Can They All Fail?

Irwin Horwitz had enough, and he wasn’t going to take it anymore. Turley wrote that he became an instant legend in academia because he announced that he was failing the entire class in his strategic management course at Texas A & M Galveston.  He explained via email:

Since teaching this course, I have caught and seen cheating, been told to ‘chill out,’ ‘get out of my space,’ ‘go back and teach,’ [been] called a ‘f****** moron’ to my face, [had] one student cheat by signing in for another, one student not showing up but claiming they did, listened to many hurtful and untrue rumors about myself and others, been caught between fights between students…. 

None of you, in my opinion, given the behavior in this class, deserve to pass, or graduate to become an Aggie, as you do not in any way embody the honor that the university holds graduates should have within their personal character. 

It is thus for these reasons why I am officially walking away from this course. I am frankly and completely disgusted. 

You all lack the honor and maturity to live up to the standards that Texas A&M holds, and the competence and/or desire to do the quality work necessary to pass the course just on a grade level…. I will no longer be teaching the course, and all are being awarded a failing grade.

As the email reflects, there are three things commingled in Horwitz’s decision, inadequate academic performance, improper behavior and, unfortunately, what appears to be a heavy dose of grey beard butthurt on the part of Horwitz.  That last piece muddies the motives for the flunk, as does this additional problem:

Asked if the decision to fail every one of the 30-plus enrollees was fair to every student, Horwitz said that “a few” students had not engaged in misbehavior, and he said that those students were also the best academic performers. Horwitz said he offered to the university that he would continue to teach just those students, but was told that wasn’t possible, so he felt he had no choice but to fail everyone and leave the course.

This adds the notion of group punishment, including those students who tried to learn and behave but had the misfortune of being in a class with other students who didn’t, which smells of unfairness.  But what’s a prof to do when the inmates have taken over the asylum?  Horwitz basically walked and said to the school, they’re your problem now. You deal with them.

Texas A & M has announced that Howitz’s approach won’t stand, and that he can’t flunk the entire class.

[T]he spokesman said that the across-the-board F grades, which were based on Horwitz’s views of students’ academic performance and behavior, will all be re-evaluated. “No student who passes the class academically will be failed. That is the only right thing to do,” he said.

Is that true?  If the class was out of control behaviorally, what’s a prof to do?  What’s the impact on students who want to study and learn?  Like the least dangerous branch, a professor can order students to leave his class, but if they refuse to do, there is little to back up the implicit “or else” threat.

The students, of course, have a narrower view of the problem.

Students have complained that they need this class to graduate, and Horwitz said that based on the academic and behavioral issues in class, they do not deserve to graduate with degrees in business fields (the majors for which the course is designed and required).

Under ordinary circumstances, one would expect that graduation follows some display of minimal competency in the subject matter.

He stressed that the students’ failings were academic as well as behavioral. Most, he said, couldn’t do a “break-even analysis” in which students were asked to consider a product and its production costs per unit, and determine the production levels needed to reach a profit.

Among the assumptions applied to college students is that they’re adults, capable of behaving in an appropriately mature fashion, and sufficiently interested in their lives and education to have a desire to learn so that they can go on to have happy lives and successful careers.  Whether these assumptions still apply, or apply in all cases, is in doubt.

The flip side of the question is whether Horwitz, as professor, fulfilled his responsibility adequately to teach these students, engage them in the subject matter and gain their respect as their teacher.  Granted, Horwitz had 20 years experience teaching at the college level, but perhaps he was past his prime.

Even if Horwitz wasn’t in the running for professor of the year, and bore some degree of responsibility for losing control, and the respect, of his class, there remains a question of whether the social compact of higher education has broken down.

Hate your prof? Drop the course.  Speak to him like a grown-up. If that fails, speak to his superior or another prof with whom you have a better relationship.  But there is no circumstance where a student is justified in calling his prof a “fucking moron.”  That a student would do so is enormously disturbing, and crosses a line that cannot be crossed while maintaining a higher education system.

But then, the school’s reaction, to stroke the angry birds and tell them they have a second chance is problematic as well. While connecting a passing grade to academic performance, and thus ignoring behavioral impropriety, there is a strong likelihood that it will be watered down to the absolute minimum.  After all, if the class was such a disaster, how much could they learn anyway?  How much could they know to prove minimal academic competence?

This could all be easily eliminated by watering down the curriculum, the expectations and demands, and turning every Tuesday class into tummy rub day so that students feel safe, but nothing about that approach results in competently educated students.

In the clash of concerns that comprises higher education today, maybe education is the piece that has to give?  But if so, then they all fail anyway. They just do so with a diploma in hand.

19 thoughts on “Can They All Fail?

  1. Peter Orlowicz

    “But there is no circumstance where a student is justified in calling his prof a “fucking moron.”

    Even if your professor is, say, Mary Anne Franks?

    (Yeah, I know, this is more about classroom decorum and a time and place for everything.)

    1. SHG Post author

      Yes, even if Mary Anne. Want to learn? Take another prof’s class. Go to another law school. But don’t take her class and behave that way. Not even her. No one.

