Lake Woebegone, where all children are above average and banks “neither lend nor borrow,” is an impossible reality intended as a joke. Yet some administrators seem intent on making it a reality, through grade inflation, at many U.S. universities. This will prove greatly detrimental to the country if standards are not changed.
At Harvard University, a supposed apex of U.S. higher education, half of all undergraduate grades distributed are A’s or A-‘s. And now a tenured professor from Temple University in Arizona has been fired after students complained academic standards for his math courses were “extremely harsh.” The university agreed, and after building the case since 1999, the university fired Martin Eisen in January. Eisen is now suing the university and claims he was penalized for refusing to compromise academic integrity to satiate university demands more concerned with economics than education.
One student complained Eisen gave her a D+ in a course when she could not solve the equation 12 + 3x = 48. The board raised the grade to a C+, ignoring Eisen’s protests that it is “academic fraud” to pass students who cannot do the math. Students claim Eisen was cruel, unsympathetic and refused to help them though they worked hard, complaints deemed accurate even in light of a nation-wide survey revealing Temple students spent more time relaxing and less time studying than the national average. And Eisen made his expectations clear, administering a basic skills test at the beginning of the course and suggesting those who failed switch to a less stringent instructor.
Although they lack Eisen’s uncompromising bravery, other instructors saw similar problems. A colleague observed, “Ö if somebody flunks a lot of people, then the administration doesn’t like that. I observe what’s going on, and I do what I think will not put me out of a job.” Even Temple’s vice provost for undergraduate study castigated the school, deeming it “unmatched nationally for loose policy on bail-out grades.” Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield notes that professors care less about quality of instruction, and in the face of direct student evaluations, augment their standards to reflect students expectations instead of setting a level of excellence for students to attain.
It is no surprise that U.S. students rank close to the bottom of the world in standard math and science tests. Enrollment in remedial courses has risen, and four-year graduation rates are plummeting. Granted, not all students learn in the same way, and professors need to adjust teaching methods to accommodate them. However grades should not be negotiable. Students from Eisen’s math class had the lowest average grades, but scored the highest on the standardized test at the end of the semester. In a world where standardized tests and tenures are meaningless, Mansfield accurately assesses the situation: “Despite all the talk about free speech Ö you had better watch what you say. And how you grade.”