Monthly Archives: April 2014

April 14, 2014

Humboldt State University admissions event ends in tragedy

Last Thursday, a Humboldt State University tour trip ended in tragedy when a Fed Ex truck drifted over a grassy highway median and hit a charter bus filled with teenaged prospective students. Ten lives were lost in the resulting crash and fire – two drivers, three chaperones, and five high school students.

The students on board the bus were recruited by Humboldt State to come to campus for an in-depth tour, orientation, and overnight stay in the dorms. They were selected as part of a program called “Preview Plus,” which seeks to enroll low-income and first generation high school students. Historically, the orientation weekend is a very successful recruiting tool for these students. After attending the free orientation event, 45% of Preview Plus students end up enrolling at the school. This bus crash represents a huge loss to both Humboldt State and the student’s communities.

Two other buses arrived safely to the orientation weekend. An evening barbeque was cancelled as students were informed of the fate of their peers. The rest of the orientation weekend proceeded as scheduled, but with an understandably altered tone. In response to the tragedy, Humboldt President Rollin Richmond and the vice president of public affairs went to area hospitals to visit survivors of the bus crash. A hotline was set up to field incoming calls about the welfare of the orientation attendees.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the families, friends, and communities affected by this unfortunate accident.

 

April 9, 2014

The Adjunct Issue

The recent implementation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has had an unfortunate impact in the world of higher education. Reacting to a provision that mandates employer-provided healthcare  for employees who work 30+ hours per week, many colleges & universities have cut adjunct hours in order to remain in compliance. This has caused further hardship on adjunct faculty, an already struggling segment of the educational workforce.

L4535690946_e3b88b7941ow-paid, part-time adjunct faculty represent a growing majority of educators in higher education. In 1969, 18.5% of professors were part time. From 1975 to 2011, that number has grown by 300%. Today, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, part-time professorships represent 75.5% of educators, or 1.3 million people. One big motivator for this shift has been cost; it’s simply easier to fill courses with part-time faculty instead of full time, salaried professors with full benefits. With this trend maintaining traction for more than 40 years, it is no huge surprise that the Obamacare coverage mandate has only added fuel to the fire.

At the Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, David Hoovler, the executive assistant to the president, says it was “simply unaffordable” to expand health coverage to would-be qualified adjuncts, although the college would have preferred to provide access. CCAC has an annual budget near $109 million and providing health benefits to the ~400 eligible part-time employees would have cost the school upwards of $6 million (Dunn, 2013). However, it can also be argued that trying to live on an adjunct salary is also “simply unaffordable.” Of 152 respondents who provided their estimated annual teaching salary in an Adjunct E-Forum Report, the average was $24,926, with the median at $22,041. In contrast, the median pay for a full time faculty member is $47,500. In order to garner comparable wages, an adjunct would have to teach nearly seventeen courses per year. To put this in perspective, researchers consider a full course load to be eight courses in an academic year.

One educator reports “My university pays $2100 per class which means even if I work at 100% – 10 classes per academic year – I would only make $21,000,” a salary that hovers right above the poverty level. In the Adjunct E-Forum Report, one educator tells her story of survival on an adjunct salary;

“Because I was also the sole support of my two children (both of whom are gifted and honors students, I am proud to report), I relied on Medicaid to pay for the medical bills of my daughter. And, during the time I taught at the community college, I earned so little that I sold my plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for her daycare costs. Seriously, my plasma paid for her daycare because I taught English as adjunct faculty.”

The big problem with tying medical coverage to adjunct hours is that administrators must also consider the time spent prepping for classes, grading assignments, attending meetings, and communicating with students. With the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, the IRS has advised schools to calculate total hours worked by accounting for an additional 1.25 hours of outside work for every hour spent in the classroom. Prior to this recommendation, many schools acted preemptively to avoid taking the risk that an adjunct would go above 30 hours per week, enacting blanket measures to slash schedules and cap adjunct course loads.

With so many adjuncts and recent Ph.D. graduates trying to forge careers in academics, the supply of teachers will continue to outstrip demand. Schools are already extremely motivated to hire these extremely well-qualified professionals as cheap part-time labor. Once hired, adjuncts are often doomed to a life of poverty and uncertainty, where their classes can be canceled and their livelihood compromised at a moment’s notice. “There are really no opportunities for advancement because there [are] very few full-time opportunities available, most likely because the schools are using more and more adjunct instructors instead of adding the higher-paid full-time positions (with or without tenure),” reported one educator.

As a result of their permanent part-time status, many adjuncts choose to teach classes at multiple schools in order to make ends meet – and even a crushing workload doesn’t guarantee a livable wage. “I was teaching five classes at three different campuses. I was quickly going broke and my student debt was still growing,” said Gillian Mason (Lewin), a former adjunct with a Ph.D. in Literature from Boston University.

