March 19, 2004

"Micromanagement at its Worst"

The sponsor [Republican Shawn Mitchell] of a bill aimed at protecting the rights of conservative students on college campuses said today he would shelve the bill and allow state colleges and universities to prove that they are committed to protecting political diversity.

-- "'Academic Bill of Rights' yanked before vote"

The Denver Post reports that Rep. Mark Larson, a Republican, objected to the bill as "'micromanagement at its worst,'" and "said he had lined up enough votes to pass an amendment gutting it." Good for Larson for upholding the principle of limited government that Republicans are supposed to defend.

As proof of their commitment to "political diversity," the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, Metropolitan State College and the University of Northern Colorado have

agreed to make sure their grievance procedures address political diversity and that students know they can file a grievance against a professor who has discriminated against them because of their views.

Grievances, eh? Since the most common form of discrimination practiced by professors is that of discrimination on the basis of the quality of students' work, and since the most likely form of evidence to be cited in a grievance would be the grade received in a course, how might this play out in the actual world? Here's one scenario: Angry [lefty/liberal/conservative] undergraduate receives a C, and then files a grievance against the offending [lefty/liberal/conservative] professor, citing viewpoint discrimination. As parents threaten legal action, and case gets taken up by local media, university administrators persuade/cajole/coerce the professor to raise the grade.

Can anyone doubt that such grievance procedures would take the logic of the consumer satisfaction survey student evaluation to a new level, exerting still more pressure to further inflate the grades? Who needs the hassle? I'd like to propose a new legislative amendment designed to save time, trouble and heartache (not to mention paperwork and lawyer's fees) all around: Every student who expresses a view has the right to an A; and any grade lower than an A is not only prima facie evidence of discrimination but is also by definition a violation of this constitutionally protected right.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 19, 2004 03:22 PM

I haven't weighed in too much on this issue, because I basically like keeping a non-political position on my blog, and my own position probably differs little from Prof. Burke's. I had one student, thinking I was a liberal as a TA, file a grade complaint against me asserting that I had discriminated against him because he wore an ROTC uniform to class on the days the ROTC met. My counter-argument was that I wasn't a liberal and had been in the ROTC myself. That complaint went away, luckily. But I think IA is completely correct -- the biggest miscarriage here would be to have faculty self-identifying as various predictable political alignments, when, if I get Prof. Burke right, scholarly work and inspiration should be producing faculty who are in fact unpredictable (else why go to a university if you already know what everyone's going to say?) The customer satisfaction surveys ought to be replaced by having knowledgeable faculty periodically sit in on TA, adjunct, and non-tenured classes (assuming the institution of tenure continues for a significant period of time after now).

Posted by: John Bruce at March 19, 2004 03:36 PM

This is wrong on so many levels. Whatever happened to the notion that students _should_ be challenged to defend their ideas? When I was teaching, the better grades often went to students with whom I had philosophical disagreements -- for the simple reason that they knew they would have to make a good case for their position. The students who assumed that agreement with professor = good grade were the ones who ran into trouble.

I did have to put a lot of effort into fostering an open environment in the class and treating the students with different ideas with respect for this to work. (Some of my colleagues did not, and tended to have terrible classroom dynamics as a result.)

This said, I don't know how well my strategy of respectfully talking with defensive students one on one about their arguments and how to improve them would work in a lecture setting.

Posted by: Rana at March 19, 2004 03:50 PM

One of my more memorable experiences as a historian was preparing nearly the entire body of the academic papers of Martin Luther King for publication. They were, of course, riddled with plagiarism. The more distant the subject from his experience, the more likely plagiarism was to occur. It was pretty clear that his professors taught, however unbeknowst to themselves, to repeat back to them language which he had reason to believe they valued and respected. And they did so by rewarding him with grades of increasing excellence. To a very large degree, King's plagiarism was a function of simply reporting to his professors what he knew they valued.
Surely we have a responsibility to assist students in mastering what authorities on a subject have learned, but we also should value creativity and originality in a student's work.
I suspect that we occasionally do place too much emphasis on the former and not enough on the latter, even when we think that we are doing so.
Having said that, IA is surely right to be suspicious of any means of putting students in a negotiating process with faculty members over a grade. We rightly heavily rely on a professor's integrity in grading, but we professors need to be deeply self-conscious, even self-critical, if that integrity is to be vindicated.

