December 9, 2007

Selling Education

5 + 3 = 7 ?

A four year old will tell us that it's wrong, right? Not if it's from a customer, says the marketing guru. When academic institutions turn into marketing machines, they proclaim from every podium on the campus that the customer is always right. The customer here is a student, in case you are from a different planet. During my tenure in the academics, I have always protested this idea as insane. Gary Trudeau in his Doonesbury series a few years ago, mocked this notion that the student is always right:

Student (sporting sunglasses): This B+ is wrong, Man! You’re dissin’ me here big time!
Prof. Deadman: Mr. Slocum, I merely gave you the grade you deserved.
Slocum: Can’t be, Man! This is way off base!
Deadman: As was your entire first proof, in which you held the square root of 144 to be 15. It is, in fact, 12.
Slocum: Well, sure, from a narrow, absolutist, Eurocentric perspective, maybe it’s 12.
Deadman: So?
Slocum: So my culture teaches it’s 15, Man!
Deadman: Fascinating. Would this be an advanced civilization?

The idea that the student is always right, and that the teachers ought to take the blame for the students' failings is a dangerous one. It has all sorts of dysfunctional consequences, not only grade inflation. I will describe one from my personal experience.

A student in my class received an 'F'. She did not attend 7 out of the 10 sessions in the course and failed to get a passing grade for class participation. She also failed to turn in a term paper, and did not take the final exam. In the only quiz that she took in the third week, she had received an A-.

At the beginning of the following quarter, she came into my office and explained her absence with a medical emergency. Apparently, she was in a fire accident, badly burnt, and fighting for her life [her words, I am not exaggerating] in a hospital most of the previous quarter. I was skeptical, not only because she did not show any burn sign or scar anywhere in her face or arms, but also because I recalled noticing her on the campus a couple of times during the said period. I asked her if she could produce a medical certificate from the hospital where she was treated. She replied in the negative, saying that she no longer had the contact information. I politely declined to revise her grade.

She protested and argued that since she got an A- in the first quiz, and the accident prevented her from completing the rest of the requirements for the course, she should be given an A-. She further contended that that the marketing (of course!) professor had agreed to give her an A on similar grounds. She also managed to send the Dean of the MBA Program — who was accountable for enrollment — as an emissary to argue on her behalf. I held my ground despite the Dean's oblique references to her dad being an eminent professor in the Physics Department, and also an important member of the Senate Committee on promotions and tenure. Needless to say, I became quite popular among the women students as a male chauvinist pig!

Another Doonesbury comic strip underscores the harm done by a pliant faculty:

[In Professor Deadman’s office, Deadman, phone to his ear, listening to his wife]

Wife: Jules?
Jules: What is it, Honey?
Wife: Jules, someone just hurled a brick through our dining room window!
Jules: My God! Are you OK, Sara?
Wife: I’m fine, but listen to the note, Jules: “Ease up on the tough grading . . . or else!”
Jules: These damn kids . . . They’re monsters!
Wife: Actually, it’s signed by the faculty!

A recent incident underscores the danger of more serious consequences of the marketing approach to education. In an apparent cover up to protect its image, the administration of the Eastern Michigan University withheld information relating to a rape and murder on the campus from the student community, endangering their safety and security.

Despite believing that Laura Dickinson had been raped and murdered in her dorm room, administrators at Eastern Michigan University took 10 weeks to tell her parents and university students and staff the truth. In failing to tell the young woman's family, school safety experts say, the university acted immorally. But in failing to tell Dickinson's fellow students, campus law experts say, the university acted illegally.

The failure to alert the community in a timely manner, possibly led to some preventable deaths of students and faculty in the massacre at the Virginia Tech, earlier this year.

Universities are centers of excellence engaged in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. The marketing approach to education will reduce them to boutiques that are designed to attract students, so that at the end of the day, the books are balanced and the centers show a surplus. Grades will become a commodity. The faculty will be reduced to salesmen and saleswomen, working on a commission to sell those grades. Doonesbury Strip 3:

[Deadman back to the President’s office]

President: Listen to me carefully, Deadman. These are very tough times for small liberal arts colleges such as Walden ...
Deadman: I know, Sir.
President: And I’m sure you’ll agree that this college would not exist without a critical mass of paying students ...
Deadman: When you’re right, you’re right, Sir.
President: Deadman, do you know what would happen if word got out that our grades corresponded to high standards?
Deadman: The college would become respected?
President: Exactly! A luxury we cannot afford!

The monastery is in the service of the monks. The monks are not in the service of the monastery. Ignoring this will inevitably lead to the degradation of both!

1 comment :
  1. This post went slightly over my head: what have you been smoking? :-)
    Very intelligent use of the comic strip conversations, but the post is topical of US education schools, where I never had the fortune of studying.


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