February 2015 Advocate – Student Success: By Any Means Necessary?

Student Success: By Any Means Necessary?

by Merle Cutler, College of San Mateo

He sat in the front row of my freshman composition class, to my right.  He was about forty, Latino, with a shaved head, combat fatigues and a tightly muscled body, wider than tall. His impression spoke to what he was: an ex-Marine with special combat training. His gaze was intense, a word he would use in future essays about himself.  In terms of the current educational catch phrase at my college, he was a perfect candidate for “student success.”

I have had many veterans over the past few decades of teaching, but after 37 years of a satisfying career in the classroom, I would find myself flummoxed and demoralized by how this latest imperative would shape my college’s response to this student.

Focusing on passing and retaining students

Front-line educators regularly encounter new jargon promoted by administrators as they rewrite and rearticulate institutional goals. In the penultimate semester and final year of my college teaching, the mantra has become “student success.” Perhaps this label is designed to inspire educators to do whatever it takes to provide more services for marginal students and, ultimately, to pass them. Passing and retaining students means a lot to the institution and is a focus for administration.

But back to John, my ex-Marine.  He had a wife, a couple of kids and full-time employment at a local university where he worked at night in a quality-control job. I would find this out later, though, because he missed the first day of class, one of many, because of work-related conflicts. What John missed that day was the traditional first meeting of instructor and class, involving the giving out of the class syllabus, a document that would later turn out to be a problem for him.

In the past ten years or so, the traditional class syllabus has been substantially altered, mostly at the urging of administrators who are fearful of lawsuits and state scrutiny (for those receiving funds from the state) and of visits from accrediting institutions (like those who recently took away City College of San Francisco’s accreditation).  Syllabi can now take up five or more pages describing, in excruciating detail, an instructor’s grading calculus, attendance policy, number of assignments, plagiarism policies, and availability of student services–from psychological counseling to disabled students’ rights under the law.

Instructors are told that this will protect us, should there ever be a conflict or complaint, as well as cover the college’s need should any accreditation team, at random, do a spot check on their next visit. But this guarantee of clarity and protection would prove useless when faced with the latest priority of student success at any cost.

John did show up in my office before the next class, apologetic, and I gave him a copy of the syllabus.  He discussed the impossibility of his work/school situation.  He was receiving veterans’ benefits for returning to school and needed to maintain enrollment in three classes.  Should he fail to do so, he told me, he would have to give the money back, and should he do it twice, the Office of Veteran Affairs would refuse to give him any more funds towards his college degree.  I reminded him of the rigor of college classes, suggested online courses as a possible alternative, and explained to him that my standards were high and he would be expected to meet these standards to pass the class. I encouraged him to read the syllabus, and to ask me if anything were unclear to him.

As the semester progressed, John began to miss enough classes to warrant my concern, so I decided to speak with him about it.  John assured me that he would miss no more classes; he had spoken to Human Resources at his work and asked for their understanding of his situation.

Students, either from naiveté or financial pressure, often make the same mistake as John in signing up for too much, and by mid-semester John’s tension was mounting.  When he failed to show up for another class, this one a required in-class peer editing session on his rough draft, he was beside himself.  He came up to my office after the class, waving the rough draft in his hand and demanding credit for showing up, albeit late.  But the point of the exercise was to have students participate in a peer review, and the requirement for attendance in the class to participate was clearly on the syllabus.  John had, once again, been unable to get away from work and was asking for special status because of his work situation.  I met him in the hallway and explained that in the end, all it meant was that if the paper warranted a B grade, for example, he would receive a B- grade instead.

I watched as his body reacted to my reiteration of the course policy. He looked incredulous, seemed to gather size on an intake of air and grow taller, his eyes widening as he spun around and headed down the hall away from me. I saw rage, and for the first time in my life I began to think about the need for security, something I have never asked for before.

My fear escalated as I thought back to the content of his essays, one on special combat techniques elite Marines practice on the weekend, to toughen up and prepare the body and mind for potential capture. In another essay he attacked a psychological theory by saying that the psychologist who promoted it “shouldn’t be allowed to have children,” because she espoused more of those “empty-headed liberal attitudes.”  “Any rational person,” John had said, “would understand how insane her ideas were.”  What I had perceived before to be a person in need of the discipline of critical thinking had now become someone threatening.

