All faculty need academic freedom to protect their students


Sometimes I hear questions like, “Why is academic freedom so important? Why should university professors should have total control over what they teach?”

Let me answer those questions with a cautionary tale.

Last semester, a shortage of academic freedom in one department at my university caused what can only be characterized as a tragic boondoggle. This is causing an entire cohort of students to graduate one year late.

Over fifty Biology majors were enrolled in the second semester of General Chemistry. An adjunct lecturer planned and taught this course. The tenure-track faculty in Chemistry implemented their own common internal exam to be administered to all General Chemistry students. The instructor was not privy to the contents of this exam while she was teaching this course. Consequently, over the entire semester, the lectures and homework assignments did not correspond to the material that the students were tested on at the end of the course.

The students, who had been performing well throughout the semester, were blindsided with an exam that looked nothing like they had been studying for the whole semester. This class historically has a pass rate exceeding 80%. Last semester, however, more than 80% of the students failed. The instructor of record for this course, who taught the whole semester, did not apparently have authority over the grading of the exams, nor final authority over the grades that she was directed to submit to the university. This sounds outrageous, but also sounds like the only sensible explanation for what transpired.

Most of these students clearly did not deserve to fail. They did not deserve an exam that did not reflect the content of the course itself. They deserved an instructor who has the authority to control the grades assigned in the course.

The chair of the department is not making any accommodation for the students who got screwed over in her department. The chair claims that the students simply weren’t prepared for the exam. I don’t dispute that fact, but in this circumstance the lack of student preparation is the fault of the Chemistry department, not the students. The students fulfilled the academic expectations of the instructor, but that had no connection to their grade. That is flat-out unethical.

The consequences of this F go well beyond this single course. None of the students can retake the course this semester, because those sections were filled by those who passed preceding course in the sequence.

The soonest these victims can retake the course is one year after they were originally enrolled, but now we have twice as many students trying to take this course and the Chemistry Department refused to offer any additional sections to its victims from last semester.

This course is a prerequisite to Organic Chemistry, which is a prerequisite for other courses. Nearly all of our majors in this section – more than fifty students – are now going to graduate at least one year later than they had planned.

What’s the worst part of all this? It happened two months ago, and as far as I can tell, the only people who aware and troubled are the ones who have no power to change anything.

If any of our students had families donating large sums of money to the school, this situation would have been resolved lickety-split. If anybody with authority in Chemistry actually cared about the students, this would have been fixed before the semester ended. If department had any confidence in their trained contingent faculty, then this unjust situation wouldn’t have emerged.

The students can file a grade grievance, but that won’t fix the problem. It takes at least a year for that process to go through the system. (I served once as a “preliminary investigator” for a grade grievance claim, and the incident happened three semesters earlier.)

You might ask, “Aren’t common exams an effective way to make sure that there is consistency in grading when section are taught by different instructors?” The answer to that question is yes. However, that consistency has a price. In this case, the price is reasonable academic progress for scores of students. Keep in mind that most of our students work long hours in addition to a full class load, and also have substantial family concerns at home. Being in school is a great challenge, and we just made made the climb to graduation even steeper.

The required use of common exams deprives instructors of the academic freedom to evaluate their own students.

If similar events had taken place in any of the three private institutions in which I’ve taught (as adjunct, visiting, and tenure-track), this disgrace would be unthinkable and scandalous. There would be mass protest. But at this disadvantaged university, it’s just one more injustice.

At this point, I’m not even sure if our administrators are aware of this incident. I have a huge amount of confidence in the Dean and the President, who I imagine would do everything they can to resolve this situation, insofar as it is possible. The fact that this problem wasn’t a howling and yelling crisis at their doorstep at the end of last semester is a sad testament to the fact that our students are just accustomed to being disempowered, and they just roll with being wronged. It’s our job, as faculty, to prevent these wrongs from at the outset. That starts with giving all instructors that academic freedom over their own workload.

If any instructor is good enough to be hired as to teach for the university, then they’re good enough to be trusted by the university to carry out their job independently. Any department that lacks the faith that its own instructors can teach appropriately has huge problems that can’t be fixed by imposing a top-down exam.

