Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Bouncer Duty

A regular correspondent writes:

Lots of people are showing up in class these days who have been cut off from their computer accounts because of unpaid bills. There they are, ready to write--but I'm supposed to send them to the business office to settle their bills.

I tell them the business office is mad at them for owing money, and they need to get down there PDQ. So far, so good. Then I log them into my account so they can have class and write.

I feel like it's a boundary issue: I'm not their friend, not their lover, not their parent, not their boss, and not their credit counselor.. And I'm certainly not the school's bouncer or enforcer or kneecapper or repo man.

I'm the English teacher.

In the real world, would it not be an immediate security question if faculty were put in the position of dealing with areas beyond their expertise (I don't have their bills in front of me), areas not impossibly leading to anger and acting out?

This is a toughie. In my faculty days, I loathed the 'bouncer' role. But as a dean, my life is made infinitely harder by faculty who cut informal side deals with students.

It's easier in the moment to choose to look the other way and let the student sit in the class (or log in, as the case may be). After all, financial aid offices have been known to make mistakes, and the innards of any given offer are not the professor's business. (And if you think excuses for late papers can be baroque, you should hear the excuses for late payments!)

But looking the other way puts the college in an impossible position.

Like it or not, when you're teaching a class, you're acting as an agent of the college. (This is even true if you're adjuncting.) If you were to create a hostile environment in class, the college could be held liable. The grades you assign are recorded on official transcripts. Although professors like to think of themselves as free agents, the fact of the matter is that when you're teaching, you're acting as an agent of the college.

As such, if you allow a student who isn't on the roster, or who you know hasn't paid, to function as a member of the class, you're establishing the basis for the student to assume that he's in the class. This chicken comes home to roost at the end of the term, when the student demands a course grade, and waves graded papers at us as proof. If The College didn't think of him as a student, why did The College grade his work?

It's tempting to brush that off as a bureaucratic problem, but the bureaucracy issues your paycheck, and it does so, in part, with the money paid by students. Start forgiving tuition unilaterally, and watch colleges implode financially. Before long, nobody gets access to classes, since there's no money to pay instructors to teach them.

It's easy to object to bouncer duty, but what would be your alternative? Should we post guards outside the door of every classroom, to make sure that everybody's papers are in order? Institute mandatory fingerprint checks?

The point about anger and acting out strikes me as valid but not dispositive. Students get angry and act out at bad grades, at comments they perceive as insulting, and sometimes simply at exposure to points of view different from their own. Managing your classroom -- including angry students -- is a fundamental part of your job. It isn't what most of us enjoy doing, but it needs to be done, and I don't know who would do it better than faculty.

There are also issues around fundamental fairness. If tuition is effectively optional, then the students who bust their humps at low-paid jobs to pay tuition are suckers. If some students are offered the look-the-other-way discount and others aren't, you have a nasty due process or discrimination claim on your hands. (Imagine: Johnny Whiteboy got a waiver, but Jenny Minority didn't. Jenny files suit. The legal term, I believe, is "roadkill.") I'm the first to admit that financial aid procedures can be slow, cumbersome, imperfect, and even maddening, but to replace them with tuition-waivers-by-fiat just isn't viable. Imagine if we allowed cops just to execute obviously-guilty suspects upon catching them. Yes, it would be much faster than our slow, expensive, sometimes-arbitrary legal system, but would it be better? "Due process" isn't sexy, but it matters.

In my faculty days, I didn't like bouncer duty, either. But if you don't manage your classroom, including such basic matters as who is allowed in and who isn't, who will?

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found an effective way for dealing with students who don't pay, or who are otherwise trapped in a Kafkaesque financial aid situation?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.