Fumbled Response to Rutgers Grade-Fixing Affects Students, Faculty Alike

David M. Hughes | October 22, 2015 | Opinion
When academic standards are allowed to erode, the tallest ivory tower can look like a diploma mill

David M. Hughes
All college graduates depend on the academic reputations of their schools — the value of a degree depends on the quality and reputation of the school that awards it. A Hollywood studio is more likely to employ a 22-year-old leaving the film program considered best in the nation at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts than a peer from just about any other institution.

But on what does the quality and reputation of this film school or any other academic program depend? This question requires a more complex answer — one bizarrely illuminated through one of the recent football scandals at Rutgers.

The experience, credentials, and research of the teaching faculty give heft to any diploma. “Star professors” are necessary, but not sufficient.

Those teachers must be able to exercise their judgment, passing the students who deserve to pass and failing those who do not. The college, in other words, must uphold the academic freedom of all of its instructors.

Football coach Kyle Flood cares a great deal about his players. He cares particularly that they maintain a grade-point average sufficient to continue playing for the Scarlet Knights. When a failing grade threatened to sideline star cornerback Nadir Barnwell, Coach Flood pressured an instructor to pass him.

Subsequent allegations of alleged criminality by Barnwell and several of his teammates have overshadowed the attention paid to Flood’s futile attempt to end run Rutgers and NCAA rules.

Quite apart from the criminal cases against the players, Coach Flood’s actions on Barnwell’s behalf detract from the value of the Rutgers degree for academically deserving football players and all students.
Scarlet Knights who fail to the join the NFL — that is, most of them — will present their credentials to employers inside and outside New Jersey. Perhaps job interviewers will accept the Rutgers transcript unquestioningly. But maybe some will pause, look searchingly, and ask, “Are these the grades you earned, or are these the grades your coach fixed for you?” The institution cannot thrive when students’ degrees become suspect. Even the tallest ivory tower may be perceived as a mere diploma mill.

The aborted scandal at Rutgers revealed major deficits in academic freedom — and, therefore, a threat to the university’s reputation. Barnwell’s instructor began to comply with Coach Flood’s wishes. She later reported feeling “intimidated.”

Why would a tenured professor — enjoying white-collar pay, job security, and gold-plated academic freedom — feel intimidated? The answer is that Barnwell’s instructor was no such thing. She was working part-time, a member of a category of casual laborers at Rutgers who typically earn $4,800 per semester-long course with no benefits and no assurance of employment after the final exam.

At many universities a bad word from a coach, department chair, or even from a student can end one’s career. Unfortunately, our institutions of higher education are increasingly hiring Ph.D.s as part-time or adjunct faculty. Along with graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty who lack the same level of security as tenured faculty, these well-qualified professionals now teach more than half of all undergraduate classes at public institutions of across the country.

Known as “roads scholars,” many adjuncts attempt to cobble together a living by teaching at multiple institutions, scuttling full time and frantically between campuses.

So who loses under these conditions? Of course, workers suffer the hardship of semi-employment. Students also lose out.

A contingent instructor is less available to advise on courses and recommend opportunities than the teacher permanently on staff. Contingency robs students of the outside-the-classroom assistance that they need and expect.

Thanks to Coach Flood, we now know of a third, more hidden cost of contingency as the value of a university degree can more easily be undermined. Faculty living hand-to-mouth, terrified of sudden unemployment cannot easily withstand the pressures to inflate grades.

Ultimately, the Rutgers scandal affects us all because it shows a boomerang affect: the state university hollows out the lives of its low-wage teachers, and those people — as they simply try to stay employed — hollow out the reputation of the university. Unless New Jersey’s college and universities invest in adjunct faculty — through higher pay and enhanced job security –the value of the state’s degrees will continue to erode.