Integrity presents itself in many forms in university life. In the coming weeks, I will address various aspects of integrity, for the chilling impact its absence has on the fundamental nature of the university, and how one works.
Institutions owe honesty to every student who indicates an interest in study, or who is presently engaged in study, or who has completed study. A lack of institutional integrity has a profoundly negative impact on all students, past, present, and future.
Over the past two years, according to a New York Times story by Catherine Rampell, ten U.S. law schools have displayed a stunning lack of integrity toward their students. They have adjusted grading systems in a way that inflates grades so that students with lower grades appear to be more like students with higher grades, to give them better job prospects.
This is emptiness.
These universities have demeaned the hard work of students who earned their excellent grades. This action further demeans a profession already the target of criticism for its crassness, but now publicly institutionalizes the accusations of low integrity and appearance of low intellectual commitment, rather than trumpeting high quality and earned integrity.
Maybe the tagline from the John Travolta movie, “A Civil Action” was correct, “Justice has its price.”
In a piece published in April 2010- http://walterwendler.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/our-university-lying-cheating-and-stealing/ – the issue of grade inflation was addressed. This current manifestation is different and more frightening in its implication regarding a degree and its ultimate value.
Here, by institutional edict, expressly for the purpose of improving a student’s employability, grades are inflated by leadership to improve the stature of the graduate and the university.
How short-sighted. Some elite institutions with deep histories for excellence, such as Georgetown and NYU, are succumbing to the apparent appeal of low integrity.
Why is it that institutions, even decidedly good institutions, are willing to display such a lack of integrity about the teaching, learning, and evaluation processes that are used to assess students?
If it is to help graduates gain employment, the assumption of ignorance of potential employers by university leadership, is unabashed arrogance.
In courtrooms and boardrooms, where lawyers ply their craft, expectation of impeccable integrity from attorneys should run high. In part, that integrity springs from the institutions where counsels earned degrees, and grades.
The cost of a legal education is high. The debt that many students take on to attain the experience is a great burden. Raise employability by raising standards… or admit that the diploma is merely a receipt for three years of significant tuition and fees.
And let the market place decide.
If there is no correlation between a school’s name recognition and skill level for three-fourths of its graduates, people will stop attending. The probabilities reflected in something approaching a bell-curve suggest that excellence rarely occurs more often than one-fourth of the time.
That is the marketplace and how it works. To artificially and systematically twist the market is a perversion of institutional integrity. That chicken will come home to roost. Lying about student performance, individually or collectively, is cruel and unjust.
Hank Williams appreciated this perspective when he intoned the famous line, “Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you.”
At any university changing grades or grading systems to make students more employable after they have graduated, or to ensure employability when they are studying, does so at great risk to reputation; the primary source of value to future students.
It is short-sightedly sinister from my perspective.
Our university and all others must demonstrate the highest level of integrity toward students.
I think there is a second side to this that needs to be considered. Most law schools maintain a mandatory median grade. At SIU, for years the mandatory median in a first year course was 2.6. In upper level courses it was 2.8. In addition, many schools maintian either a recommended or mandatory distribution of grades. At SIU, we found that our mandatory median was significantly below that of schools in the region. When our students went to compete with students from our peer schools, their gpa’s were significantly lower, even if they were at the top of our class. While we did not go back and change grades that had already been given, we did, after years of debate, raise our mandatory median. Our enforced median had harmed our students in the competition for jobs. While it might be better if the median grade at all law schools was a “C”, it is not fair to students to maintain a low median and to give lower grades than similar schools give when employers look at gpa rather than class rank in making hiring decisions. Our decision to raise the mandatory median came only after careful analysis of the grading scales employed by other schools with whose graduates our graduates compete for jobs.
As an addendum to my prior comment, I will add that we also raised the gpa required for graduation and the gpa required for good standing at the same time we raised the mandatory median gpa.
I graduated from SIUC in 1979 (Undergraduate) and in 2002 (Master’s). From grade school and beyond, I always felt that there was a correlation between the grades I received from my instructors and the amount of effort or studying I dedicated to that particular assignment, project, or exam. Sure, I disagreed with some of the grades I received, but for the most part, in retrospect, I more than likely “earned” that grade.
Today’s students are faced with a very competitive job market. Still, a lot of them feel like they are owed an “A” or a “B” simply for showing up for class. “Earning” a grade elicits a “deer in the headlight” look when replying to a grade complaint. The counter response is oftentimes as follows: “But, I need an “A.” I have to have an “A.” Wow, I am stunned everytime I overhear or am involved in this type of exchange.
This line of thought meshes with a college or university’s retention woes. Therefore, if the curriculum is too difficult for some students, the easiest solution is to lower the grading curve. “C” work becomes “B” or A-” work with “F” work morphing into a strong and solid “C.” By doing so, retention gets a boost and graduting seniors appear to be more “marketable” in the extremely competitive job market.
In sum, I agree with Dr. Wendler’s reference to the obvious flaws of adopting a more lenient grading system. Why should a student aspire to higher standards, if a grade will be granted and not earned? Finally, what message are universities sending to those students who truly work hard and well beyond their comfort zones and earn a “real” grade?