It was a college campus right out of fiction, complete with the classical architecture of 19th-century buildings, quiet and leafy outdoor quads, and wood-paneled classrooms befitting a small, private, liberal arts college. Speaking as a then-professor of political science, the students were incredible, except for those who never turned in their work during the semester. At the end of the semester, when those latter students were about to fail, the university administration demanded I give them passing grades. Despite my reputation being attacked at the school, I refused and was never re-hired to teach at this particular Southern California college. Unfortunately, my experience is not unique.
Earlier this month, Atlanta economics professor Kendrick Morales lost his job at Spelman College after refusing to comply with administrative demands to inflate grades.
According to Morales, the core of the problem was the habit of administrators too easily giving in to student complaints and a culture of students expecting an easy pass. In 2022, organic chemistry professor Maitland Jones Jr. was dismissed by New York University (NYU) after a cohort of students signed a petition complaining about grades. Jones was dismissed despite support from other chemistry professors. In 2019, a UCLA professor was suspended over a refusal to “grade black students more leniently” than the rest of the students in his class.
Academia’s politicization plagues universities across the country; yet, Morales’ assessment is correct.
Universities of today, particularly wealthy monied ones, share a mindset that places legacy over competence and a pride in customer service over academic rigor. Morales’ former workplace, Spelman College, tallied an endowment valued at $571 million in 2021. NYU’s endowment totaled $5.9 billion in June of 2023. As of 2022, the private liberal arts school that pressured me had an endowment of just over $200 million.
A 2011 Inside Higher Ed article diagnosed much of the problem: a combination of administrative pressure on professors and student nagging creates a toxic brew to inflate college grades. Grade inflation is real, even to the point of warping college competition rates. The incentives derive from student evaluations of professors. Simply put, every semester, professors are evaluated by students. Professors who give easier grades get better evaluations, and those professors, in turn, are more likely to receive the glorified status of tenure. This connects to endowments and money.
Private universities often have endowments in place of a river of taxpayer funding; additionally, there is a greater incentive to provide a “white glove” quality customer service to students. Private universities are also more likely to factor in legacy admissions than their public counterparts. Systemically, this makes private universities more susceptible to the kind of corruption experienced by professors Morales and Maitland Jones Jr.
Anecdotal as my experience may be, this public-private divide was something I experienced firsthand as a professor. I vividly recall the emails at the private college after I refused to give passing grades for zero work; emails that accused me of a lax concern for educating students and student success. My refusal to compromise my ethics was later met by unanswered emails and phone calls from those I had considered friends and colleagues for years.
Looking back, I cannot but wonder if it was all the effect of a private university bubble mentality.
I taught amazing students at public universities without ever facing an ethical impasse like that I found in the private environment. I taught students who succeeded despite a dizzying array of adversity. I taught a student who had only recently learned English—mostly in an East African refugee camp. I had another, a U.S. Army veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, another dealing with what was likely to be terminal cancer, while another was being stalked by a sexual predator.
One of the reasons I remember them is that they showed up, passed exams, and excelled despite the chaos in their lives. These students needed no exception and never asked for one. It was these students who came to mind when I was asked by the administration of a private college to pass students despite willful failure.
I do not regret the decision.
Currently, academia is the center of interlocking crises, scandals, and culture wars, all of which carry societal consequences. Accusations of millennials and Generation Z being an “entitled” generation surround debates over “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” scandals about antisemitism, and ethical and budgetary storms around student debt forgiveness. These debates and fights are worth having, but they mask those ethical dilemmas that are easily dismissed as more mundane or prosaic by their inability to grab headlines. Professors like Morales, Maitland Jones Jr., myself, and others face ethical dilemmas over grades every semester across the country; however, this scholarly struggle to do what is right overshadows the student heroes that grade inflation hurts the most.
Photo by Jared Gould — Adobe — Text to Image