A Conflict on Integrity Surfaces
Gallaudet Is Roiled by Charges That Academic Standards Have Been Compromised
By Mary Pat Flaherty and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 9, 2006; B01
As Gallaudet searches for its next president, the university is wrestling with divisions that go beyond the recent protests, with faculty and staff charging that some administrators have compromised academic standards and jeopardized the institution’s integrity and performance.
Faculty members were asked by administrators to change grades of several failing students, according to internal documents and interviews. Faculty reports to the board of trustees have warned that the university is admitting students with very low academic skills without giving professors the necessary training and resources to help them.
“There are some students who cannot multiply 4 x 4 and come up with 16 without a calculator,” and others who cannot read English well enough to comprehend a basic news story, faculty members reported to the board last year.
The complaints build on criticism earlier this year from the Office of Management and Budget, which concluded in an assessment that “Gallaudet failed to meet its goals or showed declining performance in key areas, including the number of students who stay in school, graduate and either pursue graduate degrees or find jobs upon graduation.” The agency labeled as “ineffective” the use of $108 million in annual federal funding that goes to the university — supplying two-thirds of its budget — and said that the school needed closer monitoring.
The protesters who forced the ouster of incoming president Jane K. Fernandes last week have driven to the surface these and other painful debates over the school’s accountability. Some faculty members say the problems are part of a larger pattern among administrators of hiding weaknesses and keeping enrollment up, even as medical and other changes have expanded educational options for deaf students.
“The unstated fear among many faculty is that the [Gallaudet] administration is [so] desperate” for warm bodies “that they’ll go out and yank people off the street who don’t have the skills or who are not ready for the college experience,” faculty chair Mark Weinberg said, adding that he doesn’t want to undermine the school and its many bright students but hopes this can be a turning point for Gallaudet to solve problems.
University officials say the focus on problems ignores Gallaudet’s strengths. They deny that there is a pattern of grade-changing or admitting unqualified students and say the federal review minimized the school’s unique mission.
Outgoing President I. King Jordan, in a written statement, said that the university remains strong. “Today more than ever . . . it should be clear to all that Gallaudet is far greater than the sum of its parts,” he said. “. . . We remain a community united in a common cause.”
Since it became a college in 1864, Gallaudet has been the nation’s lone liberal arts institution for the deaf and hard of hearing. For many, it also has been a leading cultural center. Critics say its cherished standing has protected it from rigorous scrutiny.
Gallaudet has a “grand tradition” with a hard-to-serve population, noted John H. Hager, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services at the Department of Education. Congress “is always saying nice things about Gallaudet” as it appropriates money for the university. By law, the department is supposed to monitor Gallaudet’s performance, but, Hager acknowledged, “we were never in a true supervisory role.”
Faculty and staff cite several examples of occasions when administrators reviewed staff decisions on grades and asked for changes or readmitted failed students.
In one instance, five students who had failed a remedial math course complained to Karen Kimmel, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Sciences and Technologies. Kimmel questioned the weight given to the must-pass exit exam and whether students were aware of its significance, according to e-mails she sent faculty members.
After a lengthy back-and-forth with math faculty, Kimmel ended one e-mail by saying: “I ask you to pass these students.” Two faculty sources, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals, said that professors later changed grades because they felt pressured by the request.
Kimmel said she was obliged to investigate whether the test requirement was fair. “I would never say ‘pass this student,’ ” she said in an interview. She later said she had been unable to recall the wording of her e-mail. Faculty members, she said, were not coerced by it.
Any grade changes or readmissions were rare and addressed specific student needs, said Fernandes, who was university provost at the time.
In one case, Fernandes intervened when a student failed an internship after walking off the job at mid-semester, faculty sources said. The failure put the student at risk for dismissal. When the student appealed and a member of Congress inquired on his behalf, Fernandes agreed to give him another internship on campus, she confirmed, but said she did so only because a faculty member agreed to closely monitor him.
In another case, a student who had been suspended after failing classes asked to be readmitted. According to faculty sources, the student had had multiple chances to turn things around, but kept cutting classes and did not do the work or attend summer school.
Fernandes said she allowed the student to be readmitted because, once again, a faculty member offered to supervise. In both cases, the students succeeded, she said.
