Who Grades University of Michigan Students?
Faculty or Administrators?

Over the years many faculty have heard or shared anecdotal accounts of cases in which a student’s course grade was changed when the student appealed to a University administrator.  In a recent case (Yohn v. Board of Regents of the University of Michigan, et al., Case No. 99-75997, May, 2001) before Judge Victoria A. Roberts, presiding in the United States District Court, Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division, such an instance of administrator involvement in academic grading was documented and a decision rendered that might be key to the manner in which the University of Michigan manages its educational enterprise.

The Federal District Court Findings

Judge Roberts in her decision provides the following background about the case:

“Plaintiff is a tenured Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry.  In early October 1999, Plaintiff was chosen as one of four professors to serve as a panel member to score the practical projects of two (2) dental students enrolled in a clinical course.  Both students had repeated the course, having failed it on a prior occasion.  The practical project consisted of crafting a temporary bridge of acrylic material.  After deliberating for approximately two and one half (2 ½) hours, the panel unanimously agreed that both students had failed the test, which corresponded to a letter grade of “F” in the dental school’s grading system.

On October 6, 1999, the panel reported to Defendant Feigal, the Interim Associate Dean of the School of Dentistry, that both students earned an “F” on the practical exam.  Subsequently, Defendant Feigal informed the panel members, including the Plaintiff, that the students would be allowed to re-do the temporary bridges and that they would be graded by other faculty members……The students performed the practical test again, crafting the temporary bridges, and were given passing grades.  The “F” grades originally assigned by the panel were never recorded on the students’ official transcripts.”

The Federal District Court Decision

Judge Roberts’ decided the case in favor of the Board of Regents and against the Plaintiff:  Following are portions of her analysis and decision:

“An educator has a First Amendment constitutional right to academic freedom in issuing grades…..Because the assignment of a letter grade is symbolic communication intended to send a specific message to the student, the individual professor’s communicative act is entitled to some measure of First Amendment protection….However, the law in the 6th Circuit makes clear that an educator’s First Amendment right to academic freedom is violated only when the educator himself or herself is compelled to change a student’s grade……Conversely, if a grade is changed administratively as opposed to requiring the educator to personally alter the grade marking, then such a situation does not rise to the level of a constitutionally protected First Amendment right, inasmuch as a professor has no constitutional interest in a grade ultimately received by a student [bold type added]…..In this case, Plaintiff has made no allegation that he was forced to change the students’ grades.  The facts clearly indicate that the change in the students’ grades was an administrative one.  Therefore, the evidence does not support a First Amendment violation of Plaintiff’s right to academic freedom.”

The AAUP Position

In the Ninth Edition of the AAUP Red Book (Policy Documents & Reports, 2001) the following statement is made in the section entitled “The Assignment of Course Grades and Student Appeals;”

“The Association's Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities places primary responsibility with the faculty "for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter, and methods of instruction."  The assessment of student academic performance, it follows, including the assignment of particular grades, is a faculty responsibility. Recognizing the authority of the instructor of record to evaluate the academic performance of students enrolled in a course he or she is teaching is a direct corollary of the instructor's "freedom in the classroom" which the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure assures.  The faculty member offering the course, it follows, should be responsible for the evaluation of student course work and, under normal circumstances, is the sole judge of the grades received by the students in that course….. Under no circumstances should administrative officers on their own authority substitute their judgment for that of the faculty concerning the assignment of a grade. The review of a student complaint over a grade should be by faculty, under procedures adopted by faculty, and any resulting change in a grade should be by faculty authorization.

At its 87th Annual Meeting (June, 2001), the delegates unanimously adopted the following resolution:

“This Annual Meeting calls attention to and reaffirms the long-held position of the Association that the assessment of student academic performance, including the assignment of particular grades, is a faculty right, a direct corollary of the teacher's "freedom in the classroom" which the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure assures. Administrative officers should not on their own authority substitute their judgment for that of the faculty concerning the assignment of grades. This Meeting reiterates the position of the AAUP that review of a student complaint over a grade should be by faculty, under procedures adopted by the faculty. Any resulting change in grade should be made only by faculty authorization.”

The University of Michigan Dental School faculty member has appealed his case to the United States Appellate Court for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Should the court uphold the decision of the District Court or refuse to review the case, the consequences for the University of Michigan and institutions of higher education throughout the land could be far-reaching.

Possible Consequences

Some faculty at the University of Michigan might decide that assigning grades in courses is unproductive since these grades are subject to administrative change.  Alternately, some faculty at the University of Michigan might decide to inflate grades so as to avoid the whole issue.

Administrators might find themselves in situations where they are pressured to change grades for students who are connected to potential donors, special alumni, etc.

Students might learn that it is possible to appeal through administrative channels for grade improvements.  Those with special ties to the university might have a stronger sense of that possibility than other students.  Administrators might find themselves with more and more such cases to consider and more and more complaints from students about equity in grading.

Ultimately, faculty, administrators, and students are likely to be dissatisfied with these policies and practices.

AAUP would like to work with administrators and faculty governance to consider this issue and suggest that the AAUP statement on grading would be an appropriate starting point for such a discussion.  Please send us your comments and suggestions by email to our Chapter's Webmaster.

Click here the view the 1997 AAUP statement entitled “The Assignment of Course Grades and Student Appeals,” the 2001 resolution of the 87th Annual AAUP Meeting on course grades, and related portions of a report of the Office of Staff Counsel on recent court decisions in which the AAUP has filed amicus briefs.

 


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