Grade inflation is now widespread at American universities. (Illustration by Alex Merto for The Free Press)

‘I Was Fired for Setting Academic Standards’

Sure, you could study hard to get a degree. But at Spelman, where I taught, you could also get a top administrator to change your grades.

When I accepted a tenure-track position in the economics department of Spelman College in the spring of 2021, handing out bogus grades was the last thing on my mind. Spelman, after all, has a great reputation. Based in Atlanta, it’s a women-only historically black college, one of the oldest in the country; for the past 15 years, it’s been rated the number one HBCU by U.S. News & World Report

I arrived on campus in mid-August, a week before classes began, to attend an orientation session for new faculty. Sitting on the stage of a modestly sized auditorium, a panel of Spelman teachers and administrators pressed upon us the importance of maintaining high standards. I recall the head of the sociology department saying, “Absolutely don’t run a deficiency model!”—meaning we should never act as though our students were intellectually or educationally deficient. Another member of the panel said professors should work to instill the idea in students that they represent “black excellence.” As someone who has always lived in the white world (though I’m half Filipino), I found this deeply inspiring. I thought, this is the kind of place where I want to teach.

What I discovered, however, was that Spelman’s high-minded rhetoric didn’t match its reality. This was especially true when it came to awarding students grades they hadn’t earned. Grade inflation is a well-documented problem at universities across the country, of course. But what I found at Spelman was even more troubling: even after receiving the “normal” grade inflation, students demanded yet higher grades—and revolted when I wouldn’t go along. To my astonishment, the students went above me to Spelman’s administration, which capitulated without ever telling me. And because I refused to look the other way, I lost my job. 

So much for maintaining high standards.

I taught two courses during my first semester at Spelman, but the one that caused most of the trouble was Econ 303—an econometrics class that most Spelman economics majors take in their junior year. Econometrics is about applying high-level mathematics to economic issues. It is not an easy course. But it is an essential course, one that imparts one of the key building blocks of economic modeling. 

All economics majors have to be literate in probability theory, statistics, and math. They have to be comfortable developing the mathematical proofs that will clinch their arguments. I learned the importance of math when I was an economics student, and it’s something I communicated to students when I was a teaching assistant at the University of California–Irvine while getting my PhD. I felt it was important for my students to exit the course with an undergraduate-level proficiency.

At first, the class seemed to go well. The beginning of my time at Spelman coincided with the lifting of most of the university’s Covid-19 restrictions, so most students attended in person (though virtual attendance remained an option). Knowing that the material could take some time to understand, I made a point of writing detailed lecture notes and making them available. Econometrics isn’t the kind of course that lends itself to classroom discussions, but at least three-quarters of the 20 students in the class took advantage of my office hours. Most often, they were looking for help with mathematical proofs—and more than once I saw the light bulb go on after we’d talked. Those were immensely rewarding moments.

Then came the midterm. I wanted it to be challenging but not impossible. It lasted 75 minutes—the length of the class. The students were allowed to refer to the lecture notes I’d provided. But even with this open-book format, the results were disappointing. One student earned a 95, but the next highest grade was a 72. Most of the others were between the low 50s and mid-60s. Some of the grades, however, were extremely low, meaning that the average score was a failing grade. I’ll admit I was shaken up. This wasn’t what I expected. I asked my department chair for her advice, and she told me I should raise all the grades by 28 points. That way, the student with the 72 would get 100, and all the other grades would rise in lockstep.

Improving grades in this fashion is called scaling, and it’s very common, especially for difficult courses. And while it’s not something I’m crazy about doing, I’ve seen it done so often I no longer get worked up about the practice. Besides, I was new at Spelman, and I didn’t want to get into a spat with my department chair weeks after starting the job. So I did as she suggested.

I had assumed that the students would feel relieved—even grateful—to see the improvement in their grades. But I was wrong. When the students saw how low their original grades were—and that the raw average was a failing grade—they turned against me. In a class where students rarely spoke, they now peppered me with complaints. The test was too hard. They hadn’t had enough time to complete it. I hadn’t done a good enough job teaching them the material.

Their basic argument was that since virtually the entire class had performed poorly on the midterm, it had to be my fault, and therefore, I needed to make changes that aligned with their wishes and input. Boiled down, they had two demands: make the class easier, and promise that they would all get passing grades. One student even advised me to throw out the midterm and proceed as if it had never taken place. 

Had I agreed to their demands, our little controversy would have ended, and we would have finished the semester in an uneasy détente. But it didn’t feel right. I recalled the statements made during orientation about how we shouldn’t run a deficiency model. To fold to these demands seemed like a dereliction of duty. My assumption—which turned out to be terribly naive—was that Spelman’s higher-ups would have my back. 

There were another two months left in the semester. Ignoring the demands of my students, I taught the class the same way I had before the midterm. The atmosphere was chilly. The students stopped coming in person; instead, they all took the class virtually. Visits to my office dried up. Most of them even refused to do the coursework—making it likely that their final exam would be even worse than the midterm. 

The Friday before the final exam, a large group of my students turned up at the department chair’s office to complain about me. Essentially, they wanted her to do what I wouldn’t—give them a better grade. Later that evening, the chair called me. She told me that my refusal to do what they demanded had caused the students to believe that I didn’t care about them. My response was that, in turning them down, I was showing that I did care. I wanted them to be the best versions of themselves; cutting corners in an important course was contrary to that goal. I also told her that this is what I thought Spelman wanted from me.