Frailty, Thy Name is Leadership

John left my office and went directly to my newly hired Dean to complain, and soon, the Dean arrived in my office to let me know about it. I have been teaching since 1977, and in that time had received only three complaints, John’s included. I don’t know how leadership parses these things, but since John was complaining halfway into the semester about clearly articulated class policies, I expected that the Dean would re-explain the policies and suggest that John either drop the course, transfer to another class if possible, or learn to live with them.  As I mentioned, the attendance policy was standard across the college.

Instead, my Dean came to my office saying that John was older, uncomfortable in the college environment, a veteran pressured with a difficult job, trying to make his way here. The Dean tried to move him into another class, but it was not to be.  He ended his conversation with me in a later email by saying that I should try “to find strategies so that John could end the semester successfully.”

But if student success is defined as learning, everything in the class available to John was already designed to promote his success: my twelve hours a week of availability for consultation on essays both in my office and at our Writing Center, an attendance policy that guarantees students stay on top of their classwork, a one-late-paper option, a peer review policy that insures that students not begin work on an essay the night before, and mandatory tutorials in the Writing Center for upcoming essays.  The structure to promote genuine student success was built into the course. John was responsible for the work to meet those standards of success.

John’s complaint about being required to meet the course requirements had no merit. But he had the Dean’s attention and sympathy. It was clear that the Dean did not have my back. And the Dean’s unwillingness to end the complaint, by simply backing standard policies laid out in the syllabus, would lead to a cascade of very unpleasant events.

The Contract/The Dean

My Dean emailed me again, announcing that he and John had worked out a contract and “it would be great if I signed it, too.”  John brought me the contract and lost no time dropping the Dean’s name, as often as possible, for the remainder of our time together that semester.  This contract listed four or five items:
1) I will withdraw from my math class.
2) I will talk to Human Resources at work so I can attend my English class regularly
3) I will check in with my professor once a week to get help on my essays.
4) I will . . .
I stopped reading.

I have a friend who teaches English at a local high school and was a former guidance counselor. She told me that these “contracts” are strategies often used by high school counselors and principals in inner city schools.   But John was 40 and a college student, and just like John, most community college students also work. Many support their families and are under extreme pressure in terms of completing their education. Some are forced to work 40 hour-a-week jobs. Some of them are veterans, and many are minority students.

I refused to sign a contract that bypassed me in its creation and created a privileged single student. College isn’t set up so that every unhappy student gets a contract from the Dean.

Never before have I had a student go to the Dean claiming that his circumstances warranted a special contract and the circumvention of his instructor’s authority. And his wish was granted! Aside from infantilizing a middle- aged man with such a contract, the Dean sent a damaging message to this returning veteran who needed to learn how to be a student: John was special and the Dean’s contract proved it.  As it turned out, John had conned the Dean and never did honor the contract, but that was to come later.

This Dean who, before deanship, had given one of my peer evaluations a special commendation for “inspiring her students,” had now abandoned me entirely. I could not expect any support from him.

Next Complaint

The semester was coming to an end, and John realized that he had not yet fulfilled the requirement for mandatory tutorial conferences in the Writing Center. He needed five. Upon failing to secure his first required conference, John came to my office saying, “I don’t like the Writing Center! I waited for 45 minutes and I couldn’t get a conference with you!  I’ve filed a complaint about the Writing Center, and I’m not going and will work with you in your office instead.”  I told him that the Writing Center conferences were part of the course’s requirements, clearly stated on the syllabus, and if he didn’t complete this part of the requirement, his grade would be docked to some degree (about seven percent).

Again I watched the “puffing up” of his body, the flare of the nostrils, the widening of the eyes and the takeoff down the hallway.  Again I saw rage, and again I wanted security.  I was scared.

John went straight to my Dean again, who told him that the Writing Center was a limited resource.  Unhappy with this answer, John went over the Dean’s head.

Vice President of Instruction: Withdrawal

The Vice President would tell me later that John had complained, yet again, about the course policies that made it so difficult for him to be successful in the class, and having also missed a required essay at this point, he asked to be withdrawn from the class.  I certainly had no objection, but the college deadline for withdrawal had passed.  “No problem,” said the Vice President, and bypassing protocol, she immediately saw to it that John was gone. So was the security detail I had asked for and felt comforted by.  A week later, I would meet with the Vice President about this whole incident, basically to say how upsetting it had all been, particularly the part about being utterly unsupported by the Dean.  But by that time, the situation had changed again.

Vice President of Instruction: Reinstatement

It would turn out that John had never dropped his math class as per the requirements of his contract with the Dean, and by withdrawing from my class now, he would lose his veterans’ benefits.  He told the Vice President this as though the information were new to him, and he now wanted to be reinstated in the class.  She should have dismissed his request without any thought: she had already done him a favor by withdrawing him so late in the semester.

