College officials have cultivated a nice image for themselves—scholarly people who care deeply about providing the best possible education for their students. The reality, however, is often very different. They can be petty, self-serving, and ideological, sometimes sacrificing educational quality in favor of other objectives.
Occasionally, faculty members become inconvenient to the leadership and must be eliminated. Two recent cases show college leadership at its worst.
Consider Professor Dennis Gouws of Springfield College in Massachusetts. Peter Wood explains in this Federalist article that on March 27, Springfield’s dean of arts and sciences, Anne Herzog, sent Professor Gouws a letter informing him that he had been placed on “Official Warning Status.” That sounds ominous—what had he done?
His story begins in 2005, when Gouws was asked by the Springfield English department to teach a course entitled “Men in Literature.” It turned out to be a rather popular course and Gouws, who holds tenure, taught it eight times between 2005 and 2015. But in 2015 a student lodged a complaint against the course with school leaders. It wasn’t that Professor Gouws had mistreated her, but simply that the course content, focused only on men, bothered her.
In a sensible era, officials would have said, “Well, then take something else if you’re offended,” but “progressive” academics seem incapable of insisting on common sense from students these days, especially if they’re in one of our supposedly oppressed groups. At Springfield, the result of the student’s gripe was to trigger what Wood terms “a feminist jihad” against a veteran, highly capable faculty member.
This has taken the form of a stream of harassments against him by school officials. His standard request for a sabbatical was denied. His syllabi for other courses have been questioned. He has been subjected to dozens of petty directives that don’t apply to other professors.
Moreover, Wood writes, “Gouws discovered that he stood in considerable risk if he agreed to meet with Dean Herzog in private. He found his recollections of what was said at such meetings were at wide variance with what Dean Herzog reported to others. And he found that his problems with teaching ‘Men in Literature’ had spilled into almost everything else he tried to do.”
Contributing greatly to his persona non grata status was the fact that Gouws had become an outspoken advocate for men on campus and had even disagreed in public with the notion that American campuses are in the grip of a rape epidemic.
When Gouws asked to know the reasons why he was being subjected to such treatment and said that he wanted them put in writing, his request was denied. When he asked to be allowed to bring a witness to meetings with officials, that too was denied.
So Gouws hasn’t really done anything, except to disagree with the militant feminism that’s running Springfield. He’s inconvenient and the dean wants him gone.
Incidentally, the English department offers “Women and Literature” and that’s perfectly all right.
Next consider Nathaniel Bork, an adjunct professor at Aurora Community College in Colorado. He’d been teaching philosophy and comparative religion at the college as an adjunct professor since 2010, without any incident.
Now Bork has lost his job because he didn’t agree with the administration’s efforts at making introductory courses easier to pass.
As we read in this Inside Higher Ed story, in September of last year Bork took a call from the chairman of his department, who told him that his employment was immediately terminated. The reason Bork was given for his abrupt termination was his supposed “lack of effectiveness in implementing the philosophy curriculum design.”
So a school feels the need to fire an experienced professor for “ineffectiveness” in September? You would expect that if such a faculty member were actually teaching ineffectively, college officials would inform him of the problem and work with him to remedy it.
Bork has a different explanation for the school’s action. He maintains that the reason for his firing was that he had complained that the department had dumbed down the introductory “gatekeeper” courses in an attempt to increase passage rates, thereby encouraging students to continue on at Aurora.
Encouraging students is fine, but watering down courses is not the way to go about that. Bork said that Aurora had told him to cut 20 percent of the material in his introduction to philosophy course, require fewer papers (and no more than a total of eight pages for the whole semester), and devote 30 percent of the course to women and minority philosophers.
Bork had resisted that, emailing his superiors, “Simply put, this class is now much easier to get an A in or pass than previously…. If the people we’re giving [A-pluses] to…are only doing the equivalent of high school work, I believe that sets up our students for harm later on. Our student success rates will spike through the roof, but we’ll be graduating people who think they’ve received a college education, but in reality have only done high school-level work.”
It seems clear that Bork was summarily fired not for any lack of “effectiveness,” but because he complained about being compelled to teach such a weak course and the administration’s decision to lower academic standards.
You shouldn’t be surprised at this. College administrators frequently want faculty to lower grading standards and reduce course content in order to keep more students happy. Rarely do the faculty members resist—after all, giving high grades in an easy course makes them more popular—but when they insist on keeping to their standards, the result is apt to be very painful for them.
College leaders always pay lip service to educational excellence, but they don’t always mean it. Educational excellence often collides with another priority of administrators, namely student retention. When it does, professors like Nathaniel Bork who want to maintain academic rigor become inconvenient.
What these cases (and many similar ones) demonstrate is the weakness of oversight in higher education. College officials shouldn’t think they have free rein to pursue petty vendettas against faculty members or fire those who want to uphold standards, but often they do.