As a postscript, I should note that common exams are not always a disaster, though I think they are inadvisable. In grad school, I used to teach three sections in a class that had more than 40 sections. All of the TAs gave the same exam, and we had little control over this exam. We didn’t even get to see it until a few days before we taught, because it was a practicum set up at the last moment. I see the need for consistency among sections taught by graduate students with little to not teaching experience. I don’t see the need, however, for this particular solution.

How the heck was I supposed to know what to teach when I didn’t know the basis on which students were going to be evaluated? This was obviously a problem for students. (I also lacked the experience and professionalism to deal with this situation effectively.) This was mostly an annoyance, though, and the students did just fine in the end as best as I can recall. The lab was not overly detailed, and the exams weren’t overly idiosyncratic. As a novice instructor, I found the system to be unfair to both myself and the students. If instructors are teaching a course, they should be able to construct or choose their own evaluation. If for some reason that doesn’t happen, at the very least the faculty need to know exactly what is in exams before the start of the semester.

12 thoughts on “All faculty need academic freedom to protect their students

  1. Wow Terry – Thanks for taking the time to write about this. You are correct, there was a serious injustice that was done here. It is not too late for the problem to be corrected through. I would write to the Dean of Science and the President of your university. Share a link to this website. Ask if something can’t be done before this goes viral. Because frankly, this SHOULD go viral. I, for one, am about to post it to facebook and to twitter. I am hoping that many of my followers will repost it too! CALL FOR ACTION!

  2. There was an injustice done to the students, but it lay in the fact that the instructor didn’t know what would be on the departmental exam. (Why didn’t she know?) Presumably, the departmental exam is written the way it is for a reason — to make sure the students who pass it are ready for the next course in the sequence. Yes, individual instructors can do this themselves, but this one clearly didn’t. If she had, the failure rate may have been a little higher than normal from unfamiliar question types, but it wouldn’t have been 80%! Assuming the departmental exam is designed to include necessary material and isn’t graded in an overly picky way (problem type X must be solved using method Y and no other method), the reasonable solution would be for the chemistry department to offer one more section of general chemistry next term.

  3. While the exact details of the upcoming common exam ought to be kept secret from all faculty teaching the course, and from all students, the overall scheme of the exam should be widely known. The best way to ensure this is to have past exams posted to the web, and to have those writing the exam tasked with maintaining, not lockstep duplication, but reasonable continuity. How hard can this be in the early semesters of chemistry? There is a core content that would be found on just about any exam at just about any university. The degree of difficulty might vary, but wide variation has to be rare.

    Instructors should be given printed copies of past exams, as well as the URL, and apprised that they need to give special emphasis to the ideas that are needed to cope with the kinds of exam questions that occur repeatedly on common exams. And common exams should be features not just of the final, but of earlier course exams. This much reduces the chances for mass blindsiding.

    If, despite all these precautions, a class collapses on the first exam, there will still be time to look into whether the instructor is out of their depth or psychologically off their feed. Still time to check whether the class is drastically below the usual run of such classes when it comes to preparation. Time to check whether the exam writing committee has gone off the deep end. Time to DO SOMETHING.

    • Let’s back up. There’s no circumstance in which the instructor of a university course should have the contents of the exam from the course hidden from her. Common exam or otherwise.

      This is not a standardized test to be reported to an external agency; this is a summative assessment of performance at the end of a single semester.

      • I’m doing course development right now and should teach my first offering of the course in the summer. I’m strongly considering asking colleagues who have also taught the class and know the project to write at least the final exam so the results aren’t biased by my knowledge of how the teaching went.

        • How about you tell your students that you’re not writing the exam and don’t know *exactly* what will be on it at the start of the semester?

        • I’d know the topics (heck, I wrote the textbook!), just not the exact questions. Students tend to attribute questions, even in the things they know I wrote, to some mysterious “them”, so it shouldn’t be a big difference for them. The big question is whether my colleagues would accept the extra work! I’m not saying this should always be done, but this is a new course that differs radically from the old one, so objective evaluation is important. (We’re also doing surveys and other forms of evaluation, but the final is the big one.)

