Topic: Professions & Institutions
Fairness, Effort, and Benedict College
Of all ethical values, fairness is the most controversial as well as the most subjective. Often efforts to be “fair” to one individual or group result in patently unfair results to others, making the whole exercise of pursuing fairness one that is rife with contradictions and traps.
Into one of these fairness traps have fallen the well-meaning administrators of Benedict College. The South Carolina institution is being sued by two of its science professors who were dismissed for refusing to follow Benedict’s grading policies. Since 2002, the black college’s president, David Swinton, has followed a program called “Success Equals Effort,” in which 60% of freshman grades (and 50% of sophomore grades) are based on how much effort a student puts into class. The objective, Swinton says, is to help out students who are unprepared for college by giving them a chance to “succeed” instead of flunking out. It’s simple fairness, he says.
The two professors were dismissed when they refused to recalculate the failing grades in their classes according to Swinton’s formula. The faculty of the school opposes the policy, which has been approved by Benedict’s Board of Trustees. They feel that it compromises the integrity of the school, and devalues the degrees of recent graduates.
But isn’t it fair?
Let’s begin with the proposition that a college is an academic institution in which the objective is for students to learn. Let us also agree that grades are supposed to measure learning, as demonstrated by a student’s mastery of the subjects and material covered in class. Finally, let us agree that a grading system should allow others, such as parents, graduate school admissions officers, and potential employers, to get a sense of how a student has performed in class.
President Swinton’s “Success Equals Effort” policy makes a hash out of all of this, and is affirmatively unfair in the bargain. Under the formula of “SEE,” a student who aced his exams without coming to class very often would get a lower grade over-all than a diligent, hard-working dolt who couldn’t answer, or even read, a single exam question. Now without question, showing up and doing one’s assignments are important work habits that need to be encouraged and reinforced. There is nothing wrong with penalizing a brilliant slacker. But sending students the message that diligence alone is enough to compensate for poor performance is irresponsible and destructive even cruel.
Imagine another system let’s call it “Success Equals Threads”…in which 60% of a student’s grade is based on how well he or she dresses for class. A student with above average fashion sense can sail through his freshman and sophomore years getting a gentleman Cs without learning a lick, until the sartorial bonus, like Swinton’s “effort” bonus, evaporates when he becomes a junior. And then he’s doomed. He’s wasted two years, he’s learned nothing, and his knack for looking spiffy is suddenly put in its real world perspective: a nice plus, but no substitute for an education.
The actual Benedict policy has a similar effect. Woody Allen may have said that 90 per cent of life is just showing up, but he was making a joke after all, he is, or at least was, a comedian. The sad truth is that just showing up gets you nowhere unless you have something to contribute once you arrive, and effort without ability or results is just sad. “Success Equals Effort,” it turns out, is an insidious verbal trick. Yes, effort is usually an important component of success; in the world of catchy slogans, “Success Equals Effort” has some truth in it. But the grading system at Benedict doesn’t mean that. At Benedict, the words “Success Equals Effort” are meant literally: effort counts just as much as success; effort offsets the lack of success; effort is a substitute for success. And for everyone in the world, except for freshmen and sophomores at Benedict College, this is untrue.
Thus the grading policy is unfair in every conceivable way. It is unfair to the students whose grades it artificially raises, because it gives them an illusion of achievement where there has been none. It is unfair to those whose grades are lowered by the effort factor, because their actual educational achievements are masked. It is unfair to Benedict graduates, whose degrees risk being looked at as mere attendance awards. And it is unfair to employers, who may think they are hiring an educated worker when all the Benedict grad may know how to do is set an alarm clock.
Finally, the policy is unfair to professors who try to maintain academic integrity, only to be fired for not passing students who fail their exams. In the pursuit of fairness, Benedict College has managed to be unfair to everyone.