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Riled Up Over Changed Grades

April 5, 2007

Among the breaches of academic conduct that rile up professors the most, unauthorized grade changing approaches the top of the list. At Kean University, in New Jersey, evidence that it happened last semester has members of at least one department up in arms -- with the university agreeing that mistakes were made.

What happened isn't really under dispute. Three students majoring in industrial design were enrolled in a technology course taught by Mohammad Behi, from another department in the College of Natural, Applied and Health Sciences. Members of the design department advised the students that they could withdraw from the course, after the deadline, and enroll in a "special topics class" created especially for them (and free of extra tuition charge) by Timothy Riegle, who declined to comment.

Normally, students withdrawing late would have to get approval from the appropriate dean -- the one from the college offering the course they're dropping. In this case, the students' dean -- from the School of Visual and Performing Arts -- approved the action and, according to people close to the case, offered the alternative course as a solution. And deans in these situations are supposed to consult with the necessary faculty members, to avoid scenarios where students facing a rigorous grader just shop around for an easy A. Such consultation didn't take place.

Because the withdrawal didn't follow normal procedures, last semester ended with the students still enrolled in Behi's class and F's on their transcripts. By the end of January, those grades had been changed to W's -- for "withdrawal" -- without Behi's approval. The replacement course had also suddenly appeared, with each student receiving the same grade of B+.

Those academics involved "should be a model for their students, but they’re just cheating themselves," Behi said.

Not only has the incident demoralized Behi and the chair of his department; it has brought new life to charges that Kean has fostered a climate of hostility and intimidation during Dawood Farahi's controversial presidency.

"Our university is [trying] to look good on the surface," said the technology chair, Kamal Shahrabi. "We have nice green grass … but the quality of the education is going down."

It was reportedly the students who first approached the arts dean, Carole Shaffer-Koros, about difficulties they were having with Behi's's class. Shaffer-Koros wrote a memo on Jan. 19 asking the registrar to retroactively withdraw one of the students from Behi's class, which she was "incorrectly advised" to enroll in. Shahrabi said that there is "no paper trail" for the other two students.

Behi has since filed a grievance with the faculty union seeking to have the original grades restored. In a letter to Behi, the university's provost and vice president for academic affairs, Vinton Thompson, admitted that the charges of improper grade changes -- without consulting Behi, Shahrabi or the sciences dean, Xiaobo Yu -- were true. But, he added, "I have concluded that it is in the best interest of the students to let the withdrawal grades stand. The students were following instructions given to them by their faculty advisor. I cannot allow them to be adversely affected by the actions of a faculty member and a dean."

Daniel Higgins, a Kean spokesman, emphasized the procedural lapses that led to the change of grades. "The situation was not handled the way that the situation should be handled," he said. Thompson's letter alluded to "measures to insure that there will not be another incident of this kind," and Higgins added that "the deans have been advised and reminded of what the policy is ... and reminded not to do this in the future." He did not specify whether any disciplinary actions would be taken.

Thompson, who did not respond to requests for comment, asked Behi in the letter to drop his grievance with the Kean Federation of Teachers, the campus AFT affiliate. "They want to sweep this under the carpet," Shahrabi said. (The deans from both colleges involved also declined to comment because of the ongoing grievance proceedings.)

María del Carmen Rodríguez, president of the faculty union, called the episode unusual and unethical. "The students are getting a very powerful message that you are rewarded for not being responsible," she said.

Meanwhile, Kean isn't the only university to have a grading scandal on its hands. Palomar College in Southern California is launching an investigation into whether an administrator altered students' grades without the professor's consent.

 

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