          Sometimes, departmental rules can protect students. I got a D+ in my first calculus class, which later mysteriously changed to a B-. Upon starting the next quarter of calc with the same instructor, he told us that the first grades we saw were our real grades but they were changed later. I suspect the math department told him he couldn’t fail so many students.

  4. This seems like the failure of a department chair to adequately keep an adjunct in the loop. I suspect that failure to keep adjuncts in the loop is a common mistake but it doesn’t matter “as much” as the adjunct’s students are generally not subjected to a common exam at the end. However, they may very well be “subjected” to a common exam in the future: the GRE or MCAT or other standardized entrance exam. That said, it seems like this department needs to have a long conversation on what the overall learning goals are for the program and how each course fits into those learning goals. This, I guess, impinges on faculty “academic freedom” but as long as they are involved in the formation of those goals, the imposition of a common final in the courses in the major would not be in conflict. Of course, this would require an uncommon leader who was simultaneously strong but with a healthy bend towards effective collaboration and consensus building. In the same way that we are not (generally) trained to teach effectively in grad school, we are also not (generally) trained to lead effectively. To me, this seems more like a breakdown in leadership rather than the outcome of a threat to academic freedom.

    • The GRE and the MCAT have widely available study materials, and everyone thinking about taking them knows from the start that they’re written by a distant company and not one of their class professors. They aren’t comparable to this situation.

      • Lirael,

        I think you misinterpreted my point. As we think about educating biology majors (and I am a department chair so I try to think broadly), I would hope that the goal of a biology education would be to produce undergraduates that are generally well-educated in biology if they are biology majors. Whether we take the GRE or the MCAT or, in my case, diagnostic exams at the beginning of one’s Ph.D. program or when our employer expects us to know something biological because they hired us to be a biologist, we will still be expected to know a common body of knowledge that represents the facts, conceptual underpinning and habits of thought of a biologist. When I was a Ph.D. student, I had to choose 4 of 8 areas of biology to be tested on. I forget what all eight were but I choose Zoology, Ecology, Evolution and Genetics because these were my interests at the time and we were free to choose. My undergraduate and MS professors did not teach to these diagnostic exams but they did give me an excellent general education that allowed me to pass all of the exams, even the one I felt was my weakest, Genetics.

        So, to reiterate, I will repost my comment in more clear language: We should be endeavoring to teach our students what is generally accepted as the facts, conceptual underpinnings, and the habits of thought of our field whether there is a common exam or not so that, if there is, our students would succeed on such an exam. THAT SAID, I think the implementation of a common exam without notifying everyone in the department that this was going to happen and then making no concessions for that fact after the fact was a failure of leadership by the department chair in how he or she deals with adjuncts and conflict.

        Hopefully, this is more clear.

        Perhaps a future post might deal with what the testing requirements are of new graduate students (diagnostic exams, comprehensive exams, etc.)?

        • I was really surprised by the comments on this post, which revealed a fundamental split on what we should be teaching and how it should be evaluated.

          Some folks think that there’s fixed set of information to which we should be teaching, and that testing should reflect how well students learn that external set of facts.

          Others (including myself) think that exactly what gets evaluated is best left to the individual instructor. A good instructor aligns these evaluations to discipline-specific standards, which are always evolving, but uses latitude to shape what happens in the class. I didn’t want to get into this distinction much, or why I prefer the latter, but I find it really intriguing. I think this is, to some extent, discipline-specific.

  5. Terry,
    I actually agree with you but I would guess that you cover the big important things in the process. I am not sure if you teach an upper level biology course in ecology but, if you did, I doubt that you would go an entire semester without mentioning competition theory. You might cover it differently than I would but I think you would expose your students to it because it is important (unless you think it is not, at which point we would just have to disagree).

    I actually am involved in a program where we have made the false decision of “depth over breadth” and concentrate more on how scientists think and what scientists do (we have a 2-year undergraduate research program required of all majors). In the process, we have learned that more depth = more breadth (thus, the “false decision” mentioned above). This manner of teaching gives us a program that is really unlike a lot of college curricula but, in the process, we cover the things that I think a well-educated biologist would be expected to know/do. Our students just learn it in different ways than at a R1 institution.

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