Instead, she offered John the option of being re-enrolled in my class. But because he had exceeded the number of allowed absences, not done the required work in the Writing Center and had missed a paper which he could not make up, he would receive an “F” in the course and could not take the final.  Or he could also choose to continue his withdrawal from the class. John chose the F option with reinstatement so that he could retain his veteran’s benefits.

The Vice President assured me that I would not need to see John again, and that I could have security at the final, in case John tried to appear.  It was over, she told me. Importantly (and for the first time) she said, “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry this has happened to you.”  It felt good to hear it, but it didn’t change the fact that she, like the Dean before her, had caved to this student.  At least she apologized.  And she told me it was over.  I would never see him again.

Vice Chancellor, Human Resources and Employee Relations: The Final

But it was not over. Unable to meet with the college president who, I was told, was in China, and apparently emboldened with his frighteningly successful attempts to come and go at will in the class, John sought out the next level of administration, the Vice Chancellor, Human Resources and Employee Relations. This time, John protested his inability to take the final and finish the class. He did this even though he had not appeared in class for about two weeks, having been withdrawn and only recently reinstated.  Defying reason and overstepping the line between administration and faculty purview over academic matters, the Vice Chancellor said, I was told, “Aw, let him take the final.”

The Email

For over a month, John’s spectacularly successful manipulations had undermined any semblance of academic standards in my class.  At the highest levels, everyone who had contact with him appeared to abandon reason and good sense. Did John plead his children, his war record, his efforts to survive in what was, to him, an alien environment? Other students at our college also had obligations of family and financial constraints, including other veterans. Perhaps John just had a unique willingness to demand special consideration.

I’ll never know, but I can speak to the effects this constant reneging on the part of administration had on me.  My Dean and the Vice President now told me that John would take the final, but in the Dean’s office, and I didn’t need to grade it if I didn’t want to. That was up to me. But, incredibly, I was still expected to calculate his grade for the course.

My stress levels were soaring, but at least the security detail was reinstated. My husband, disgusted by the sequence of events and fearful for my safety, wrote an email to both the Dean and the Vice President of Instruction, stating that if this student threatened me in any way, my husband would hold the Dean and the Vice President personally responsible.  A copy of the email was forwarded to the college president. It took the astonishing power of an implied lawsuit to finally meet John’s equally astonishing success in garnering acquiescence from administration. Soon, the effects of this would alter the game.

As for me, I suddenly understood that this entire situation had ceased to be about my teaching and John’s learning, having gone clearly beyond the scope of any remotely “educational” endeavor.  I had my epiphany. Based upon a flippant remark in my husband’s email about “let the Dean just take over and pass John,” I knew what I needed to do.

In an email to the Dean and Vice President, I said that I planned to turn over my grades and attendance records to my Dean.  But after that, I told them, I was out. I would not read John’s final, and I refused to grade him for the semester.  After months of administrators sabotaging and violating the integrity of my class and then expecting me to undo the problem they created with a final grade, it made no sense for me to continue to participate. I would clearly be violating my contract, but it was the right thing to do. For the first time in months, my body relaxed when I said, in essence, “You did it. Now it’s time for you to fix it.”

The Cabinet Responds

Apparently in response to my refusal to grade John and my husband’s threat of a lawsuit, our “Cabinet” (the President and two Vice Presidents) convened and after discussion came up with the following solution: John was officially withdrawn from my class, but allowed to take the final (my final!) in a made-up section of the course, another English class of the same level (with only John in it).  Based on my records and his final, the Dean would assign a grade to John.  John was also told I no longer was his instructor: it was all up to the Dean now, exactly where it started and should have stopped, so many months before.  Did the Dean pass John?  Probably.  The Dean was known before his deanship as both an excellent instructor and easy grader.  I doubt he would have been the first or last in this chain of events to say no.

The Results

Very recently, President Obama has suggested that the government fund the first two years of community college for all students who wish to enroll.  But I am certain that pandering to an empty slogan of “student success”  or any other jargon is not what President Obama had in mind.

My own experience of this messy, disheartening situation has reaffirmed for me that colleges are fundamentally about teaching and learning, and adhering to standards is the only way that can happen with any kind of integrity.  When colleges forget their primary role, students are cheated by being passed for all the wrong reasons, faculty are lost without support, and administrators are left with role confusion in the face of an empty imperative for “student success” at any cost.

No, President Obama could not have meant this.  Nobody would.