In response, the department chair offered several “solutions.” She thought I should offer some extra credit assignments. Another possibility was to give the final exam less weight than I had previously planned. I declined. She also told me that the students would be putting together a student-led survey to register their complaints against me. 

Was that a veiled threat? It seemed that way to me.

Sure enough, the results of the final were worse than the midterm. I struggled with what to do. I knew my department chair was going to insist that I scale up the grades, so I did it preemptively. This time, I brought the second highest grade to a 90, which required scaling the grades by 36 points: a 57 was now an A. I can’t say I was comfortable with that big a jump, but in all honesty, I did it in the hope it would mitigate the students’ complaints about me. 

It did not. Unbeknownst to me, the students had filed a grievance against me with Desiree Pedescleaux, Spelman’s dean of undergraduate studies. That grievance led to a conversation with several top administrators, including Pedescleaux and my department chair. The dean listed a series of complaints the students had lodged. For instance, I had merely recommended the textbook, but hadn’t required it. This was true: I made comprehensive notes for each class, and I thought the students could save some money by using my notes as their textbook. Some of the allegations were simply false, such as the charge that I didn’t post course assignments for students to review. Still, not once during the conversation did Pedescleaux ever mention changing my students’ grades.

It was nearly 10 months later, in November 2022, well into my second year at Spelman, when I discovered that that’s exactly what she had done: she had changed the students’ grades—and had never informed me. When my department chair told me this, I was stunned. 

Yes, I had “scaled” their exam scores. But at least I had taught the class, knew how well (or how poorly) the students had done, and was in a position to make a judgment on their final grades based on the students’ performance in my class. But for an administrator to then change those final grades—behind my back—simply to appease them? How could that possibly be justified?

The response from my department chair, who has been at the college for 17 years, floored me: “This has been occurring ever since I started at Spelman.”

“That’s corrupt,” I blurted out. [In a statement emailed to The Free Press, a Spelman spokesperson wrote that “The College, its administrators, and faculty, exercise appropriate judgment in the delivery of our exceptional learning and living activities in order to maintain consistency across Spelman’s campus.” Spelman declined to comment on any of the specifics in this story.]

It took another three months for Dean Pedescleaux to admit to me that she had indeed raised the students’ grades by giving them “bonus points,” as she called them—enough to bring a C to a C+ and a B− to a B. This, she said, was “fair and equitable” because, as she put it, the students’ complaints about my teaching meant that “some adjustments were warranted.” [The Free Press was shown the email that Pedescleaux wrote to the author in which she acknowledged raising the students’ scores. When asked about this during a brief phone call with The Free Press, Pedescleaux said, “I have no comment.”]

I went to Spelman’s Faculty Council president. “I brought your issue to Faculty Council,” she responded in an email, “and some of them experienced what you did. They all agreed that grades are at the discretion of the instructor only, no one else.” But the Faculty Council took no further action.

Finally, I reached out to the interim provost to request a meeting. In early July 2023, with my second year at Spelman behind me, she emailed her response: “I have spoken to Dean Pedescleaux about the matter that you referenced concerning grades. I am satisfied with her response.” She agreed to a virtual meeting, however.

Going into the meeting, I expected to finally get a chance to discuss the issue with a high-level administrator. I knew that my persistence was not welcome, but I felt it was important to have a discussion. What’s more, the provost had been instrumental in giving me the job in the first place, so I assumed that our meeting would be cordial.

And it was cordial. But the content of the conversation wasn’t at all what I expected. 

“Spelman has decided not to renew your contract for the upcoming school year,” she told me. “It would not be in the interest of you or the college to continue our professional relationship.” 

She then began to discuss the mechanics of my firing, and as she did, I found myself—and I’m not sure why—feeling oddly empathetic to her: it can’t be easy to fire someone for so little reason, I thought. As the conversation wound down, she thanked me for my service to Spelman. 

“Thank you,” I said.

“Take care,” she said, ending the meeting. 

 A few hours later, my email and other Spelman accounts were disabled. 

The fact that I lost a coveted tenure-track position after just four semesters is obviously painful to me. But it’s the larger issue that really matters. Universities are supposed to impart knowledge, but they are also supposed to give students a taste of adulthood, which means accepting responsibility—and consequences. Instead, too many schools cower before their student bodies, conscious of the need for their parents’ tuition checks, and a high ranking in U.S. News & World Report.

I’m not the only professor who’s been embroiled in grading controversies. At UCLA, a professor was suspended when, he says, he refused to give black students easier grades than white students. A Harvard professor acknowledged at a faculty meeting a decade ago that he gives out two grades: the one that he feels they truly deserve and another, higher grade, for their transcript. And last year, at NYU, Maitland Jones Jr., an organic chemistry professor, was fired after his students circulated a petition that his class was too difficult and their grades were too low. He later wrote:

Can a young assistant professor, almost all of whom are not protected by tenure, teach demanding material?. . . . [E]ntire careers are at the peril of complaining students and deans who seem willing to turn students into nothing more than tuition-paying clients. . . . Students need to develop the ability to take responsibility for failure. If they continue to deflect blame, they will never grow.

I had always wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college and make a difference in students’ lives. But I’m not so sure that I can remain a teacher. It seems to me that this incessant catering to student demands—not over whether the food in the cafeteria should be improved, but whether they should get grades they haven’t earned—is resulting in a degraded educational experience. If college grades are fraudulent, doesn’t that mean a college degree is fraudulent too? 

You bet it does.

Kendrick Morales is an economist and former assistant professor. Follow him on Substack here. And read this Free Press article by Dr. Stanley Goldfarb about declining standards at medical schools.

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