Posted by: Ralph Luker at March 19, 2004 05:27 PM

Well, considering there are already grievance procedures in place for most any other form of discrimination, I'd imagine this procedure would be no more problematic than the student who asserts she got a lower grade because she was a woman, because of her race, because the professor lost the paper, or whatever other existing grievance rationales there might be.

Of course, if you're like the Duke professor who thinks conservatives are inherently stupider than liberals, I can sort of see where such a rationale for appeals might be a concern. :-)

Posted by: Chris Lawrence at March 19, 2004 08:32 PM

an a for a student who expresses a view?

what's wrong with that? the vast majority of students -- and a good chunk of the professoriate as well -- have absolutely nothing to say. they are at uni to repeat the buzzwords, get the degree, and amass career-points. that being the case, a student who did have something to say and backed it up would be way ahead of the game.

Posted by: che at March 19, 2004 09:57 PM


Speaking as a college professor and as a citizen of Colorado, I trust my Department Chairman and my administration to do the right thing if a student complains about me a lot more than I trust the Colorado state legislature.

This is good news, not bad.

Jonathan Rees

Posted by: Jonathan Rees at March 19, 2004 11:08 PM

One way to eliminate the perception of discriminatory grading is grade inflation.

Posted by: Chris at March 20, 2004 12:03 AM


I agree it's good news the bill was pulled. Kudos to legislators like Larson who recognized its fundamental silliness.

That said, I think there's something absurd in the idea of talks between top university administrators and state legislators over grievance procedures for students who have been discriminated against because of their views. Is viewpoint discrimination so widespread that it deserves this kind of attention from high level public officials? I rather doubt that it is.
And when legislators like Mitchell push for more grievance procedures for students to bring against professors, they are (perhaps inadvertently or unknowingly?) supporting the student-centred classroom ideas that conservatives are inclined to decry as wishy-washy decline-in-standards liberalism.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 20, 2004 07:10 AM

Wasn't there a Harvard prof. who got himself tsktsked over handing out one grade that was honest and another inflated grade for the students' record?

Regardless of the joking that's fairly cynical reasoning there, IA.

Circumstantial ad Hominem is a fallacy in which one attempts to attack a claim by asserting that the person making the claim is making it simply out of self interest. In some cases, this fallacy involves substituting an attack on a person's circumstances (such as the person's religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.).

Person A makes claim X.
Person B asserts that A makes claim X because it is in A's interest to claim X.
Therefore claim X is false.

Person A makes claim X.
Person B makes an attack on A's circumstances.
Therefore X is false.

A person's interests and circumstances have no bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made. While a person's interests will provide them with motives to support certain claims, the claims stand or fall on their own. It is also the case that a person's circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim.

Posted by: Alexander Crawford at March 20, 2004 05:55 PM

There is a depressing uniformity of views in the arts and social sciences departments I have worked for. The same, however, can be said for the management/business schools I have worked for. Whether biased left or right, however, the overwhelming pressure faced by students is to conform to middle-class etiquette and taste-culture. Unfortunately, those students without the right cultural capital are also the least likely to make use of a grievance procedure.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea at March 20, 2004 06:48 PM

Alexander Crawford,
You forgot to provide a reference to your source.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 21, 2004 07:53 AM

Well, the problem with giving all the little darlings A's is that we're already getting major flack from accrediting agencies regarding grade inflation. I'm coming to believe (and I think I'll blog on this myself, soon) that the current push for "assessment of student learning" (think: No Child Left Behind-type tests for college!) which drives the accreditation agencies is payback for years of nearly meaningless grade inflation. Of course, a great deal of that is a result of the drastic expansion of higher education in the last half-century and the abuse of student evaluation forms as a metric of teaching quality in the contract process. Basically, the whole process is SNAFU.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at March 22, 2004 02:06 AM

"Well, the problem with giving all the little darlings A's is that we're already getting major flack from accrediting agencies regarding grade inflation."

This is new to me. I hope you *do* blog on this, I'd like to hear more.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 22, 2004 06:55 AM