What should the university do when the professor's midterm grades are awful?

Last week the Chronicle of Higher Education reported the story of a professor who was removed from the classroom because grades in her class at midterm were terrible.  60% of the grades were Fs", and there was not a single "A."  The class was mostly first semester fershmen, and the area was biology.   A wide variety of people chimed in as to whose fault it was (the professor for having unreasonable expectations, the students for being lazy, or the public high school system that prepares students less and less well for college expectations).   Others commented instead on whether the school acted appropriately in removing the professor.

I'd like to approach the story from a different perspective.  I don't know the details of the case so I don't even have an opinion about  whether that professor should have been removed.  Instead, I want to talk about how difficult carrying out such a decisions can be.  And in case you already think you know what I'm going to say, I won't be talking about tenure.

So, the story took me on a trip down memory lane.  It actually made me a little jealous.  That's because recently, I had a similar situation.  I never considered removing that professor at the midterm point.  I'd like to fill you in on the situation and explain why.

The instructor was returning to academe after a long respite.  His references--some of them colleagues I trusted who had taught with him in the 80s--were excellent.  Everyone knows that today's students are very different from those of twenty years ago.  Still, it's not often we can offer students the chance to interact with someone who has C-suite experience in "the real world" and we saw an opportunity.

Things did not start out swimmingly.  On the first test, the average was in the 30s.  I met with students, who felt that the instructor was trying to be helpful and "nice" but not getting the information across.  After talking with the students, I asked the instructor for copies of tests and the syllabus, made a date to observe the classroom, completed the observation, and discussed what I saw with the instructor over lunch.  I provided him with a written record of my observations including what went well and recommendations for improvement. 

Since this course uses three tests, midterm grades were indeed horrible.  I ask instructors to report borderline grades at the lower of the two possibilities.  The primary purpose of midterm grades is to serve as an early warning system to students who are not performing up to standards.  Midterm grades do not become part of the permanent record.  So in being "kind" and giving the benefit of the doubt, we run the risk of students thinking they will pass with the current level of effort.

The second test found improved scores, but a deteriorating relationship with students.  The instructor did not reply to e-mails as quickly as I thought appropriate, and was less available outside of class.  I arranged a second observation and did not see that my recommendations had been implemented.  In fact, the classroom was poorly managed and students' questions were largely disregarded. I expressed my disappointment and the instructor argued that I was interfering with academic freedom.  (Academic freedom is important, agreed, but this is not what it's all about.)

At this point I made the decision to replace the instructor. Oh, that I was in the enviable position to be able to do that mid-term.  I not only let the instructor finish the semester, I let him finish the year. 

The reasons are related to the recent  blog: if the instructor were removed, he could not be replaced with a qualified person.  Our accreditation requires that teachers have certain credentials.  Finding someone with those credentials, in small town central Pennsylvania, is not easy.  Putting an unqualified person in the classroom endangers our accreditation.  Our full time faculty were already fully scheduled. 

We undertook a national search, and a replacement begins this fall.  I intend to offer accounting majors the opportunity to sit in on my own sections this fall if they feel they did not learn what they need to know before taking the upper-level course in the spring.



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Barbara McElroy is Associate Professor of Accounting and Head of the Department of Accounting and Information Systems at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, PA.  Before beginning a career in academe, Barbara worked in both public and private accounting settings, and owned several businesses.  She is particularly interested in the interaction of accounting and public policy.  Barbara will discuss current events with the interest of students, faculty, and practicing professionals in mind.

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