Who is to blame when students fail? If many students fail -- a majority even -- does that demonstrate faculty incompetence, or could it point to a problem with standards?
These are the questions at the center of a dispute that cost Steven D. Aird his job teaching biology at Norfolk State University. Today is his last day of work, but on his way out, he has started to tell his story -- one that he suggests points to large educational problems at the university and in society. The university isn't talking publicly about his case, but because Aird has released numerous documents prepared by the university about his performance -- including the key negative tenure decisions by administrators -- it is clear that he was denied tenure for one reason: failing too many students. The university documents portray Aird as unwilling to compromise to pass more students.
A subtext of the discussion is that Norfolk State is a historically black university with a mission that includes educating many students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The university suggests that Aird -- who is white -- has failed to embrace the mission of educating those who aren't well prepared. But Aird -- who had backing from his department and has some very loyal students as well -- maintains that the university is hurting the very students it says it wants to help. Aird believes most of his students could succeed, but have no incentive to work as hard as they need to when the administration makes clear they can pass regardless.
"Show me how lowering the bar has ever helped anyone," Aird said in an interview. Continuing the metaphor, he said that officials at Norfolk State have the attitude of "a track coach who tells the team 'I really want to win this season but I really like you guys, so you can decide whether to come to practice and when.' " Such a team wouldn't win, Aird said, and a university based on such a principle would not be helping its students.
Sharon R. Hoggard, a spokeswoman for Norfolk State, said that she could not comment at all on Aird's case. But she did say this, generally, on the issues raised by Aird: "Something is wrong when you cannot impart your knowledge onto students. We are a university of opportunity, so we take students who are underprepared, but we have a history of whipping them into shape. That's our niche."
The question raised by Aird and his defenders is whether Norfolk State is succeeding and whether policies about who passes and who fails have an impact. According to U.S. Education Department data, only 12 percent of Norfolk State students graduate in four years, and only 30 percent graduate in six years.
Aird points to a Catch-22 that he said hinders professors' ability to help students. Because so many students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and never received a good high school education, they are already behind, he said, and attendance is essential. Norfolk State would appear to endorse this point of view, and official university policy states that a student who doesn't attend at least 80 percent of class sessions may be failed.
The problem, Aird said, is that very few Norfolk State students meet even that standard. In the classes for which he was criticized by the dean for his grading -- classes in which he awarded D's or F's to about 90 percent of students -- Aird has attendance records indicating that the average student attended class only 66 percent of the time. Based on such a figure, he said, "the expected mean grade would have been an F," and yet he was denied tenure for giving such grades.
Other professors at Norfolk State, generally requesting anonymity, confirmed that following the 80 percent attendance rule would result frequently in failing a substantial share -- in many cases a majority -- of their students. Professors said attendance rates are considerably lower than at many institutions -- although most institutions serve students with better preparation.
One reason that this does not happen (outside Aird's classes) is that many professors at Norfolk State say that there is a clear expectation from administrators -- in particular from Dean Sandra J. DeLoatch, the dean whose recommendation turned the tide against Aird's tenure bid -- that 70 percent of students should pass.
Aird said that figure was repeatedly made clear to him and he resisted it. Others back his claim privately. For the record, Joseph C. Hall, a chemistry professor at president of the Faculty Senate, said that DeLoatch "encouraged" professors to pass at least 70 percent of students in each course, regardless of performance. Hall said that there is never a direct order given, but that one isn't really needed.
"When you are in a meeting and an administrator says our goal is to try to get above 70 percent, then that indirectly says that's what you are going to try to do," he said. (Hoggard, the university spokeswoman, said that it was untrue that there was any quota for passing students.)
Hall agreed that both attendance and preparation are problems for many students at Norfolk State. He said that he generally fails between 20 and 35 percent of students, and has not been criticized by his dean. But Hall has tenure and the highest failure rate he can remember in one of his classes was 45 percent.
Dean DeLoatch's report on Aird's tenure bid may be the best source of information on how the administration views the pass rate issue. The report from the dean said that Aird met the standards for tenure in service and research, and noted that he took teaching seriously, using his own student evaluations on top of the university's. The detailed evaluations Aird does for his courses, turned over in summary form for this article, suggest a professor who is seen as a tough grader (too tough by some), but who wins fairly universal praise for his excitement about science, for being willing to meet students after class to help them, and providing extra help.
DeLoatch's review finds similarly. Of Aird, she wrote, based on student reviews: "He is respectful and fair to students, adhered to the syllabus, demonstrated that he found the material interesting, was available to students outside of class, etc."
What she faulted him for, entirely, was failing students. The review listed various courses, with remarks such as: "At the end of Spring 2004, 22 students remained in Dr. Aird's CHM 100 class. One student earned a grade of 'B' and all others, approximately 95 percent, earned grades between 'D' and 'F.'" Or: "At the end of Fall 2005, 38 students remained in Dr. Aird's BIO 100 class. Four students earned a grade of 'C-' or better and 34, approximately 89 percent, received D's and F's."
