Times Ethicist Fails to See that Grade Change by Intimidation is More than Unethical

The Ethicist says that it is unethical for a professor to change a grade for a student from an F to a D so that she can continue to receive financial aid, health insurance and housing.

Randy is right but does not justify his decision properly and does not get to the heart of the issue. Here is what he says first, followed by my commentary.
The Ethicist
A Failing Grade

I teach at a state university. Sometimes at the end of a semester a student asks me to raise a grade. Typically it is a student with children, who receives financial aid, health insurance and housing and risks losing these benefits if she receives the F she earned rather than the D I could bestow — harsh consequences. Should I raise the grade? —l; V.H., MONTANA

You should not. I admire your sensitivity to the fact that a grade can have repercussions more severe than a professor intends or most of us find humane. But you are considering the wrong solution to this problem.

You must grade consistently; you may not establish a Free Pass for Poor Students. If you do so, why not announce it at the start of the term, saving these students the inconvenience of attending class and sparing their classmates the demoralizing spectacle later of someone handed a grade she does not merit?

Instead, you should intervene early in the term. It must be apparent long before the end of the semester that a student is foundering. You might give her a chance to make up poor work or find remedial tutoring. If burdens outside of class overwhelm a student, grant her an incomplete or provide extra time for an assignment.

There is something faintly disingenuous about these grade-change pleas. A single F is unlikely to be catastrophic; the student could be failing other courses too. Have you been importuned because you are a soft touch?

That said, neither you nor the student should have to face such a dilemma. It is a cold society indeed that makes a mother’s housing and health care contingent on her grades.
First, the inability of a professor to fail a student these days is well-known. There are armies of administrators and advisors employed by universities to insure that students pass every course. Students know they can turn to the "office of passing every course" and get a reprieve, exemption, extension, or extenuating override to almost every attempt by a professor to fail that student.

Most professors don't have time to engage these administrative adversaries. So the no-fail system works for more and more students each year and the word is out. The colleges tolerate and encourage the rapid multiplication of such no-fail options because they see every student with a tatoo of "$30,000" on his or her forehead or in the case of a state school with a tatoo of "reduced tuition + satisfied statistic." In today's competitive higher ed climate, failing a student is not something that has any upside for any administrator.

This is the background from which Randy derives the ethical inquiry du jour. Without alerting us to this context the question is simply astonishing -- as follows.

A student comes to a professor after failing a course and essentially proposes that the professor collude with her in defrauding the government out of "financial aid, health insurance and housing." Those benefits are bestowed on students in good standing who meet the minimum requirements of the state university. This student does not meet the standards, but she begs the professor to conspire with her so that she can receive these benefits under false pretenses. If true, this is a criminal proposition, nothing less. But the good news is that the whole story is likely false.

The professor has not asked the student for proof that indeed she has children. The professor has not asked the student for proof that she currently receives aid. The professor has not asked the student for evidence that she will lose that imagined or real aid if she receives and F or that she will keep the aid if she receives a D. The student has every reason to lie about all these circumstances since it is a simple ploy to con the professor into granting her a free pass after the failing-fact.

The professor not only has no time to investigate or contest the student's assertions. He now has the good fortune to be in a position to perform an act of social justice for a needy downtrodden student mother. Why would he hesitate? After all a D is quite close to an F. It's not a big deal to compromise when the result is justice for the weak.

And of course, the professor may be an adjunct, a contract employee who earns around $2000 for teaching a course. This plea comes after the contract has closed and accordingly the professor is not compensated for the trouble of attending to the student's situation. The adjunct likely wants to continue teaching and so will not alienate the college by blowing off the request. Accordingly, the ideal resolution will be to dispose of the student situation quickly with all parties left satisfied. The quick change from F to D is a no-brainer. And the student knows this.

The ideas that Randy the Ethicist puts forward that the professor should intervene early so that such situations do not arise, give the student a chance to make up the work, extra time or a grade of incomplete - all of these alternatives obviously have been addressed by the time we get to the case at hand. All decent professors keep students informed as to how they are doing and allow for leeway in cases that merit it.

We are dealing here with a classic ploy. The student blew off all available remedies already and has failed and now has invented a story to present to the professor and asks for his complicity to circumvent (in Randy's words) that, "cold society indeed that makes a mother's housing and health care contingent on her grades."

Randy, you have been conned into sympathy by a student who has selected a sob-story from the available menu of proven choices.

You came to the right conclusion that the professor should not change the grade. But you give all the wrong and credulous reasons. And by now you are writing next week's Ethicist column.

Meanwhile the professor has to deal with the student, the department head, the dean and the "office of passing every course." He has to worry about his 1% salary increase if he is a regular appointee or the renewal of his exploitative adjunct contract with a 0% increase.

Regardless of your advice, in 999 out of 1000 cases the student will get her grade changed.

And one can point a finger at you now and say that you failed to protect the public. You gave short shrift to the issue that came to you. And your superficial response allowed the unethical behavior to continue and to spread.

The result is that more students will graduate college by conning their professors, not by mastering course materials and achieving genuine passing grades.

They will have learned less of the syllabus that we intended them to master and more of the lessons of life that we fear they will absorb. They will have learned that conning the authority in charge is not difficult, that it pays off and has no repercussions.

The corporation that hires this student will have been defrauded, and so on down the line, as all the clients and interactions that student partakes in will perpetuate the taint of her corruption.

The problem we face is not grade inflation. It's grade intimidation.

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