Friday, June 09, 2006

 

Nullification

Before the Civil War, certain states claimed a right of ‘nullification.’ (I think South Carolina, led by John C. Calhoun, was at the forefront of this.) What they meant was, in essence, the right to override or ignore federal laws with which they disagreed. After the Civil War, the supremacy of the federal government was established, and the concept of nullification was retired, or relegated to the crackpots.

Nullification is alive and well in academia, though.

I’ve been actively working on articulation agreements with nearby four-year colleges. The pattern my colleagues and I have found is consistent: the chief academic officer is enthusiastic, the deans are willing, but the department chairs shoot everything down after the fact. We can sign whatever agreements we want, but in each case, the individual departments retroactively veto it.

It’s terribly frustrating. What it means, in essence, is that articulations have to be negotiated on a chair-to-chair basis, department-by-department. (I’ve also noticed that when the chairmanship changes hands, new chairs frequently nullify agreements negotiated by previous chairs. They don’t tell us in advance, of course; we find out when students come back to us upset.)

Although it’s inefficient, self-serving, and terrible for the students, the most annoying aspect of nullification is its intellectual dishonesty. I’ve never heard a coherent principled argument for it, nor have I ever heard a department admit that this is what it was actually doing. Instead, every case is presented as special. Every case is an exception. I often find out after the fact, when a tearful student shows up, asking why she has to retake 12 or 15 or 24 credits in her major. Phone calls to departments usually go unreturned, or, if returned, prove unhelpful. (“I’ll get back to you” translates, roughly, as “I need to screen my calls better, and will, from now on.”)

When pressed, chairs will sometimes fall back on ‘academic integrity’ to justify refusing to take courses to which their college has already committed. But I don’t buy it; if our freshman comp is good enough for the rest of the college, it’s good enough for that department. Besides, if integrity is the issue, the department should be able to make that argument openly and publicly. The fact that it’s done post hoc suggests that it’s a ruse.

The real issue is jobs. The receiving department doesn’t want to “give up” too many credits, since it needs the FTE’s to justify its resource levels, so it denies as many credits as it possibly can. It can’t admit that, of course, so it does theoretical somersaults and backflips to justify turning down whatever we offer. When we contact the chief academic officer at the receiving college, we get the “there’s nothing I can do” response. The usual suggested compromise is to accept the disputed courses as ‘free electives,’ which is where credits go to die. Very few bachelor’s programs have meaningful numbers of free electives (if any), so a course designated as a free elective is a wasted course. They know that, of course, which is why they do it. They can claim that they’ve recognized our classes, without actually giving up the credits. Intellectual dishonesty again.

From a taxpayer’s perspective, this is a boondoggle of the highest order. We receive state funding, as do the public four-year colleges. That means that every course Suzy has to repeat is subsidized by the taxpayers twice. I’m not a big fan of budget cuts generally, but here’s one I can actually get behind.
In practice, nullification is a logical outgrowth of the fact that faculty have tenure and administrators don’t. Passive resistance, a war of attrition conducted mostly by foot-dragging, actually works. I don’t know of any other industry in which this kind of behavior would be tolerated, let alone rewarded.

Sigh.

Next week I’ll try again with another college. Hope springs eternal…

Comments:
I'll admit to being terribly naive about how these things play out in academia, but I can't imagine how this should be tolerated. Either the people deciding the policy include the chair of the department, in which case they should be required to sign off and then there's nothing to discuss later, as you can just point to a policy that was approved by their department, or the people deciding the policy are higher up in the org chart than the department chair (right?). Again, you should have a written policy to show to the chair if he or she protests. Maybe you could elaborate on the situation, but I'm not sure why this is allowed to become an issue.

Also, I'm not clear on why the department chair should need to be involved, especially in the case of transfer credits that have (apparently) already been negotiated. The department is simply told that the student has credit for those courses--it's not like the department is responsible for typing in the course credits, are they? I would imagine that would fall to the registrar...
 