The issue of bending admissions standards came up with the 6-foot-4 basketball player son of Debra Drymalski. He applied to Gallaudet last May but was rejected because of his low English and reading scores. Yet, he received repeated calls from the university’s athletics director, James DeStefano, who told her son he could be retested.
“I thought, what kind of college does that? You apply. You get in or you don’t and that’s that. It just didn’t feel right,” said Drymalski, of Darien, Wis., who has taught deaf students for 28 years. “This wasn’t the right fit for him. He would have struggled and, honestly, I think he would have failed.” Her son is attending a technical school and still has trouble in some courses. “I really had to push back,” she said, because DeStefano “was very persistent.”
DeStefano said his contacts were a genuine attempt to help a student who was “pestering” him about getting into the school. A high school counselor had told DeStefano the student would succeed if given a chance. It is “my job” to advocate for students, DeStefano said. He dropped the matter “once the mother told me to back off.”
Last spring, DeStefano confirmed, he sought a grade change for a basketball player who had dropped below the 2.0 grade-point average needed to maintain his eligibility. DeStefano said he asked the faculty member if there was any work the student could do to raise his 1.9 to the 2.0.
DeStefano said the faculty member agreed, the player did some work and the grade was changed.
“I’d say it was fairly common” to ask teachers what students could do to raise a final grade,” DeStefano said. “I’m not saying frequently, but it is not uncommon.”
Faculty members “have the ultimate authority to grade students,” Fernandes said, “and changes should not be made lightly.”
Fernandes said she had intended to raise admissions standards but needed to proceed gradually because “if we just cut off a certain level of students, the university’s overall enrollment would suffer and probably not recover.”
Gallaudet has been recruiting more aggressively to keep enrollment up, Kimmel said. Beyond medical advances, federal laws now enable more deaf students to attend mainstream schools. Those laws have been “a double-edged sword,” she said.
Several faculty members said they suspect that the shrinking pool of potential students has resulted in the school admitting some applicants who previously would not have met standards.
This fall, 41 percent of new students were required to take remedial English and 86 percent needed remedial math, according to the office of enrollment services.
Deaf students who grow up communicating with American Sign Language often need extra help with English because ASL is its own language, not a literal translation of English. And the concentration on learning English often overwhelms math instruction, Gallaudet staff members say.
One perspective among the faculty “is we shouldn’t be getting so many developmental students,” Weinberg said. “The other is we’ve got to do better with the ones we have.” .
The administration in recent years has boosted the school’s honors program, Weinberg noted. But he said challenges remain for faculty members in teaching a student population with an enormous range of abilities. And, he said, officials have tried to play down any weaknesses.
Other faculty members express a lack of trust in an administration they say is heavy-handed and dismissive of complaints.
English professor Christopher Heuer said that more checks and balances need to be in place. “Our current system needs to be reformed so that the wishes of the stakeholders of the Gallaudet campus community are heeded, not just heard,” Heuer said.
Faculty vice chair Lois Bragg said the administration has been spinning bad news for years, “trying to hide from the public evidence of low academic standards and absolutely risible admissions policies. . . . The administration has lost all credibility in the campus community.”
In its review this year, the OMB noted the university’s low graduation rates, which have fallen just below targets that the school pledges to meet. Its 42 percent is an estimate meant to include any student who graduates, regardless of how long it takes. Graduation rates are more commonly based on the number of students who graduate within six years. By that measure, Gallaudet says it averages a 28 percent rate.
Budget officer David F. Armstrong said Gallaudet vigorously objected to OMB’s conclusions and it has agreed to a reassessment. He added that accrediting agencies have endorsed the university’s programs. OMB’s “one-size-fits-all approach,” he said, disserves Gallaudet.
Gallaudet students, for example, may take eight or nine years to complete degrees, Armstrong said, and go on to graduate school at very high rates.
Hager, at the Department of Education, said his agency was not vigilant about overseeing the university, partly because the money for Gallaudet “is a small part of our operation here.”
Gallaudet, Hager said, “likes their independence,” but agreed to a two-day visit in April by Education Department staff. He also said his department would be rigorous about getting timely and complete data from Gallaudet.
“When they knuckled down and got over the emotional reaction [to the OMB report] and got factual, they were set to do the hard work with us,” Hager said.