Looking the Other Way?
A former instructor in Southern Utah University’s English as a Second Language program has raised a variety of concerns about the quality of the program, including the toleration of plagiarism, low academic standards, and a preponderance of instructors without extensive training or experience teaching English as a second language. According to information provided by the university at Inside Higher Ed’s request, 5 of the 14 instructors hold master’s degrees in education, in one case with a focus on ESL. Three have master’s degrees in other fields. Five have only bachelor’s degrees, and one has just an associate of science. Nine of the 14 instructors have less than two years of experience teaching ESL.
The charges by the former instructor have set off an investigation by the university. The inquiry comes at a time that Southern Utah, like many colleges and universities, has quickly expanded efforts to recruit full-paying international students, and to teach them enough English to enroll.
Southern Utah's intensive English program enrolls 170 students, who predominantly come from Saudi Arabia and are supported by government scholarships. Belinda Frost, who resigned earlier this month, paints a portrait of an intensive English program with little oversight and little regard for consistent – or rigorous – academic standards. There was no one, she said, who evaluated instructors or reviewed their syllabuses or final exams. According to Frost, there were some instructors who assigned very little homework and who gave high marks to students with abysmal attendance. Frost provided Inside Higher Ed with one instructor’s essay grading rubric, which assigns one point each, on a four-point scale, to neatness, content, grammar and being on time. (The instructor who created the rubric, Judy Bulloch, declined to comment for this article.)
“There’s just been zero oversight,” Frost said. “I think the program was just set up as a money-making machine for the university.”
Though the program is being revamped, it has consisted of five levels of English, each level consisting of three four-week modules. Students advance from level to level based on their grades. Once students complete the five levels they can matriculate into Southern Utah. Unlike at many other institutions, there is no additional requirement that these students earn a minimum score on a standardized test (such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language) in order to enroll.
“We sent kids into that university who were not prepared in any shape or form,” Frost said.
Standards and Plagiarism
Frost’s concerns boil down to two main, interrelated issues: instructor quality and academic standards. In making a complaint about instructor quality to the university's provost, Frost cited “syntax, content, and lexical issues” in an e-mail she received from a (then-) fellow instructor, which describes the instructor's plans for teaching The Diary of Anne Frank to students in the fifth and final level of ESL. As the instructor wrote, “The research paper this time will be for my class, an autobiography of their own life, so I can tone down the Jewish aspect. Political issues over there are widespread as these young men have been taught that Hitler was a military hero. They do not know he killed millions of Jews and after having this little shockeroo one day at home when we were discussing heroes at the dinner table, I prefer to side step this. They can have empathy for Anne as a person in a difficult circumstance and use a journal and their own life story themselves to help them get through their own life challenges.”
The e-mail continues: “I want this final term to be something they have written of excellence. I have tried individual 1 page papers, and chapter summaries and other ways to get them to write. If they feel insecure or don't know how to write, they resort to internet pieces which helps them do nothing...”
Frost reports that plagiarism has been a problem in the program. Frost said that she reported one student for plagiarism three different times and the student remained enrolled in the program nonetheless. The student handbook states that plagiarism is not allowed, but leaves a degree of wiggle room regarding the consequences: “If you do this [plagiarize], you will receive an F on your assignment and no points will be given,” the handbook says. “If you continue to do this you may be asked to leave the program.”
Frost provided copies of three student essays graded by another instructor, Nina Hansen, to The Salt Lake Tribune. According to the newspaper’s account, the papers were summaries of the Lois Lowry book Number the Stars. The students’ names were obscured. The Tribune reports that each of the essays had handwritten comments noting the problem of plagiarism. One, which the newspaper describes as “a wholesale theft from SparkNotes, complete with its headings,” received the grade of 73; the other, which the newspaper describes as almost entirely cut and pasted from Wikipedia -- complete with the underlined words indicating hyperlinks -- received an 88.
Hansen, who has been put on probation by the university, did not respond to Inside Higher Ed’s requests for comment. However, she told the Tribune that she gives Fs for plagiarism when she catches it, and said, "If there was a passing grade on a plagiarized paper it is only the grade the student would have received if it had not been plagiarized."
Frost said she discovered the plagiarized papers in a folder left on her shelf in the office she shared with the other instructors. In her resignation e-mail she cited the papers as “indicative of the lack of standards in our program, which includes lax grading policies and teacher qualifications.” Frost – who said she returned the essays to the office after photocopying them – was charged by SUU police for misdemeanor theft of lost property on Monday, and barred from campus upon threat of arrest.
A university spokesman, Dean O'Driscoll, said that the criminal complaint was brought by Hansen, rather than by university administrators. He said on Tuesday that the university has handed the case off to local law enforcement agencies “to help people understand the university is not involved in those theft charges in any way." He also said that the criminal trespassing order has been altered, so that Frost is free to appear any place on campus other than the ESL office and teaching area.
Investigations and Improvements
It is difficult to get a wide range of perspectives on what’s happening at Southern Utah. Ten different instructors contacted by Inside Higher Ed either did not respond to interview requests or declined to comment. The interim director of the program, Robert Goodman, also did not respond to phone and e-mail messages. O’Driscoll, the vice president for university relations, said on Tuesday that the university would ask an accredited ESL program to conduct an external review of its program.
“Academic integrity is our lifeblood,” said O’Driscoll. “We take these allegations seriously and that’s why we’re taking time to do a complete investigation of the entire program and to be very thorough so we know what we’re dealing with and we know what corrections and improvements we need to make.”
The program is fairly young. Southern Utah’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies assumed control of the intensive English program in 2011; prior to that, a private company, Internexus, had operated it. The ESL program does not have separate, programmatic accreditation (not all English language programs do), and the program is not listed as a member of either the University and Colleges Intensive English Programs or the American Association of Intensive English Programs
Southern Utah's program has also experienced significant turnover at the leadership level. Goodman, who has a master’s in international management as well as a secondary teaching certificate with endorsements in Spanish and speech communication, took over on an interim basis after the previous director left six months ago. O’Driscoll said a new director for the institute is scheduled to come on board in January: Andrea Stiefvater, who is currently at Morrisville State College, holds an Ed.D. in literacy and TESL.
For her part, Frost said she is not hopeful that the program will improve significantly until instructors are better-compensated. According to O’Driscoll, pay for instructors ranges from $17.50 to $20 per hour: Frost said she was paid $17.50 per hour taught (with no compensation for time spent preparing for classes or grading), and per hour spent in faculty meetings and office hours. Frost said there are no TESL or applied linguistics programs in the area – she said her own master’s in applied linguistics comes from a distance program operated by the University of New England, in Australia – so it’s difficult to find highly qualified instructors locally. Nobody, she said, would move to Cedar City, Utah for that pay.