Tag Archives: Aird

When students fail, who’s responsible?

This story out of Norfolk State University has been lighting up the internet in general and the edu-blogosphere in particular. It revolves around Steven Aird, a biologist at Norfolk, who was denied tenure for failing too many students: 

The report from [Dean Sandra DeLoatch] 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.”

But you really have to go read the whole thing to get the full complexity of the issue. Read especially the comments at the end. This situation has really touched a nerve among higher ed people.

And it’s not hard to see why, either. This story brings up in great clarity a profound conundrum in college teaching: When students fail, whose fault is it? Is it: 

  • the students‘ fault, for not working hard enough or putting forth enough effort or so forth? 
  • the professor’s fault, for not working hard enough to reach and help his/her students? 
  • the university’s fault, for creating a culture of low expectations? (This is Aird’s argument.) 
  • the students’ high schools’ fault for not adequately preparing them for college? 
  • somebody else’s fault, for example the admissions department for allowing students who are knowingly unprepared for college to enroll, thereby forcing the university to hold lower standards in order to maintain decent retention rates? 
There is no one-size-fits-all answer, of course; every instance of student failure is some linear combination of faults. Looking at Aird’s case, it’s not obvious what that combination is. Is Aird simply an uncaring elitist — or an outright racist, as some critics are claiming (Aird is white, and Norfolk State is a historically black university) — who is refusing to help students who need it? Is Norfolk State pulling a Benedict College and enabling an academic climate so anemic that any professor who assesses students with halfway-decent standards ends up flunking the vast majority of his students? How did it get to the point where only 10% of his intro biology students are earning a C or higher? 
Again, it’s hard to say exactly what happened here without more information, but there are a few things for sure about this case: 
  • The overwhelming instinct among professors is to lay the blame somewhere else besides themselves. One look at the comments at the IHE article will tell you so. And this instinct may be justified; the plain fact is that many students do fail in spite of the resources available to them, because they are not prepared, or because they have too many distractions in life, or because they are lazy and won’t utilize what’s available to them. But I think profs must beware of transferring the behavior of some students to the behavior of all students. How many of Prof. Aird’s students were adequately prepared to do well in the course, and would have done so with a little more work on Aird’s part or the students’ advisors’ parts? 
  • The overwhelming instinct among some other people is to lay the blame squarely at the feet of the professor. “If students fail, then it’s the teacher that failed” is the common aphorism. But this simply isn’t true all of the time. One of the main distinguishing factors between education at the college and university level from that at the K-12 level is the degree to which students are responsible for their own learning. A university education is a meeting of the minds. The professor’s job is to craft a well-structured course that enables students to learn. But the professor cannot make learning happen — the student must pick up the ball at some point and take initiative, by doing homework (especially when it’s not required), coming to office hours, asking questions, and investing time in struggling with material that might be difficult. If the professor does her/his part and the student opts out and then fails, it’s not the professor’s fault for not going farther and doing more of the student’s work for him or her. Some times — many times — teachers pass but students fail. 
  • The university or college itself bears a big responsibility: To create and foster a campus culture where the two-part meeting of the minds I just described takes place on a daily, ever-increasing basis. And by implication, it’s the university’s responsibility to eradicate anything that stands in the way of this. If the university fails to enforce its own academic rules (which appears possibly to have been the case at Norfolk regarding an “80% attendance” rule), or allows co-curricular or athletic activities to usurp the primary role of teaching and learning on campus, then nobody is going to win. 
If more universities would simply take up the challenge of being intentional about the primacy of academics on campus, and conduct itself likewise, then I think fewer cases like this would happen. 

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