    2. Bartleby the Scrivener

      I don’t think professional behavior on the part of college students in their interactions with their professor is a radical expectation. If the professor is problematical in some way, you can take it up with them or the administration, take the class with another professor, go to another school, or grind through it until you’re done.

      I’m curious about what happened that let the class get to this point. An entire class of students was behaving in this way? Do no other teachers have this issue with these students? Are they blind, uncaring, or is this actually encouraged by the rest of the professors and administrators? Who reared these people as children?

  2. LTMG

    It would be good to know the names of the students who behaved as Professor Horowitz states. If a resume with one of those names crossed my desk, I’d happily discard it. Alas, student privacy requirements means we’ll never know the names.

  3. John Burgess

    Students pay tuition (even if via loans). They are the income providers.

    Professors suck up institutional money because of their salaries and benefits.

    Of course the university is going to support the students. If they could do away with the students and just get a direct line to the banks’ teats, they’d do that instead.

    1. Bartleby the Scrivener

      Yes, the students are those who generate revenue…and the customer is NOT always right.

      This is a fine example of such a time.

      1. SHG Post author

        The consumer model is inappropriate in education. While the student pays, it’s a terrible mistake to put into the paradigm of goods and services.

  4. Bill

    He knocks them for not being able to do break even analysis (how did they even get into college without knowing simple math?) but he seems equally clueless about simple calculations. He walked out AND failed the class, he didn’t just fail the whole class – he could easily have finished the class. Ginish the class and let the grades speak for themselves. If he wants to be passive aggressive about it, throw a bunch of graded homework into the mix with a few extra hard tests to ensure the douchebags fail? The graybeard butthurt (perfectly phrased btw) is a little too strong in this one

  5. Marc R

    As someone who has represented a litany of college professors ranging from community college to large state universities to private medical colleges, this is 100% the profeasor’s fault. Writing for peer-review business journals is fun but you have to teach and teaching requires controlling your classroom.
    Why was no action taken against those students providing the tangible examples at the time? There’s department chairs, associate deans, Sean’s of students, honor codes, student handbooks, etc.
    The professor doesn’t proactively govern his classroom and then snaps and punishes 30 knowing 5 of them are innocent of behavioral issues and have those graduated “Aggie” ideals. I find it equivalent to instead of police making daily arrests in a bad housing project, they let citizen abuae and flounting of the law fester and then one day they open fire on the entire housing project.
    This issue has been around thousands of years from Torah’s character debates with God on justifications to destroy everyone in a city becauae of the majority’s decadence. Or us bombing Baghdad because 17 Saudi Arabian terrorists attacked us.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s unclear whether he tried to address problems all along, but I get the sense from the story that he did. Whether it was adequate is another story.

  6. Peter Gerdes

    Collective punishment is only justified if not non-collective punishment would serve the same goal. You can’t seriously claim that in this class the professor couldn’t have identified individuals who were responsible for the poor behavior and punished only them.

    Having taught classes myself I know how frustrating the experience can be but that is no excuse for snapping and punishing innocents.

    Frankly, I find it somewhat ironic that you complain so much about police who choose to punish a class of people (even if a few are innocent) yet seemingly excuse (or at least downplay) the unacceptable punishment of innocent students in this class.

    All the same attitudes you critisize in police are present in professors. For instance, the idea that they deserve respect and those who don’t respect them deserve to be punished. Professors have a duty to offer instruction to their students and no grading based on anything but academic competency is justified.

    1. Bill

      Hopefully Sgt Schultz will show up and respond accordingly but I have to ask WTF are you talking about? We must read a different blog b/c SHG doesn’t say cops aren’t entitled to respect. He doesn’t criticize cops who write tickets to people for mouthing off, he writes about people getting killed or seriously injured for doing it, that’s a big stretch compared to the overreaction of an F. Yah, both are unfair but he’s not complaining about low level abuses (Ok, one post he did criticize the govt of Ferguson for funding it’s operations on the backs of poor people, but the point was that the poor were targeted). If you’re reading a defense of the professor for failing the innocents or ‘downplaying’ it, I’d love to see where.

      And that last sentence, unless I’m reading it wrong you really haven’t thought it through. What if I’m the best student in the class but I help others cheat? Do I deserve an A? If it’s a math class, I’d tend to agree that academic competency is pretty much all it’s about, but in a class like this, distracting people, being rude, making it hard for other people to learn, all of those things can and do come in to play as part of group participation in many classes. As SHG said, this guy suffered from a lot of GrayBeard Butthurt and he could have done all sorts of things better, he pretty much failed, but SHG isn’t the problem here.

    2. SHG Post author

      What Bill said (except for giving tickets for mouthing off). You’ve compared apples to Chevys. When profs start beating and killing their students, then we’ve got a different problem, but giving a bad grade is hardly equivalent to maiming someone.

      And, as Bill also said, I didn’t give the prof a pass.

    3. David M.

      Whoa. I get a nasty look when I show up late for class, but my professors don’t stomp on my neck. Plus, it’s a non sequitur – having said that Horwitz was wrong to hang the innocent with the guilty, why go on to imply he was wrong to punish the disrespectful ones?

      That said, I agree that Horwitz should’ve reined in the butthurt and not caedite eos’d his class. Fs for the douchebags and case closed.

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