Michigan’s Striking Graduate Students Ask: Where Did These Grades Come From?
When instructors stop teaching their undergraduate courses, what’s a university to do at the end of the term when grades are due?
That’s a key question facing the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where striking graduate students are alleging that the university pressured faculty to submit falsified grades. The graduate-student union has been on strike since late March, disrupting the many undergraduate courses and discussion sections taught by graduate instructors.
As grading deadlines loomed last month, the university set out to find substitutes. Faculty members and administrators with faculty titles assigned grades for those courses, said Rick Fitzgerald, the interim vice president of communications for Michigan. Individual departments handled the specifics.
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When instructors stop teaching their undergraduate courses, what’s a university to do when grades are due?
That’s a key question facing the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where striking graduate students allege that the university pressured faculty to submit falsified grades. The graduate-student union has been on strike since late March, disrupting the many undergraduate courses and discussion sections taught by graduate instructors.
As grading deadlines loomed last month, the university set out to find substitutes. Faculty members and administrators with faculty titles assigned grades for those courses, said Rick Fitzgerald, the interim vice president for communications at Michigan. Individual departments handled the specifics.
Amir Fleischmann, a Ph.D. candidate studying political science and a spokesperson for the grad-student union, which represents 2,300 part-time assistants, said that many students were not evaluated fairly. The substitute graders generally hadn’t been involved in teaching the courses and simply gave out straight A’s in a lot of cases, according to the union. Fleischmann estimated that there are thousands of spring-term undergraduate grades with “incomplete information” regarding a student’s understanding of the course material.
According to documents shared by the grad-student union, some faculty members who were assigned to give out final grades said they gave out all A’s or had little ability to assess a student’s academic progress.
“I did not evaluate any student work,” a department chair wrote. “... Some students may have received grades higher than what they would have otherwise received.”
This month, the University of Michigan’s accreditor stepped in. The Higher Learning Commission said that the agency was examining the false-grades allegations and whether the university’s actions could be a violation of accreditation standards. Accreditors determine whether institutions uphold academic quality and other measures, and dictate whether they should be able to receive federal financial aid. The grad-student union had requested the review on May 30.
Graduate students are at the very bottom of the food chain of academics. They are some of the most exploited workers on our campuses.
As university officials see it, they did the best they could. To determine students’ grades, the substitute graders relied on whatever their scores were on the day the strike began and then conducted an “evaluation of their work,” Fitzgerald said in an interview. But due to the “so many different classes” that were instructed in “various forms,” Fitzgerald could not provide more specifics on how grading was handled.
“The university faced a difficult situation,” Fitzgerald said. “Were we going to give obligation to these graduate workers versus our obligation to primarily the undergraduate students who were not getting their grades that they expected after their coursework? We made the difficult decision to honor our obligation to those undergraduate students.”
The grading dispute is the latest chapter of a monthslong saga in which Michigan graduate students have called for the university to provide better wages and benefits. The union is asking for a 60-percent increase in the minimum salary for graduate instructors to accommodate the cost of living in Ann Arbor, among other things.
A Lack of Transparency
What has troubled the graduate-student union, as well as experts in academic integrity, is that it’s not clear how evaluation and grading took place for the courses affected by the strike.
David Rettinger, an expert in higher-education policy with the International Center for Academic Integrity, said the biggest issue here is transparency. Because grad students were striking and many faculty members didn’t cross the picket line, he said, the question remains: Where exactly did these grades come from?
“Grades are supposed to be reflective of the work students do,” Rettinger said.
Because that basis is unclear, the score that a student received on their transcript might no longer reflect competency in a subject, he said.
“We don’t know whether the grade that a student receives for the term was earned or not, or whether it was an arbitrary grade used to fill out a transcript,” Rettinger said.
So, what should a university do when an instructor isn’t present to give out final grades?
Rettinger said he feels sympathy for both the grad students and the University of Michigan. But when workers are striking, he said, it’s left to management to resolve the matter in the most ethical way possible. The root problem is not grad students striking, he said, but that there was no instructor to step in to teach.
“Graduate students are at the very bottom of the food chain of academics. They are some of the most exploited workers on our campuses,” he said. “They stood up for themselves by striking and as a result, they put the university in a position for which I do not think there’s a solution.”
Then there’s the questionable representation of grades, which is concerning, experts said.
Since there was an absence of an instructor of record, it’s unclear whether students’ grades reflect what they learned and earned, said Ceceilia Parnther, an assistant professor of higher-education leadership at St. John’s University.
In the midst of a situation like this, a university’s obligation should center on academic integrity and transparency, Parnther said.
“Integrity requires us to be able to be honest, but also trust each other to do the same,” she said. “Here, what we’re seeing is a suggestion that is not the case.”
The University of Michigan will have 30 days to respond to the Higher Learning Commission. Meanwhile, Michigan has submitted a petition to implement a fact-finding process while negotiating with grad students. Fitzgerald said that the university is looking forward to engaging with the Commission’s review.
“We are confident the university has acted ethically and well within legal bounds on all matters brought forth,” he said.
Meanwhile, the grad students will keep striking.
“The reality is, that the offer on the table just does not meet our needs,” Fleischmann said. “It’s a really simple question for the members: Do I have enough money in my bank account at the end of every month to be able to afford rent, to be able to afford child care, to be able to afford groceries? The answer to that question is no.
“So,” Fleischmann continued, “we are not going back into the classroom.”