May 15, 2003

· Teaching

There was a Doonesbury series a few years ago about a student who gets a B in a course, fears this will prevent him from getting into law school and sues his professor for future loss of earnings from a lifetime of corporate law. Well, now the Invisible Adjunct brings us a story that puts this philosophy into practice. Here’s the nub of it, from a Chronicle article:

Coppin State College is poised to let at least eight students in its criminal-justice graduate program receive master’s degrees on Sunday even though they did not pass their comprehensive exams or write final papers considered acceptable by the faculty. The college decided to let the students graduate after they sued the college.

The students had failed their comprehensive exams and turned in crappy final papers. When I say “crappy” I mean, in the words of one of the college’s faculty, “some were plagiarized from criminal-justice textbooks” and “one was less than five pages long and included a single source.” Even better, the failing students then asked for $2,500 in “punitive damages” and demanded “that the college change its requirements to allow them to graduate without having passed the exam or the seminar paper.”

I honestly don’t understand why the college’s president caved in to the threat of a groundless lawsuit in a way that completely undermines the legitimacy of the institution. When it comes to failing students and the embarrassing publicity that often comes with stories of plagiarism or high flunk rates, the operating principle of many Universities is often “Anything for a quiet life.” But when a school decides to award degrees to students who have failed its courses just because of the threat of a dumb lawsuit … well, where’s the reason in that?

Let me recycle a point from an earlier post of mine that raised a similar issue. In the legal system, the practice of writing opinions and having hearings and dressing up funny are a part of the generation of institutional legitimacy but not sufficient for it. The content also matters. The same goes for the procedures, hoops and hurdles of academia. If people don’t believe an institution is making a bona fide effort to substantively achieve whatever task or value it is designed to complete or embody then all the ritual trappings won’t do it any good. In the present case, the litigious students seem to think that simply sitting an exam or turning in a final paper is sufficient to achieve the substantive goal of getting an M.A. The content or quality of their work seems to matter to them not at all.

Now, a student might be forgiven for thinking this—they tend to adhere to the labor theory of term papers—but not a college president. One student who did pass is considering a countersuit because, as she says, “Do you think companies are going to hire someone with a master’s degree from this school?” Precisely.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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