Grade Inflation, A Year Later

A little over a year ago, Clarence Deitsch and I published “Too Many Rhinestones” on the Pope Center’s site. The article pointed out the grade inflation that had occurred at Ball State University (BSU) in 24 out of 26 entry-level courses between fall semesters 1990 and 2009. For example, in 1990, 52 percent of the students enrolled in Principles of Marketing received grades of A or B; by 2009, 80 percent received A’s or B’s.

The ensuing year produced an interesting string of events. If anyone had told me they were going to occur, I would have responded “dream on, friend.”       

Shortly after the article’s appearance, Indiana state senator Jim Banks brought it to the attention of BSU’s president, Jo Ann Gora. In a May 25 letter, Banks, a member of the Senate Education and Career Development committee, said he “was very troubled by [Deitsch and my] assertion that grades are being inflated at Ball State University….will your office be developing a plan to combat this issue on your campus?” 

President Gora responded with a letter dismissing our evidence, saying that while it was “thought-provoking,” we had ignored the improvements in students, faculty, and instructional/administrative procedures since 2006.

In the midst of the exchange between Banks and Gora, Indiana Policy Review Foundation, a think-tank that favors free markets and limited government, circulated a longer version of our article that included separate comments by BSU’s provost, Terry King. King echoed Gora’s theme that every day, and in every way, the university is getting better and better. The local newspaper, the Muncie Star Press, ran the story as a feature article (June 6) and opined with an unsigned editorial the next day. BSU’s student newspaper also carried the story as a feature article on June 13. Other Indiana newspapers printed the article as an op-ed, but the grade inflation issue then fell into the summer hibernation that pervades college campuses.

That was quite a lot of publicity for the article. Would it lead to any changes in standards at BSU?  

Professor Deitsch (who retired in January) and I were quite surprised when the grade inflation issue resurfaced at BSU’s all-university fall 2011 faculty meeting.  Provost King, addressing the faculty, said:

As noted by our own Professors Deitsch and Van Cott in their publication for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, grade inflation does exist. I have already asked the deans to look at grade inflation, but it is ultimately the prerogative of the faculty to uphold academic rigor. There is no excuse. That is your job.  We owe it to our students, our respective disciplines, and ourselves to uphold standards of academic rigor.  And it is one I am confident you understand and embrace. 

So BSU officials became aware of grade inflation during the summer, only to say the problem was beyond their control. Provost King repeated the administrative impotence claim to BSU’s College of Business faculty in May 2012. I wonder if BSU administrators have ever considered factoring course grades into salary, promotion, and tenure decisions  Just a thought.         

Notwithstanding this plea of administrative impotence, the provost convened a university “task force” to investigate academic rigor at the university. By academic department, starting with the task force chair, the 11 faculty members on the task force (there are also two students) are:    

  • Professor—Landscape Architecture
  • Assistant Professor (non-tenure track)—English
  • Associate Professor—Telecommunications
  • Associate Professor—Information Systems
  • Professor—Geological Sciences  
  • Assistant Professor—Social Foundations of Education and Multi-Cultural Education
  • Professor—History
  • Professor—Exercise Science
  • Professor—Music (Piano)
  • Instructor (non-tenure track)—Mathematical Sciences
  • Professor—Elementary Education

Call me old-fashioned, but when academic matters are at issue, distinguished scholars in, say, biology, chemistry, economics, English, finance, mathematics, and psychology are an essential ingredient. Not one is on the BSU task force. While English and mathematics faculty are included, they are contract (non-tenure track) professors. With all due respect to my colleagues, academic task forces that do not enjoy input from distinguished scholars in an array of traditional disciplines are apt to make a mockery of their efforts.

And when the task force did meet, its actions did not reflect any urgency. Reporting its progress to the BSU faculty senate in April 2012, the chair noted that while the task force’s effort was about forty percent complete, it had not yet come up with a workable definition of “academic rigor.”     

Senator Banks’ role in the story doesn’t stop with his letter to President Gora. He introduced Indiana Senate Bill No. 392, which mandated all state institutions to report grades for general education courses that had class sizees of at least 25 students. It also required that grade data be sorted by tenured faculty, faculty on a tenure track, and non-tenure track faculty, the hypothesis being that the latter two faculty classifications use easy grades to “purchase” good evaluations from students in order to obtain tenure or continued employment. The bill passed the state senate 49-0 on February 01, 2012, but the state House of Representatives has not considered it.      

The bottom line is that “Too Many Rhinestones” so stirred the Indiana higher education establishment that grade inflation became an issue in a multitude of venues. Quite a few people in the state are upset over the slipping of academic standards but—sadly—those who could do something about it would rather just see the issue go away.