May 15, 2003

Consumer Revolution in Education Continues Apace

"Coppin State College is poised to let at least eight students in its criminal-justice graduate program receive master's degrees on Sunday even though they did not pass their comprehensive exams or write final papers considered acceptable by the faculty. The college decided to let the students graduate after they sued the college."

-- Megan Rooney, "Coppin State College to Let Failing Students Graduate, Critics Charge" (currently subscription only, but I will change to free URL as soon as it's available)

Injustice in a department of criminal justice:

Today's Chronicle of Higher Education reports on an (almost) unbelievable turn of events at Coppin State College in Baltimore (thanks to reader T.H. Benton for the link).

Apparently, ten students who failed to complete the requirements for the master's degree in criminal justice 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.'"

I think it's important to emphasize not only that these students failed to meet the degree requirements but that they failed through a positive and actual failure: that is, they took a comprehensive exam and failed the exam. They also submitted seminar papers that their professors deemed "far below acceptable quality:"

In a letter he wrote to the head of the department in early April, Mr. Monk [a professor in the criminal justice department] described all the seminar papers as lacking sufficient references and clear hypotheses. Some were plagiarized from criminal-justice textbooks, he said. One was less than five pages long and included a single source.

The above-quoted Professor Richard Monk is among those faculty who are threatening to boycott the graduation ceremony. I can only support this symbolic protest. But I suspect it will be nothing more than symbolic. The real power lies elsewhere. This looks like yet another example of how, when push comes to shove, administrators will side with students against the faculty who are supposed to assess and evaluate according to standards that they are not really supposed to apply, let alone enforce. And if a student can receive a master's degree after having plagiarized from a textbook, the idea of standards is of course absolutely meaningless. (for more on the problem of plagiarism see this and this.)

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.

Is this an isolated incident? Or a wakeup call to faculty everywhere?

ADDENDUM (Friday, 16 May):

In the comments to this entry, Russell Arben Fox agrees that this is "a sad example of the continuing commodification of the university," but suggests that "it is also about class and race, about the relationship between service education and higher education, and how hard it is to stand firm in regard to the standards by which we used to define and distinguish those things, when the reality doesn't seem to either reflect or respect them any longer." He directs us to his own blog entry on the topic, as well as to an article in today's Baltimore Sun.

The Baltimore Sun reports:

An article on the Web site of the Chronicle of Higher Education quoted students and a faculty member who alleged that the school had agreed to allow the failing students to graduate after they filed suit in District Court...

...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.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 15, 2003 01:46 PM

It's a wake up call, indeed: to the necessity of tort reform.

Posted by: JT at May 15, 2003 03:28 PM

Why would it be wrong for the student whose degree is now devalued to sue? Obviously, the administration only responds to legal threats.

Posted by: Bill at May 15, 2003 04:32 PM

My University is part of the same system as Coppin, and the HBCUs are in constant competition for funding amidst a sea of research institutions so I'm not surprised that they caved into the threat of a lawsuit to avoid the expense. Toss in the increasing number of budget cuts in our state, and I'd bet that tt's far cheaper to award the degree and ride the criticism than it is to go to court. I'm very curious to see how accreditation agencies and System policies will affect the decision, administration, and college in the long run.

Posted by: Mariann at May 15, 2003 04:45 PM

Here's a
profile of Coppin State's president.

Posted by: Accidentadmin at May 15, 2003 04:57 PM

You say that faculty threatening to boycott the graduation ceremony are engaging in merely symbolic protest because "the real power lies elsewhere." I'm not so sure.

If there is one power faculty have it's the power to define curricula, give grades, and recommend students (who have satisfied the requirements) for the degree of [whatever]. If the relevant faculty members don't sign the forms, don't vote in committees, etc. I don't think the administration can, on its own, award a valid degree. Sure, the administration can use all sorts of unpleasant means to get the faculty to do what the administration wants them to do, but when the chips are down if the faculty don't act affirmatively the student can't get the degree.

Posted by: Mary at May 15, 2003 05:01 PM

How timely. I just handed in grades including one that's too low for the major requirements for a graduating (maybe) senior. I don't know what the upshot will be, but I have a sneaking suspicion that something will happen to let the student graduate. I don't have much experience with this, so what do others think will happen?

Posted by: kendall at May 15, 2003 05:20 PM

Mariann, Good point about the expense of a lawsuit. No doubt that was the president's reasoning. But if Jocelyn Evans (perhaps joined by other students) now files a lawsuit, this may prove a miscalculation.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 15, 2003 05:30 PM

AccidentalAdmin, Thanks for the link to the profile.

