Would a College Fire a Prof for Teaching a Rigorous Course?

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Colleges always pay lip service to educational excellence, but they don’t always mean it. That’s because educational excellence often collides with another priority of the administrators, namely student retention.

If strong academic standards drive away students, that costs the school money, and money is tangible, while “educational excellence” is just a slogan. Money wins.

A recent case at the Community College of Aurora in Colorado illustrates the point. Nathaniel Bork taught philosophy and comparative religion at the college as an adjunct professor. He had been at Aurora since 2010 without any incident.

As we read in this Inside Higher Ed story, in September of last year, Bork took a call from the chairman of his department, who told him that he was fired immediately. School officials claimed that the reason for his abrupt termination was “lack of effectiveness in implementing the philosophy curriculum design.”

So a school feels the need to fire a professor for ineffectiveness in September?  Wouldn’t you expect that if this experienced faculty member actually was teaching ineffectively, college officials would inform him of the problem and work with him to remedy it?

Bork has a different explanation. He maintains that the reason for his firing was that he had complained that the department had dumbed down the introductory “gatekeeper” courses in an attempt to increase passage rates, thereby encouraging students to continue.

Encouraging students if fine, but watering down courses is not the way to go about that. Bork said that Aurora had told him to cut 20 percent of the material in his introduction to philosophy course, require fewer papers (and no more than a total of eight pages for the whole semester), and devote 30 percent of the course to women and minority philosophers.

Bork had complained, emailing his superiors, “Simply put, this class is now much easier to an A in or pass than previously….If the people we’re giving A-plusses to are only doing the equivalent of high school work, I believe that sets up our students for harm later on. Our student success rates will spike through the roof, but we’ll be graduating people who think they’ve received a college education, but I reality have only done high school-level work.”

It seems clear that Bork was summarily fired not for any lack of “effectiveness,” but rather for complaining about being compelled to teach such a weak course and Aurora’s decision to lower standards to ensure more good grades.

You shouldn’t be surprised at this. College administrators often want faculty to lower standards and reduce course content in order to keep more students happy. Rarely do the faculty members resist -– after all, giving high grades in an easy course makes them more popular – but when they persist in keeping to their standards, the result is painful. Norfolk State University’s Stephen Aird, for one, found that out when he was fired for giving too many low grades.

American students often learn very little in their college years. Some just waste too much time partying. Others simply aren’t challenged to improve their knowledge and skills because the courses are so easy.  They’re paying (or borrowing) for an empty credential. That’s our higher education tragedy.

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