These class records resulted in the reason cited for tenure denial: "the core problem of the overwhelming failure of the vast majority of the students he teaches, especially since the students who enroll in the classes of Dr. Aird's supporters achieve a greater level of success than Dr. Aird's students."
DeLoatch also rejected the relevance of 16 letters in Aird's portfolio from students who praised him as a teacher. The students, some of whom are now in medical or graduate school or who have gone on to win research awards, talked about his extra efforts on their behalf, how he had been a mentor, and so forth. DeLoatch named each student in the review, and noted their high grade point averages and various successes. Some of the students writing on his behalf received grades as low as C, although others received higher grades.
But although DeLoatch held Aird responsible for his failures, she wrote that he did not deserve any credit for his success stories and these students, by virtue of their strong academic performance, shouldn't influence the tenure decision. "With the exception of one of these students, it appears that all have either excelled or are presently performing well at NSU. Given their records, it is likely that that would be the case no matter who their advisors or teachers were."
Aird stressed that he does not believe Norfolk State should try to become an elite college. He said he believes that only about 20 percent of the students who enroll truly can't do the work. He believes another 20 percent are ready from the start. Of the middle 60 percent, he said that when the university tells them that substandard work and frequent class skipping are OK, these students are doomed to fail his courses (and not to learn what they need from other professors).
"I think most of the students have the intellectual capacity to succeed, but they have been so poorly trained, and given all the wrong messages by the university," he said.
The problem at Norfolk State, he said, isn't his low grades, but the way the university lowers expectations. He noted that in the dean's negative review of his tenure bid, nowhere did she cite specific students who should have received higher grades, or subject matter that shouldn't have been in his courses or on his tests. The emphasis is simply on passing students, he said.
"If everyone here would tell students that 'you are either going to work or get out,' they would work, and they would blossom," he said. "We've got to present a united front -- high academic standards in all classes across the institution. Some students will bail, and we can't help those, but the ones who stay will realize that they aren't going to be given a diploma for nothing, and that their diploma means something."
Reaction in Norfolk has been mixed. After The Virginian-Pilot wrote about the case last week, it received numerous online comments -- some calling Aird a hero, others saying he was denigrating the university.
Faculty leaders have a range of views about Aird's case. Cassandra L. Newby-Alexander, an associate professor of history and secretary of the Faculty Senate, led a grievance committee that found Aird's first tenure review was flawed and that ordered a second review. Newby-Alexander said that the problems Aird has raised about preparedness are real. She said that she fails about 20 percent of her students on average, some for just not showing up and others for not doing the work at appropriate levels.
"He's not the first to raise the issue of preparedness. This is a national problem that a lot of faculty have been raising throughout the country," she said.
In addition, while she has not experienced being told that she must pass a greater percentage of students, she said she was troubled by the implication that someone could be denied tenure for making sincere analyses of the grades he thought students deserved. Even if presidents or vice presidents would prefer different grades, she said that it "smacks of an issue of academic freedom" to punish a professor for giving low grades.
Hall, the head of the Faculty Senate, asked if Aird has been treated fairly or unfairly, said: "My father used to say that no matter how long you cook a pancake it still has two sides."
Along those lines, he said that it was important to see the responsibility for getting students to acceptable levels of knowledge as a team process, not something that falls only on students or only on professors. "Every faculty member has to decide how they are going to take a group of students and bring them up to a particular standard. Some faculty members feel that ultimately the responsibility of having students come up to that standard is the university's, and the university should bring students up. It's a very complicated issue."
For his part, Hall said that "one of the things I have been objecting to is administrators trying to constantly tell you the responsibility for student success is only the faculty member's responsibility. It really isn't. Success is four-pronged -- the student, the university administration, parents, and the faculty."
Added Hall: "A faculty member can't make a student come to class. A faculty member can't spend all of his or her time teaching students how to study. A faculty member teaching chemistry can't deal with some of the social problems these students have, and that the students are working 30-40 hours a week. There are a lot of things that are not in the control of the faculty member."
But at the same time, he added that "whenever you have 80-90 percent of your students failing, politically that's going to cause some administrators to begin to question what's going on."
Jonathan Knight, who handles academic freedom issues for the American Association of University Professors, said that he has no problem per se with administrators asking questions about such a high failure rate. "It is not improper for an administration to be concerned about it," he said.
But he cautioned against automatic assumptions. He said the questions to be asked are why so many students are failing, what is being done to help students succeed, what is taking place in the classroom, and so forth.
While Knight did not see academic freedom issues related to asking such questions, he said he would be concerned about orders to pass certain percentages of students. "Professors obviously should have the right to determine what grades the students should have," he said.
Aird -- who is applying for teaching jobs -- acted on such a belief and stuck to it. While administrators have noted that they urged him to change his ways, his defenders note that he was always clear with his students about his belief in high standards. In a letter he sent to students at the beginning of last January's semester, he wrote: "You can only develop skills and self-confidence when your professors maintain appropriately rigorous standards in the classroom and insist that you attain appropriate competencies. You cannot genuinely succeed if your professors pander to you. You will simply fail at the next stage in life, where the cost of failure is much greater."
Today, Steve Aird is packing up his office.