Saturday, February 7, 2009

Free Grades

An interesting article I dug up in the Globe and Mail concerning a controversial professor at the University of Ottawa. Apparently, he was fired for giving all his students an A+. At first blush, this seems like an overreaction to what should be a minor offence, but digging deeper the Globe and Mail finds that this professor and his department have been at loggerheads for some time now.

First of all, most university departments have a policy concerning the ultimate grade distribution for a class. A class average must be within a particular range, usually from 65-75%, failure to do so will usually result in the department automatically scaling your average to within this range or force the professor to do so. Its understood that this policy prevents professors from marking too easy or too hard and treating the students fairly. Physics departments take this much more seriously than other departments as they generally feel they have a reputation to maintain.

The next thing that caught my attention was the comment about how he had alienated so many professors in his own department that they signed a complaint about him. This is really the crucial detail. When you anger your own department things can go downhill very quickly and this is one fairly clear example of the repercussions of that.

Generally a tenured professor has a certain degree of insulation against attacks on his career and his research so the university must feel extremely confident that they can remove him without significant backlash from either his department or the student body. I'd seriously doubt that the university would take such an action without the implicit approval or urging of the physics department itself.

Without taking a serious look at the professor's justification for his actions I'd say that he may have angered enough people with his actions to make his position at the university untenable. Physicists sometimes have terrible social skills and anger people that they need to maintain good relationships with. I can recall a Nobel prize winner who, in trying to convince a number of professors to change their teaching styles instead alienated and angered them by making arrogant, personal attacks on the professors.

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