Academic abstraction

Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., enforces an academic policy that defies belief. Say I’m a freshman taking your class in biology. I learn little from your lectures, assigned readings and homework. I do attend class every day, take notes and manage to average 40 percent on the graded work for the semester. What grade might you give me? I’m betting all but the academic elite would say, “Sorry, Williams, but no cigar,” and I would earn an F for the course. But if you’re a professor at Benedict College and gave me that F, you would be fired.

That’s exactly what happened to science professors Milwood Motley and Larry Williams, both of whom refused to go along with the college’s Success Equals Effort (SEE) policy. SEE is a policy where 60 percent of a freshman’s grade is based on effort and the rest on academic performance. In a student’s sophomore year, the formula drops to 50-50, and it isn’t used at all for junior and senior years. In defense of his policy, Benedict’s president, David H. Swinton, said the students “have to get an A in effort to guarantee that if they fail the subject matter, they can get the minimum passing grade. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

According to a story published by Columbia’s the State newspaper (www.thestate.com, Aug. 20, 2004), Mr. Motley said the policy compromises the integrity of Benedict. Students are being passed to increase student retention by falsely boosting academic performance. When Mr. Motley and Mr. Williams assigned grades based upon academic performance, Mr. Motley said the administration “told us to go back and recalculate the grades, and I just refused to do it.” At that point, Mr. Swinton fired both for insubordination.

Mr. William Gunn, a faculty member for 40 years and president of Benedict College’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, is dead-set against the policy and believes most other faculty are as well. Writing in the State (Sept. 22, 2004), Mr. Gunn says the SEE policy not only harms today’s student but also Benedict graduates whose degrees will come under suspicion.

Mr. Swinton’s policy borders on lunacy. Imagine that a freshman gets an A for effort in his algebra class but has virtually no grasp of the material, earning him an F grade. Under the college’s SEE policy, the student would be assigned a C for the course. What can we expect when the student takes Algebra II and later takes a course where algebra is a tool? He’ll fall further and further behind because he hasn’t grasped the material from the earlier courses. He’ll graduate only if the fraudulent grading continues, and his job prospects will depend upon racial preferences.

Here’s my question to you: Can you think of a more effective way to discredit and cast doubt on the degrees of all students who graduate from Benedict? How would you like people to be certified in any activity that way — your doctor, your tax accountant, your mechanic or anybody upon whom you depend for reliable proficient service? The median SAT score of entering Benedict students is 803. But whatever handicaps they may have are disguised and exacerbated by the school’s SEE policy. As reported in the State, Harvard-educated Mr. Swinton admitted he did not know of a policy like this at any other institution and said he would not use such a policy at a college with more stringent entrance criteria.

The blame for this academic madness cannot wholly be placed at its president’s feet. Benedict’s board of trustees bears the blame for either enacting or tolerating this policy. Also culpable are those taxpayers and donors whose funds make it possible for this madness to continue.

While I know it’s probably not the case, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that members of the South Carolina Ku Klux Klan were Benedict’s largest contributors.

Walter E. Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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