Another manifestation of Nullification that I see sometimes is the belief that Federal or State laws don't apply on a campus. Often faculty or administrators may wish this was true, but usually it isn't. Where I see this most often is when a group of administrators take some actions, usually through apropriate campus committee and such, to try and bring the college in compliance with some law or another. This effort is sometimes met with: "Doing something because the law says we have to isn't a good reason to do something." Fair enough. But it's also not a super idea to be wildly out of compliance with state and federal law.

On a somewhat related note I also see faculty and staff sometimes "playing lawyer" when he or she really doesn't have expertise in the area. And I must admit that I'm guilty of this myself. One way this happens is around liability. If there's some project that someone is uncomfortable with, one (not very good) way to try to stop it is to argue that it exposes the college to unacceptable liability and risk. In my experience, about 1 in 20 times this is a real concern. The other 19 it's just a smokescreen.
 
The state of Texas supposedly has rules on the books that insure that community college credits, or credits between accredited institutions will readily trasfer. That's the theory anyhow. In reality, the big schools often deny credit for dual credit classes, AP exams and transfer classes because those entry level classes need warm bodies in the seats to provide viable employment for TA's and grad students. I know a kid who got 4's and 5's on AP tests in Chemistry, English Comp, Literature, Spanish, Caluculus and Physics and our flagship school only accepted Spanish towards his degree in engineering. In addition, many of my kids friends as well as my kid have suffered over degree plans that are changed, altered or deleted entirely often with little warning. Now as a senior, my daughter with a 3.9 GPA will have to go back and take a freshman level course because the requirements have changed. There's a lot of whining about students not graduating in four years, but if you keep moving the goal farther away, how can they?
 
Nullification isn't unique to academia. Companies suffer from it as well, with "not invented here" being just one of the analogous labels for cases when a product or feature must be redeveloped from scratch, rather than incorporated from some other available source (elsewhere in the company, from a supplier, etc.).

I'll offer that there are probably some cases (but yes, perhaps not many) in which the dept chair's decision is based on experience with an earlier student, in which the student couldn't subsequently demonstrate knowlege from the transferred (prereq) course. This may not be the fault of the CC -- students forget their earlier course material all the time -- but it serves as an easy scapegoat.

One question concerning the argument about protecting FTEs. What is the population of these students, compared to the number already taking a class? If the number of sections being offered isn't affected, then the dept chair shouldn't be using that as an internal rationalization. I agree that false logic may not stop them from using that argument, though.

Anonymous, I would argue that the org chart doesn't play a strong role because faculty members don't usually need to take it into account when pursuing their research and teaching activities.
 
Dude. Legislature. Seriously.
 
Well, I'm late to the party, but isn't the real problem that a department "needs the FTE’s to justify its resource levels"? I don't think it's necessarily an academic issue--these departments actually MAY be fine with granting these credits on an academic level, but since their administrations require them to have as many enrolled students as possible, they deny the transfers. It's a vicious cycle, but it's not going to end until the administrators do something about fitting these students into the calculations for resource allocation.
 
The core of this topic has been rightly demonstrate: "[a department] needs the FTE’s to justify its resource levels"? But I disagree with Yankee (also said by native Southerns as a Northern disparaging comment) above. Yankee argues that it is the admins' fault--the admins at the admitting college, I would assume--for not allocating incoming transfers into the FTE budget. The chair didn't allow for x number this year, and so to keep everyone she must not allow transfer credits...

I have no doubt that has occured, Yankee, but that doesn't address Dean Dad's main point: it is a pain in the ass, for the students and the CC deans, for the transfer institution to inconsistently accept or not at the Chair level. It's ripe with dishonesty, cheating the student and taxpayer (for those land-grant U's).

Chairs will act, like most everyone else, in their own best interest. If they need butts-in-seats to pay for TA's, then denying transfer credits is a no-brainer (especially if the department or univ. feels that they are much higher on the food chain, allowing the elitist button to be pushed).

Kimmet calls for the answer--I think--it was rather cryptic.

Legislate full transfer within state institutions. You may not be able to get 1:1 at Princeton, but you damn sure should get 1:1 at the local state U of which you are, in effect, a feeder school.
 
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