Friday, June 09, 2006


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.


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