Bill, I don't know that I'm prepared to say it's "wrong" for Evans to file her own suit. I am prepared to say it is unfortunate and worrisome if suits and countersuits are the only way to resolve such issues.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 15, 2003 05:34 PM

I think D-squared Digest says that his grad program in economics asks for alumni donations so the school can admit fewer & more competitive students; the appeal to the alumni is explicitly to keep the economic value of their degrees high.

I find this kind of cute in an econ. school. I would find it fragrant with impropriety in a justice program, but better than the current Coppin copout.

Posted by: clew at May 15, 2003 08:56 PM

What will happen next? People will simply sue for degrees from selected universities. I mean, without registering or attending any courses. You just choose your university and degree program and threaten a very expensive suit if they don't mail you a diploma.

Posted by: Livia at May 15, 2003 09:08 PM

I'm not surprised by this as I've been predicting that lawsuits over grades would be coming in the not too distant future.

However, I must disagree that this is evidence of "consumerism." Rather, it is more symptomatic of a litigious society that has decoupled rewards from effort and responsibility from actions. A more "consumerist" (I actually hate that word) approach would have been evident had the university lowered its standards prior to the lawsuit.

Nonetheless, I am disappointed that Coppin copped out of fighting this. Sometimes you have to take a stand.

Posted by: John Lemon at May 15, 2003 10:40 PM

I don't think consumerism and litigiousness are mutually exclusive explanations. What I am calling "consumerist" is the notion that paying tuition fees entitles one to good grades. I first came across this attitude as a graduate teaching assistant: the undergraduates (and/or their parents) were paying a lot of money, and some students had the attitude that this in itself made them deserving of high grades.

I agree that Coppin should have fought. But Mariann hit the nail on the head: when a college hears lawsuit, they think not only of the negative publicity but also, and first and foremost, of the expense.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 15, 2003 10:58 PM

I can't read the article, but Kevin Drum is quoting a paragraph that says that everyone who took the relevant exam was failed. This sounds as though there may indeed have been some malpractice on the part of the faculty.

(I recall reading an article about a professor at Cal State-somewhere who made a practice of failing every student. Soon no one signed up for his classes, and he never had to teach; but since he had tenure, they couldn't fire him. Maybe the tort system could've been used here.)

(Also--I've failed a student for plagiarism, preventing him from graduating. I know others who've done the same. We didn't get sued.)

Posted by: Matt Weiner at May 16, 2003 02:17 AM

More info from Kieran Healy:

"The students had failed their comprehensive exams and turned in crappy final papers. When I say 'crappy' I mean, in the words of one of the college’s faculty, 'some were plagiarized from criminal-justice textbooks' and 'one was less than five pages long and included a single source.'"

I retract my previous statement--they deserved to fail.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at May 16, 2003 03:54 AM

No. Paying for college does not entitle one to good grades, I think we will all agree with that. When people bring up the issue of catering more to students, I like to remind them of my personal trainer. I am paying to have someone help me build bigger biceps, but in the end, it is what I do that will matter most. For me, that's fine "consumerism."

I agree with you though that the problem is that we are moving increasingly to a "student-centric" system of learning. The current buzz at out U is that we should "negotiate" learning goals with our students. I guess that's like the "Cranium" version of a college education -- if you can't answer historical questions, you can always win by playing with clay. Hah!

Posted by: John Lemon at May 16, 2003 04:45 AM

John -- You have a personal trainer?
Is this the new trend? I am so out of the loop...

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 16, 2003 12:10 PM

Thanks for posting this; I'm glad to learn about it. However, there is much more to this story then you suggest. Certainly, it is a sad example of the continuing commodification of the university, much in line with a great deal that you've written about so well. But unfortunately, it is also about class and race, about the relationship between service education and higher education, and how hard it is to stand firm in regard to the standards by which we used to define and distinguish those things, when the reality doesn't seem to either reflect or respect them any longer. See my blog, or just see this article from the Baltimore Sun:,0,2451499.story?coll=bal%2Dhome%2Dheadlines

Russell Arben Fox

Posted by: Russell Arben Fox at May 16, 2003 01:48 PM

My dean had a meeting this morning to discuss strategies and plans for the next academic year. The first item he distributed was the Chronicle article, noting that our campus might be the one in the news in coming years.

Needless to say, many of us were unsettled, but ultimately not surprised, by the prediction.

Posted by: Mariann at May 16, 2003 05:15 PM

Yes, John had a personal trainer at one time (no longer as I'm trying to be self-motivational). It's all part of that "Ayn Rand-hagiographic-commodification-orality" thing I'm going through.

Posted by: John Lemon at May 16, 2003 05:40 PM

"It's all part of that 'Ayn Rand-hagiographic-commodification-orality' thing I'm going through."

If this is what you're going through, you need more than a personal trainer...

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 16, 2003 06:15 PM