A hot-button issue in higher education today is the Academic Bill of Rights, sponsored by conservative activist David Horowitz. Last year, I co-sponsored a resolution opposing both it and campus speech codes at the American Historical Association conference. (The AHA rejected the amendment, because the group refused to go on record against politically correct speech codes.) My position in part came from a belief that one of ABOR’s central concerns, that professors use the grading process to retaliate against students, is rare.
Grade retaliation does, however, occur, as I discovered in a case on my own campus. And the allegation is at the heart of a lawsuit filed Thursday against Duke, and Political Science professor and Group of 88 member Kim Curtis.
The basics of the allegations are as follows: in a spring 2006 class, Curtis taught two members of the lacrosse team, one of whom was graduating senior Kyle Dowd. The course required three papers, each worth 25 percent of the final grade, with the remaining 25 percent of the grade devoted to participation. (That percentage is unusually high, given the subjective nature of grading participation.) For his first paper, Curtis gave Dowd a C+. His second paper was due on April 5, at the height of the media frenzy orchestrated by Nifong. (The Group of 88’s statement appeared the next day.) For this paper, Dowd received a C-, even though he had met with Curtis before writing the paper for suggestions on improvement.
By this point, Curtis had adopted one of the most extreme anti-lacrosse positions of any Duke professor. Not only had she signed the Group of 88’s statement and attended rallies denouncing the players (background, in this photo), but on March 29, she emailed fellow
in the statement issued yesterday by the team that they will be exonerated by the results of the DNA testing makes me wonder if we’ve gotten the full story about who was at the house that night. Were there others present who in fact carried out the rape and who are being protected by everyone else who was there? How do we know who was there?
Ponder the implications of that statement. In writing, a Duke faculty member had suggested that Dowd and the other lacrosse player in her class were accomplices to rape.
The two players then suffered identical fates in their third paper. Curtis gave both an F on the final paper.
It could, of course, all be a coincidence, with the two events below entirely unrelated:
- Curtis publicly suggested that two students in her class were accomplices to rape and publicly signed a joint statement denouncing them.
- Despite these actions, Curtis was able to fairly grade the work of two people she had suggested were accomplices to rape, and these students just happened to turn in a final paper so bad that it merited an F.
I took a look at Dowd’s three papers—each worth 25% of the overall grade. Let me say at the start: subjectivity is an element to all grading, especially grading of papers. No two professors will analyze the same paper in an identical fashion. But it’s not hard to detect failing papers. In short, subjectivity and differing grading scales can explain why a paper to which one professor might give a B would receive a C from another faculty member—something that happens all the time in higher education. But subjectivity can’t explain how such a paper could get an F.
Two things immediately come to light from Dowd’s papers:
- First, if 100 professors graded Dowd’s third paper blind, I suspect that 95 would assign it a grade somewhere between a B and a C, with the outliers probably giving it a B+ or a C-.
- Second, if 100 professors compared Dowd’s three papers for the course, I suspect that between 90 and 95 of them would consider the third paper to be the best of the three, and it’s hard for me to believe that any would analyze it as significantly worse than the other two.
Perhaps Professor Curtis has an innocent explanation for why the two students who she publicly suggested were accomplices to rape saw their final grades plummet to an F after she made the accusation. I emailed her repeatedly asking for a comment; she did not reply. Political science chairman Michael Munger also said he couldn’t comment on the case.
Curtis’ decision to fail Dowd almost blocked his graduation. Only the extraordinary intercession of a fair-minded member of Duke’s administration allowed Dowd to graduate, by arranging for an additional transfer of a course he had taken at Johns Hopkins. But Duke initially refused to do anything about Curtis’ grade, for reasons that appear unclear, before eventually changing the grade to a D. The official justification, peculiarly, claimed that Curtis had miscalculated Dowd’s grade, but did not suggest that she had engaged in grade retaliation. In fact, as one blogger noted, the move suggested that "there is no question that the Fs she gave the lacrosse team players were unwarranted. The university found that there had been a 'calculation error,' and changed the student’s grades. So the question of whether she engaged in grade retaliation purely out of personal and political spite is settled. She did exactly that."
It’s unclear to me why Duke allowed this case to progress to a stage where a lawsuit would be filed. First, the claim of retaliation seems quite strong. Second, as John in
Over the last several months, an impression has grown that the institution’s faculty place their personal, pedagogical, or ideological agendas ahead of the well-being of their own students. That impression had begun to dissipate with President Brodhead’s recent statements demanding that Nifong recuse himself—and then especially with the important and courageous statement by 17 Economics professors that they would welcome all Duke students, including student-athletes, into their classes.
And then came reminders, old and new, of the Group of 88’s questionable behavior. Thursday’s filing of the Dowd suit brought to light what appears to be one of the ugliest incidents of classroom conduct from last spring. Yesterday’s defiant, unapologetic op-ed from Cathy Davidson proved that the Group of 88 remains as resolute in its position now as it was nine months ago today, when the statement appeared.
I suspect that the overwhelming majority of Duke’s arts and sciences faculty agrees with the Economics professors’ affirmation that “we welcome all members of the lacrosse team, and all student athletes, as we do all our students as fellow members of the Duke community, to the classes we teach and the activities we sponsor.”
Unfortunately as Davidson’s op-ed yesterday made clear, a vocal minority feel very, very differently. And as to grade retaliation—even one instance is one instance too many for any university, much less one with the academic prestige of Duke.
Hat tip: J.T.
*--modified to make point that Davidson spoke only for herself in the article.
[Update, 12.29am: A commenter noted: From Living a Nightmare:
Though none of his four spring instructors had signed the advertisement, Carrington still spent hours in contact with his teachers--explaining the situation, feeling out where they stood, asking for help and guidance along the way, begging that they not jump to conclusions and judge him based on what was being said in the media.
Carrington was fortunate. His professors were flexible, supportive and helped him coordinate his work around meetings with attorneys and situations when the team left campus due to safety concerns.
Walsh, however, saw the other side of the spectrum.
After missing an assignment for a class while meeting his lawyers in Maryland, Walsh received a poor grade on the makeup project he had been assigned, and he paid a visit to the teacher to discuss it.
Once in the teacher's office, Walsh said his professor lashed out about how his team "wasn't right" and that sophomore Ryan McFadyen was "sick in the mind" for sending an e-mail she believed to be entirely inexplicable, in which the sophomore joked about killing and skinning strippers.
Upset with the teacher's inability to empathize with his personal situation, Walsh recalled that he said, "Well, I'd just hoped you'd have some sympathy, it's not the easiest time in the world right now."
"Yeah, well if you guys really were innocent, I would feel sorry for you," he remembered the teacher telling him.
"I couldn't look the teacher in the eyes again," Walsh said. "I never want to see her again."
John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, said, "We did hear rumors early on, reports early on, that some faculty members were permitting a potentially hostile situation within a classroom environment."
Duke took steps to make sure all involved--lacrosse players, athletes and women and minority groups--were being treated fairly. Robert Thompson, dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, sent an e-mail to certain faculty members April 3 urging caution in the face of a "traumatic" situation on campus.
Still, the hardest thing for Walsh to grasp was hearing stories from his friends about situations similar to his involving teachers that "threw us in the guilt boat right away."]
I wonder if Walsh was the other student in Curtis' class. [He was not--KC.]
But it sounds like this was a problem with more than one professor and with more than just a few students.