Failing the Entire Class

Professor at Texas A&M at Galveston was so frustrated with students' performance that he told them he wouldn't pass anyone and that he was done with them. Administrators had other ideas.

April 27, 2015
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Irwin Horwitz had had enough. His students, he thought, weren't performing well academically and they were being disruptive, rude and dishonest. So he sent the students in his strategic management class an email:

"Since teaching this course, I have caught and seen cheating, been told to 'chill out,' 'get out of my space,' 'go back and teach,' [been] called a 'fucking moron' to my face, [had] one student cheat by signing in for another, one student not showing up but claiming they did, listened to many hurtful and untrue rumors about myself and others, been caught between fights between students…."

Horwitz said he would fail every single student. "None of you, in my opinion, given the behavior in this class, deserve to pass, or graduate to become an Aggie, as you do not in any way embody the honor that the university holds graduates should have within their personal character. It is thus for these reasons why I am officially walking away from this course. I am frankly and completely disgusted. You all lack the honor and maturity to live up to the standards that Texas A&M holds, and the competence and/or desire to do the quality work necessary to pass the course just on a grade level…. I will no longer be teaching the course, and all are being awarded a failing grade."

The same day Horwitz sent a similar email to the senior administrators of the university telling them what he had done, and predicting (correctly) that students would protest and claim he was being unfair. The students are "your problem now," Horwitz wrote.

The university has said that Horwitz's failing grades will not stand.

A spokesman for the university said via email that "all accusations made by the professor about the students' behavior in class are also being investigated and disciplinary action will be taken" against students found to have behaved inappropriately. The spokesman said that one cheating allegation referenced by Horwitz has already been investigated and that a student committee cleared the student of cheating.

However, the spokesman said that the across-the-board F grades, which were based on Horwitz's views of students' academic performance and behavior, will all be re-evaluated. "No student who passes the class academically will be failed. That is the only right thing to do," he said.

In an interview, Horwitz said that the class was his worst in 20 years of college-level teaching. The professor, who is new to Galveston, relocated (to a non-tenure-track position) because his wife holds an academic job in Houston, and they have had to work hard to find jobs in the same area. He stressed that the students' failings were academic as well as behavioral. Most, he said, couldn't do a "break-even analysis" in which students were asked to consider a product and its production costs per unit, and determine the production levels needed to reach a profit.

In most of his career, he said, he has rarely awarded grades of F except for academic dishonesty. He said he has never failed an entire class before, but felt he had no choice after trying to control the class and complaining to administrators at the university.

Students have complained that they need this class to graduate, and Horwitz said that based on the academic and behavioral issues in class, they do not deserve to graduate with degrees in business fields (the majors for which the course is designed and required).

Response to his actions has been intense. Horwitz said that he has received (and he shared) emails that were quite critical and mocked him, and others that praised him for taking a stand.

Asked if the decision to fail every one of the 30-plus enrollees was fair to every student, Horwitz said that "a few" students had not engaged in misbehavior, and he said that those students were also the best academic performers. Horwitz said he offered to the university that he would continue to teach just those students, but was told that wasn't possible, so he felt he had no choice but to fail everyone and leave the course.

Faculty Rights

Horwitz said he believes his academic freedom has been violated in this case, because the university is changing the grades he has assigned.

Henry Reichman, chair of American Association of University Professors' Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure and a professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay, said that faculty members generally do have the right to assign grades, but there are some extreme circumstances where this may be limited. He said, for example, that if a college found that a professor was failing students for clearly inappropriate reasons, the institution would be correct to intervene.

Reichman stressed that he didn't know the facts at play in the Galveston case. But one principle that is important, he said, is that a panel of professors should be sorting out the situation and making any final determinations.

It should be the right of a professor to grade on behavioral issues and not strictly academic ones, whether that means failing a student who engages in academic misconduct or taking off points for people who miss class or turn in work late. So he said he was troubled by the university saying that none of the behavioral issues could be legitimate reasons for failing a student. But Reichman said faculty members should always be clear about such policies. He also said he was bothered by any collective punishment in which a student is failed for the actions of other students.

When Students Misbehave and Professors Walk

When faculty members take action because students have crossed lines (frequently involving technology), the conduct of everyone is debated. In some of the most talked-about cases, collective punishment was an issue.

In 2010, two professors who taught an introductory engineering course in chemistry at Ryerson University in Canada jointly adopted a policy in which they vowed to make tests more difficult, to encourage students to pay attention. And the professors said that after three warnings about disruptions such as cell phone discussions and movies playing on laptops, the professors would walk out of class -- and students would have to learn the rest of that day's material themselves. The professors abandoned the policy amid much debate.

In 2008, a philosophy professor at Syracuse University sparked a controversy with his policy of leaving class immediately, without covering material that would have been discussed, if he caught a student texting or reading the newspaper.


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