Benedict College Fires Professors For Bucking “Effort” Grading

Benedict fires two professors bucking effort-based grading (Greenville News -AP)

Benedict College has fired two professors who refused to go along with a policy that says freshmen are awarded 60 percent of their grades based on effort and the rest on their work’s academic quality.
Benedict President David Swinton says the Success Equals Effort policy gives struggling freshmen a chance to adapt to college academics. He expects students to improve – the formula drops to 50-50 in the sophomore year and isn’t used in the junior or senior year. But he says he’s “interested in where they are at when they graduate, not where they are when they get here.” Students “have to get an A in effort to guarantee that if they fail the subject matter, they can get the minimum passing grade,” Swinton said. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

Science professors Milwood Motley and Larry Williams defied that policy and Swinton dismissed them. Neither had tenure, which could have protected them from firing. Motley, a veteran five years at Benedict, said he didn’t like concept from the beginning but went along with it grudgingly. Then he faced an academic dilemma of passing a student he thought had not learned course material. In his case, giving a C to a student with a high exam score of 40 percent was too much. “There comes a time when you have to say this is wrong,” he said. Motley said he started in the Spring awarding grades strictly on academic performance. But the historically black college “told us to go back and recalculate the grades, and I just refused to do it,” he said. A letter in June, informed Motley and Williams they were fired. Williams would not comment to The State newspaper for its story on the situation.

A faculty grievance committee voted 4-3 vote to reinstate Motley, but Swinton overruled that, dismissing Motley’s claim that his academic freedom had been violated.

Well, clearly, this isn’t an academic freedom issue; this isn’t a debate over contending theories in science. It is, however, a manisfestly idiotic policy. Indeed, aside from a student’s performance on exams and other graded events, it is not clear to me how it is that a professor would assess “effort.” Further, effort is an entirely meaningless concept if it doesn’t translate into performance.

If the goal is to encourage experimentation and remove penalties for failure early in a student’s academic career–reasonable goals, I think–a more honest approach would be to remove grading altogether. I know that years ago MIT had graded freshman classes on a Pass/Fail basis. The would be a much more honest solution than this one.

(Hat tip: Jeff Quinton)

UPDATE (8/24 1232): Dr. Rusty Shackleford takes exception to my narrow definition of “academic freedom.”

Academic freedom is normally construed to mean more than the freedom to say what you want in class (and out–especially in your role as an academic researcher) but also the freedom to do what you want in class.

Yeah, I define academic freedom narrowly. Some professors seem to think it’s a license to do whatever they want, which it was never intended to be. The basis of academic freedom is to protect professors who have unpopular ideas from censure by the Powers that Be.

If a professor decided that he wanted to call his black students “niggers,” for example, he would not ordinarily be covered by academic freedom (although I can think of narrow pedagogical exceptions). If he wanted to argue that affirmative action is a policy harmful to blacks, it would. Even then, the topic should be appropriate for the course content and the professor’s expertise.

The AAUP agrees:


1. Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties; but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.

2. Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.[2] Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.[3]

3. College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

Quite right. “Academic freedom” is not just another word for “nothing left to lose but tenure.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. jen says:

    Dang. I could have used this grading method when I flunked Biology 101 the first time I took it in college. The A for effort would have balanced out my F in lab (I had a C in the class portion, but I stunk at the lab work).

  2. Jim says:

    Here is one big problem with the concept. The concept works with those classes that aren’t central to a major (econ classes for a English major) and I can the benefits. However, for those classes central to a person major (Differntial equations for a physics major), this policy will be lethal by the third year as some students struggle to keep their head above water.

  3. bains says:

    This kind of policy is especially asinine in science. Some one who only makes an effort in first year calculas is going to be in a world of hurt if they dont understant it. With rare exception, there is only one way to teach it – and that involves lots of assignments, quizzes and tests.

    What in the world do these enlightened ‘educators’ think there preparing thier students for?

  4. Paul says:

    it is not clear to me how it is that a professor would assess “effort.”

    In the past, quality of work did provide some indication. knowhatImean?

  5. Jeffrotull2000 says:

    “The concept works with those classes that aren’t central to a major (econ classes for a English major) and I can the benefits. ” -Jim

    As far as an English major in econ would be concerned the economics for economics majors is a different class at schools where the major is impacted. If the major is not impacted than an introduction to economics class would have no significance because an econ major would not be definate until the second year. Having to compete with someone who happens to be good at economics is a fact of life.

  6. Herb Ely says:

    St. Benedicts is a special mission college. I first became aware of it when looking at colleges for a learning disabled student. To quote from the newspaper story: “Founded in 1870 to educate freed slaves, the college has been a haven for students who must overcome barriers to obtain higher education. The school’s open admissions policy means many students arrive with poor study habits and weak high school records, Swinton said.”

    The college’s decision on firing the two professors should be viewed in that context.

  7. Rusty says:

    James, good rejoinder–and I respond in kind:

    I disagree with James and the AAUP. I do not advocate dropping the ‘N’ bomb on students, but there is a serious question of who decides what the exception to the rule is. If the academic freedom policy is a general rule which allows professors the leeway to express unpopular ideas except when those ideas may be offensive–well then the rule has no meaning whatsoever. Why? Because the except whens are purely subjective and are therefore are at the whim of some group of people or another. Hence, academic freedom is a farce unless it completely covers all situations–even when professors utter idiotic and even hurtful drivel.

    Otherwise, I fear, professors can (and have) be censured for saying idiotic things which the academic community disapproves of (for instance, racist ideas), but will receive no such censure for saying equally idiotic things which the academic community has no problem with (for instance, Marxist philosophy). When you carve out exceptions to rules you are allowing a group of people to decide when the exception is valid and when it is not. The same problem arises with Constitutional Law. Freedom of speech, except when, is nothing more than freedom of speech as long as the Supreme Court doesn’t mind what you are saying. I would reject the AAUP standard as too narrow, and would have a much broader standard in it’s place.

  8. James Joyner says:


    The logical extension of your argument is that, once hired, a professor can do whatever he wants without repurcussion. Indeed, I don’t honestly see how one could be denied tenure or promotion since any negative job action–or even potential for such–has a potential chilling effect under your conception of “academic freedom.” There is no job of which I’m aware that operates under such a concept.

  9. Andrew says:

    “predominantly black college” says it all. We can’t expect the poor darkies to perform the same way we expect their white conterparts do because they are, well… black. (that was sarcasm)
    Bloody bigots.
    Don’t they see that expecting less of blacks is racism pure and simple? this is one of many attitudes from liberals that exasperate me to no end.

  10. Vernes says:

    Hurray for College.

    I’m an ace at failing and I put alot of effort to be one as well.
    This effort will ensure me that one day, these unskilled hands will be working on a pacemaker that will support YOUR heart!

    Ain’t that american educational system great?

    “I know I suck at programming, but I worked so hard!”
    “Well, you DID manage to blow up every component on the circuit, but alright, you pass”
    “Whoohoo, My dream of designing medical electronics will come true after all!”