Friday, June 09, 2006
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.
Next week I’ll try again with another college. Hope springs eternal…
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...
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.
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.
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.