Saturday, May 22, 2010

Violation of Academic Freedom at LSU?

Urban legend has it that Louisiana State University (LSU) was the model for the 70s movie, “Animal House”. Actually, the screenplay was based on the experiences of National Lampoon writer, Doug Kennedy, at Harvard University and screenwriter Harold Ramis at Washington University in St. Louis.

But, it’s a common belief around LSU that the university was the inspiration for the movie, and few would dispute it. If you recall, Dean Wormer said to the slackers of Delta Tau Chi, “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”

Recent events at LSU make one yearn for the outrageous, yet somehow innocent, antics of Bluto, Pinto, and Flounder and Dean Wormer, with his plan (“Double Secret Probation”) to rid the university of their fraternity and most importantly, its members’ low grade averages.

Back then, students were held accountable for their low grades and told to shape up or ship out. Even the fictional characters of “Animal House” accepted responsibility for their miserable grades. However, the Deltas eventually rebel and fight Dean Wormer’s plan to delete the fraternity.  Bluto: “Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!”

Fast-forward to 2010.

You may have heard of the brewing brouhaha at LSU over student grades. No, the university is not threatening to eliminate a fraternity for low grades a la “Animal House”. This recent ruckus is over the removal of Dr. Dominique Homberger from her position as instructor for an undergraduate course, General Biology (for non-science majors). The reason given was not, as one might imagine, some egregious class behavior on the part of Dr. Homberger, e.g., coming to class drunk or threatening a student with a gun, but because the class had “too many D’s and F’s at mid-term”. The concern was how this grading might impact the students.

If the lame reasoning stated above was not bad enough, Homberger was removed mid-semester by the Dean of the College of Basic Sciences, Dr. Kevin Carman, without consultation with her. In addition, and again without Homberger’s permission or knowledge, her grades were changed.

These actions were apparently sufficiently outrageous to warrant a strong letter from the LSU Chapter of AAUP (American Association of University Professors) to the President of the Louisiana State University System demanding an apology on behalf of Homberger. In their letter, the LSU-AAUP notes that the actions of the LSU administration are “violations of fundamental, well-established faculty rights, specifically (1) academic freedom in the classroom, and (2) due process, as laid out in a number of documents that the university subscribes to…” The LSU-AAUP’s letter ends with the promise to recommend censure of LSU’s administration to the National AAUP, if the issue is not resolved to their satisfaction.

Fellow professors at LSU and elsewhere are expressing shock at the actions taken against Dr. Homberger. Numerous websites are reporting the incident and many are weighing in with their opinions pro and con. 

Here are a few additional bits of information I’ve gleaned from the AAUP letter and interviews with some of the people involved:

--Dr. Homberger is a tenured senior professor, having been at LSU for over 30 years.

--Dr. Homberger has not taught an introductory course in about 15 years, having been teaching senior-level and graduate courses during the latter part of her career at LSU. This year, however, she offered her help to the department in teaching this intro course (presumably because of instructor layoffs due to budget cuts at the university). In other words, she did not have to teach this course and was doing the university a favor by teaching it.

--Dr. Homberger does not believe in grading on a curve and gives difficult tests. She also gives daily quizzes to ensure that students are doing the reading.

--Although at mid-term 90% (or 60% depending on which source you read) of the students were failing or had dropped the class, grades on the second exam and on daily quizzes were much higher, indicating that the students had gotten the message that they needed to work harder. Homberger's stated intent was to stimulate the class to work harder and that they would be given credit for improving. She was removed just after the second exam was administered and achievement on that exam was not considered in the decision.

--LSU is already being investigated by the AAUP for its termination of Ivor van Heerden, former deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center and outspoken critic of the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ levee-building skills.

--Dean Carman is a former faculty member in Dr. Homberger’s department.

--Misinformation about Dr. Homberger’s publication record, grants, and relationships with students is being circulated by anonymous commentators—presumably in an attempt to further discredit her as an academician.

--A lot of attention is being focused on the format of her tests, specifically that her questions often have 10 possible answers instead of the expected 4 or 5.

I will continue in tomorrow’s post with two examples of Homberger’s questions.

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