Who Really Failed?
Dominique G. Homberger won't apologize for setting high expectations for her students.
The biology professor at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge gives brief quizzes at the beginning of every class, to assure attendance and to make sure students are doing the reading. On her tests, she doesn't use a curve, as she believes that students must achieve mastery of the subject matter, not just achieve more mastery than the worst students in the course. For multiple choice questions, she gives 10 possible answers, not the expected 4, as she doesn't want students to get very far with guessing.
Students in introductory biology don't need to worry about meeting her standards anymore. LSU removed her from teaching, mid-semester, and raised the grades of students in the class. In so doing, the university's administration has set off a debate about grade inflation, due process and a professor's right to set standards in her own course.
To Homberger and her supporters, the university's action has violated principles of academic freedom and weakened the faculty.
"This is terrible. It undercuts all of what we do," said Brooks Ellwood, president of the LSU Chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and the Robey H. Clark Distinguished Professor of Geology. "If you are a non-tenured professor at this university, you have to think very seriously about whether you are going to fail too many students for the administration to tolerate."
Even for those who, like Homberger, are tenured, there is a risk of losing the ability to stick to your standards, he said. Teaching geology, he said, he has found that there are students who get upset when he talks about the actual age of the earth and about evolution. "Now students can complain to a dean" and have him removed, Ellwood said. "I worry that my ability to teach in the classroom has been diminished."
Kevin Carman, dean of the College of Basic Sciences, did not respond to requests for a phone interview Wednesday. But he issued a statement through the university's public relations office that said: "LSU takes academic freedom very seriously, but it takes the needs of its students seriously as well. There was an issue with this particular class that we felt needed to be addressed.
"The class in question is an entry-level biology class for non-science majors, and, at mid-term, more than 90 percent of the students in Dr. Homberger's class were failing or had dropped the class. The extreme nature of the grading raised a concern, and we felt it was important to take some action to ensure that our students receive a rigorous, but fair, education. Professor Homberger is not being penalized in any way; her salary has not been decreased nor has any aspect of her appointment been changed."
In an interview, Homberger said that there were numerous flaws with Carman's statement. She said that it was true that most students failed the first of four exams in the course. But she also said that she told the students that -- despite her tough grading policies -- she believes in giving credit to those who improve over the course of the semester.
At the point that she was removed, she said, some students in the course might not have been able to do much better than a D, but every student could have earned a passing grade. Further, she said that her tough policy was already having an impact, and that the grades on her second test were much higher (she was removed from teaching right after she gave that exam), and that quiz scores were up sharply. Students got the message from her first test, and were working harder, she said.
"I believe in these students. They are capable," she said. And given that LSU boasts of being the state flagship, she said, she should hold students to high standards. Many of these students are in their first year, and are taking their first college-level science course, so there is an adjustment for them to make, Homberger said. But that doesn't mean professors should lower standards.
Homberger said she was told that some students had complained about her grades on the first test. "We are listening to the students who make excuses, and this is unfair to the other students," she said. "I think it's unfair to the students" to send a message that the way to deal with a difficult learning situation is "to complain" rather than to study harder.
Further, she said that she was never informed that administrators had any concerns about her course until she received a notification that she was no longer teaching it. (She noted that the university's learning management system allowed superiors to review the grades on her first test in the course.)
And while her dean authorized her removal from teaching the course, she said, he never once sat in on her course. Further, she said that in more than 30 years of teaching at LSU, no dean had ever done so, although they would have been welcome.
"Why didn't they talk to me?" she asked.
Homberger said that she has not had any serious grading disputes before, although it's been about 15 years since she taught an introductory course. She has been teaching senior-level and graduate courses, and this year, she asked her department's leaders where they could use help, and accepted their suggestion that she take on the intro course.
In discussions with colleagues after she was removed from the course, Homberger said that no one has ever questioned whether any of the test questions were unfair or unfairly graded, but that she was told that she may include "too many facts" on her tests.
Ellwood, the campus AAUP chapter president, said that his group had verified that no one informed Homberger of concerns before removing her from the course, and that no one had questioned the integrity of her tests. He also said that the scores on the second test were notably better than on the first one, suggesting that students were responding to the need to do more work. "She's very rigorous. There's no doubt about that," he said.
Based on its investigation, the AAUP chapter has sent a letter to administrators, arguing that they violated Homberger's academic freedom and due process rights and demanding an apology. (No apology has been forthcoming.)
Cary Nelson, national president of the AAUP, said that the organization has always believed that "an instructor has the responsibility for assigning grades," and that the LSU case was "disturbing in several respects." He noted that "the practice of assigning tough grades in an early assignment as a wake-up call to students is quite common" and that "the instructor made it clear that she had no intention of failing that many students when it came time for final grades."
If administrators were concerned, he said, they had a responsibility to "discuss the matter fully with the instructor" before taking any action. And he said that "removal from the classroom mid-semester is a serious sanction that requires all the protections of due process." Nelson said that the incident "raises serious questions about violations of pedagogical freedoms."
Stuart Rojstaczer, a former Duke University professor who is the founder of GradeInflation.com, a Web site that publishes research on grading, questioned whether LSU was really trying to help students. "How many times has Dean Carman removed a professor from a class who was giving more than 90 percent As?" he asked.
LSU's public affairs office did not respond to follow-up questions about the statement it issued, and to the criticisms made by various faculty members.
Homberger declined to give out the names of students who have expressed support, saying that to do so would violate her confidentiality obligations. But she released (without student names) answers to a bonus question on the course's second test. The question asked students to describe "the biggest 'AHA' reaction" they had had during the course.
Many of the reactions were about various issues in biology -- with evolution as a major topic. But a number dealt with grades and work habits. One was critical: "When I found out my test grade, I almost had a heart attack."
But many other comments about the course standards were positive, with several students specifically praising Homberger's advice that they form study groups. One student wrote: “My biggest AHA-reaction in this course is that I need to study for this course every night to make a good grade. I must also attend class, take good notes, and have study sessions with others. Usually a little studying can get me by but not with this class which is why it is my AHA-reaction."
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