Professor protests dumbing down course to raise students’ grades. Here’s what happens to him next.

Professor protests dumbing down course to raise students’ grades. Here’s what happens to him next.
A former adjunct professor at Colorado's Community College of Aurora claimed he was fired for criticizing the school's push to alter courses so that students would receive higher grades. (Image source: YouTube screen cap)

Nathanial Bork first began at Colorado’s Community College of Aurora as an adjunct professor in 2010.

He went on to become a leader and advocate for adjuncts — as well as a critic of the school’s Gateway to Success initiative, which he said altered entry-level liberal arts courses so that students’ grades could improve, according to a report by the American Association of University Professors.

In a written critique he intended to send to the Higher Learning Commission, Bork detailed how his Philosophy 111 course last fall was supposed to change via the Gateway to Success: a 20 percent decrease in overall course content; a reduction in writing assignments to an eight-page maximum for the semester; small group activities every other class session; and the inclusion of a larger percentage of material (the reported goal was 30 percent) produced by women and minorities, the AAUP report said.

Bork contended that a “success rate” of 80 percent “for all student groups, as defined by race and gender” was the Gateway to Success goal, the report said. And while such a move could make things look better grade-wise, Bork said it sold students short.

“Simply put, this class is now much, much easier to get an A in or pass than it was previously,” Bork wrote in his critique, the AAUP said. “It’s now so much easier that currently every single student on my roster has an A+, and to my recollection the last time I was involved in a course set to this difficulty level, either as a teacher or a student, was early high school.”

Bork continued:

If the people we’re giving A+s to in the courses are only doing the equivalent of high school work at other colleges, I believe that sets up our students for harm later on. Our student success rates will spike through the roof, but we’ll be graduating people who think they’ve received a college education, but in reality have only done high school level work. … And the harm from what I see as lack of rigor will become evident after they’ve left CCA and are forced to compete with their peers from other schools.

But before Bork sent his critique to the Higher Learning Commission, he said he circulated a draft to administrators at Community College of Aurora — including the college president — for their feedback on Sept. 7, 2016. Two days later, Bork was observed in his Philosophy 111 course for the purpose of evaluation.

Then, on Sept. 14, Bork was fired, the AAUP report said — after six years of consistently strong job-performance evaluations. The AAUP said that the timeline of events “raises the question of retaliation.”

More from the AAUP report:

While it is impossible to say with absolute certainty that Mr. Bork’s dismissal was an act of retaliation by the CCA administration, we can say with certainty that the timeline of events is suggestive, the circumstances of the dismissal are extraordinary, and the administration’s stated rationale is unconvincing. Moreover, even if the administration were not engaging in retaliation against Mr. Bork, its actions have convinced many faculty members that it was. The climate of fear among CCA faculty in the wake of this event is such that, with the exception of those who were present at the group meeting that included President Oudenhoven and other administrators, the majority of those with whom we spoke — off campus, we hasten to note — asked to remain anonymous.

To wit: An AAUP investigative committee said several current and former Community College of Aurora faculty members claimed the administration told them last summer if they didn’t implement the new Gateway to Success curriculum, “they should seek employment elsewhere,” the report said.

In addition, faculty indicated that “presentations” were conducted where retention-related data was shared and the following was reportedly declared, “There aren’t enough people passing; we need to get more people passing,” the AAUP report said.

The AAUP concluded the college fired Bork “without affordance of academic due process” and called his claim “credible” that it did so in retaliation for his intention to send a critique of the Gateway to Success initiative to the Higher Learning Commission last fall.

The Community College of Aurora has denied Bork was fired in the middle of the semester for the reason he claimed; rather it was for a “lack of effectiveness in implementing the philosophy curriculum redesign,” the AAUP report said.

The AAUP report added that President Oudenhoven denied receiving “a report or letter from Mr. Bork to the HLC. . . The academic vice president received an email from him on September 7, 2016, but I was not copied on that email. As far as we know, there is no report. We were not concerned about him sharing his issues with the HLC in whatever way he chose to do so and dispute the charge of retaliation throughout the report.”

Greg Scholtz, director of tenure, academic freedom and governance at AAUP, told Inside Higher Ed that adjunct professors typically serve on an at-will basis, which makes them “entirely disposable.”

“If their administrative superiors are not satisfied with their service, for any reason, they simply do not offer them any course assignments for the next academic term, and there’s usually nothing the part-timer can do about it,” Scholtz told the outlet.

And while Bork’s mid-semester dismissal isn’t unprecedented at Community College of Aurora, administrators told the AAUP investigators it’s nevertheless “very rare and reserved for only the most egregious cases of instructional deficiency or misconduct.”

(H/T: The College Fix)

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