With the Affordable Care Act bringing this issue to a tipping point, adjuncts are looking for ways to advocate for change. Some activists are looking at unionization, while others have already taken their case to Congress. After hearing congressional testimony from adjuncts, California Representative George Miller said of adjuncts, “You look at their credentials, their background and experience—there has to a conscious decision to treat them this way,” he says. “Then you start to look at it through a student’s eyes, and then you think, I’m getting a person who’s stressed out, maybe just drove three hours to get to my class, doesn’t have time to see me afterward, and you think, Wait a minute, there’s some false advertising going on here.”

The adjunct situation is far from over, so we will be certain to keep you posted on the latest news regarding acts of congress, unionization, adjunct activism, and school reactions. How has your school reacted to the roll out of the Affordable Care Act? Do you think it has affected your school’s treatment of adjunct faculty?

April 1, 2014

Taking the Grade to Court

It’s the classic “he said/she said” in the world of education. A student claims that a professor unfairly gave out a bad grade. The professor counters that grades aren’t given; they are earned. In the case of Megan Thode v. Lehigh University, a judge ruled in favor of a school’s right to use their own discretion in awarding grades.

Megan Thode sued Lehigh University in an effort to have a C+ grade retroactively changed to a B and claimed $1.3million in damages for lost wages because she had to change her career path. The low grade meant that Thode could not advance in her chosen field of study, counseling psychology, and she instead pursued a master’s in education and human development. Thode received the C+ because she received zero credit for in-class participation in her graduate level Therapy Internship course. In this particular course, participation credit requires students to conduct themselves with professionalism, to self-reflect on their personal behavior and perspectives, and to collaborate with other students.

Thode claimed that Amanda Eckhardt (née Amanda Carr), the course’s student teacher, discriminated against her because of her support of gay marriage and that the grade was retaliation for voicing her opinion during class time. Thode had attended every single class session, making the mark of zero all the more suspect. Her lawyer, Richard Orloski, argued, “My client stands alone in the history of Lehigh in getting a zero in class participation.” Steven Thode, the plaintiff’s father and former professor of Finance at Lehigh, supports this point, “I have never heard of a case, not just at Lehigh, where a student achieved a zero in class participation where they attended and participated in every class,” he said.

The defense claimed that, while Thode had indeed attended every class session, she had not met the aforementioned requirements of professionalism, self-reflection, and collaboration. While testifying, Eckhardt defended her decision to award zero participation points to Thode based on her inability to participate appropriately in her internship, citing outbursts, swearing, and emotional instability. During the semester in question, Eckhardt knew that Thode’s behavior was leading her down the path to a failing participation grade and she gave Thode a letter addressing her concerns and advising her on ways to improve her participation. After the warning, Thode failed to change her attitude and became defensive when confronted, at one point saying “I need to get a lawyer.” When awarding final grades, Eckhardt consulted with other faculty at Lehigh before deciding to give Thode no credit for participation. Although she acknowledged that the grade was unprecedented, “I … believed she received the grade she earned,” said Eckhardt.

Eckhardt also addressed the allegations of discrimination, saying that while she believed that marriage was between a man and a woman, she wouldn’t allow her personal opinion to cloud her professional judgment. She also noted that her own sister is a lesbian and that she would support her if she chose to get married.

Throughout the court proceedings, the elephant in the room was the sticky situation of having few precedents for a court to change a student’s grade. In previous court cases of this kind, judges have upheld the respective school’s policies in awarding and appealing grades except in the most extreme cases. In fact, the judge in this case, Emil Giordano, said that he is “unconvinced that the judiciary should be injecting itself in the academic process.”

In the end, Giordano ruled in favor of Lehigh. The school affirmed his decisions. In a statement, Jennifer Tucker, vice president of Public Relations and Communication at Lehigh, said

“Our faculty have a responsibility to evaluate students fairly and accurately as to their attainment of competency in their field and grant a Lehigh degree only when those standards for competency are met. We are defending the right of the university and the right of our faculty to exercise their professional judgment as educators.

Looking at this case from an outsider’s perspective and seeing all of the time, money, and resources that have been tied up in this litigation, I can’t help but think – Why would Ms. Thode abandon her career aspirations (and the supposed $1.3 million that would come with it) simply because she got a C+? While I personally agree that a zero was too harsh for a student who did, at least, attend every class, it is evident that Ms. Thode had plenty of chances to take personal responsibility and turn her grade around without involving the courts.

As demonstrated in the defense testimony, she had ample opportunity to improve her class participation after receiving a written warning and advice from her instructor. And, as noted by a Lehigh student in an editorial, all Lehigh professors are required to hold office hours every week so that students may meet with their instructors and voice their concerns. If Ms. Thode was truly determined to stay in good standing in the counseling psychology program, she could have easily met with Ms. Eckhardt to create a plan of action and remedy the situation. Furthermore – even after receiving the poor mark, she still had the option of re-taking the course in an effort to perform better than the first time; an option that is always available for students.

In the end, Ms. Thode was disappointed to discover that the judicial system could not be used to punish Lehigh for awarding a failing grade, and university professors everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. University professors; how have you approached a difficult student when they were at risk of failing?