he wants; if the professors disobeyed the policy, then they should be fired. I’m not one to whine about “academic freedom,” as such. And Swinton makes a plausible argument in support of his policy. Benedict presumably does not attract the top high school students in South Carolina, and Swinton wants to keep the students he does get around long enough to have a shot at graduating. This is no different than the NCAA Division I schools that provide special accommodations to help star basketball and football players stay in school. Swinton’s grading policy at least treats all students, not just athletes, equally.

    On the other hand, this is not the type of grading policy a school should adopt if they want to attract and retain quality faculty. Most professors would justifiably balk at Swinton’s centralized, “effort-based” grading system. It’s nice that Swinton wants to retain his students, but if he’s going to surround them with professors hired for their ability to obey orders without question, I’m not sure how useful a Benedict College degree will be to anyone.

    (And if I were the regional accrediting body overseeing Benedict, I would probably be convening some sort of committee right about now to examine Swinton’s grading policy. Other universities might rightly decide they don’t want to give their sanction to such a radical departure from established norms of academic decentralization.)

    But what genuinely annoys me about this is the fact that Benedict is a “historically black college.” I put that phrase in quotes because that is the description assigned to Benedict by the U.S. Department of Education. In 1981, President Reagan established the “White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Basically, this is a $220 million slush fund for majority-black colleges, be they public or private (the administration has requested $240 million for next fiscal year.) So the taxpayers are financing special grants to Benedict above-and-beyond whatever the school might receive from the general higher education slush fund.

    The idea of grading for “effort” would seem to contradict the Bush administration’s vaunted “No Child Left Behind” ideal. Or maybe this is a “faith-based initiative.” Sometimes the White House’s ideological contradictions confuse me.

    (Hat tip: David Beito)

    UPDATE: The State newspaper in South Carolina does mention potential accreditation problems with Benedict’s grading policy:

    Benedict is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Such accreditation is a must for Benedict credits to be transferable. It’s what makes Benedict degrees worth more than the paper they are printed on. Of grave concern is the fact that Dr. Swinton’s new policy flies in the face of a number of tenets in the accreditation policies.

    SACS requires that credits be awarded for learning outcomes. Those are the outcomes that have been reduced to 40 percent of freshmen grades under SEE. Accredited institutions must prove that their students are attaining college-level competencies in their courses, not merely trying hard to do so. The voice of a school’s faculty is given great weight in accreditation. Allowing such academic freedom as the fired professors claimed is a specific requirement for accreditation.

    One Response to “A Is For Effort!”

    Comment by
    Eric Holcombe
    August 26th, 2004
    at 9:05 am

    I read about this one on Joanne’s site. I was suprised at the number of readers who also received some amount of credit for “class participation” in college.

    Benedict may not have the best students – before long it won’t have the best professors.
    Unfortunately, they are somewhat of a protected class. Criticism of the grading policy will be bigoted racism, but Jesse & Al won’t show up since there is no corporate entity to shakedown.