Give Me the ‘A’ and No One Gets Hurt

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A high grade was once a rare thing, something after which many sought but few earned. Now the tables have drastically turned, with A’s representing 45 percent of all letter grades given in universities. It should be no surprise, then, that University of Georgia (UGA) Business Professor Richard Watson recently attempted to add a “Stress Reduction Policy” to his syllabus that would allow his students to change their own grades. (Watson’s students, by the way, consider him a “tough professor”.) Though UGA soon forced Watson to retract this policy, such eagerness to unabashedly inflate grades does beg the question: Why is Watson afraid to give his students the grades they deserve?

We often falsely assume that on-campus bullying can only take place between students. The reality, however, is that anyone can be a victim of bullying, even professors. Dr. Robert Harrington, Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas, is boldly outspoken on the issue of students bullying professors in response to grades. “We get into a lot of different issues with grades,” Harrington says in an interview. “It could be bullying professors about, ‘I should’ve gotten another point or two on this essay,’ and the faculty member is pushed into it to change that grade. There are faculty who don’t want to go through grading panels and having been here 34 years. I talk to faculty who think, ‘The student got a C. They want a B+, fine, I just can’t deal with this.’ Now that’s bullying.”

Dr. Carol Daniels, assistant professor at Emporia State University, has faced physical threats in addition to verbal ones. She recalls an incident a few years ago, when one of her students “didn’t do particularly well” on an exam. “The next class, he brought in a tennis ball. He was squeezing and wrenching at the tennis ball, gritting his teeth.” She said to him, “Are you going to throw that ball at me?” He responded, “Maybe.”

A tennis ball is nothing when it comes to what some students will do for an inflated grade. In 2015, Konstantinos Kostakis threatened to kill his professor—Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Professor Diane Howard—unless she changed his grade from a ‘D’ to an ‘A’. (Kostakis was in danger of being suspended due to his low GPA, but chose to be expelled and arrested instead.) In 2016, Dr. Cynthia Somin, Professor of English at El Camino College, reported “living in fear after social media threats.” After giving a student an ‘F,’ Somin was flooded with graphic Facebook messages from the student. A few of the messages read: “I’m coming to kill you tomorrow!!!! (gun’s loaded.)” [sic] and “This is your last chance, I mean it. Change my grade or I kill.” Somin was afraid she “could be killed in [her] own classroom, that [her] students could be harmed.” Since the judge ruled against making a restraining order permanent, Somin does not feel safe a year after the incident. She says she is “always looking over [her] shoulder.”

Though it is the incorrect approach, UGA Professor Watson’s “Stress Reduction Policy” is understandable. The secret of this policy is that the stress reduction is really meant for the professor, not the students. On a modern university campus, giving your student the grade he deserves is like playing a game of Russian Roulette. Only five out of six players make it out alive. With odds like these, it is no wonder so many professors are choosing simply not to play.

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