Stopping Out (Cornell Alumni News 6/74)

Stopping Out — or dropping out or busting out — whatever they call it, more students are doing it.

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“If our records are correct, your work for the past term appears to be unsatisfactory. Unless an error in your grades is brought to our attention, your total record will be scrutinized by the Committee on Academic Records. Any brief explanation you wish to have considered should be submitted in writing to the Committee on Academic Records, 142 Goldwin Smith Hall, by 4:30 p.m., Tuesday–”

Every term, between one and two thousand undergraduates receive letters, or, in particularly serious cases, telegrams, containing essentially the same portentous message as the mimeographed prenotification excerpted above. The number has increased two fold over the past five years.

These are Cornell’s personae non gratae, the failed or failing scholars the university drily refers to as its “students in poor academic standing.” Having failed to achieve what passes for “good academic standing” within their respective colleges (the cutoff point is generally C-minus) and/or having failed to make substantial progress toward graduation (usually defined as a net gain of 12 credit hours over the previous term) they — and their parents — are now obliged to submit to the agony of waiting to hear the results of a closed-door inquiry into the nature and circumstances of their academic difficulties.

In all the colleges but one, the hearings are conducted by select committees of faculty and administrators (the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences allows some student representation on its Committee on Academic Achievement and Petitions). These committees refer to whatever evidence they feel is pertinent — grades, memoranda from the student’s instructors, brief “explanations” from the students themselves — then discuss and vote into effect whatever “academic actions” they consider to be appropriate in each case.

Generally leniency prevails. A majority of the summoned students are sent follow-up letters advising them that for the next term they will be on “warning” or on “final warning.” Decoded, this means simply that they shouldn’t let it happen again.

Not everyone gets off so easily. Several hundred students are either summarily suspended or permanently expelled each year. A small number of the latter group usually submit impassioned, tear-stained petitions for repatriation (few of which succeed); some have even threatened their inquisitors with physical violence. Yet most of those given involuntary leaves appear to accept their sentences without a great deal of emotion, packing their bags and evacuating their rooms and apartments quickly, quietly, and without too much looking back.

“–Early assistance with academic and personal problems is a must. Every student should take full advantage of the many experienced people who have worked with the system and are readily available. When you need help of any kind at any time, be sure to see someone as soon as possible. Students who wait frequently find that they have waited too long–”

– “Your Underclass Years in Engineering: A Student Handbook”

At Cornell, the problem of academic failure is rather well hidden, emerging full-blown for the student only after the completion of the semester’s classes and the reporting of final grades. By that time university and college administrators can do little else but leave affected students to the mercy of the dreaded committees on academic records. But until then the serious academic difficulty of most of the hundreds of failing students has been, for all intents and purposes, unknown, not only to the rest of the Cornell community, but also, in many cases, to the students themselves. Robert Gardner, director of underclass advising and counseling in the College of Engineering, is one of many counseling officials who have been frustrated in their efforts to assist Cornell’s “invisible students” in academic difficulty. He notes: “When a student gets into trouble here, he doesn’t know how to handle it. He just goes into the woodwork and we can’t get in touch with him until it’s too late.”

The predicament Gardner alludes to seems to be fairly recent in origin. For years — until the late 1960s — the universitywide mid-term grade system provided a fairly effective instrument for measuring a student’s academic performance (or lack of performance) while classes were still in progress. In other words, a flag was raised while there was still time for the university to offer assistance to the student who was obviously in trouble, and while there was still time for that student to take note of his parlous situation and help himself.

Today, unfortunately, the mid-term grade system is a shambles. In only three of the seven undergraduate divisions — Agriculture, Hotel Administration, and Engineering — are mid-term grades either reported or recorded after a student’s freshman year, and even in the colleges that do require mid-term grades, instructors are often either too busy or too lazy to report them. “They just don’t want to be bothered,” said one nettled administrator who asked not to be identified by name.

The system of faculty advisers at one time also provided both the students and their colleges with valuable mid-term feedback. Not too long ago, most faculty advisers made it their business to keep in regular touch with both their student advisees and their advisees’ instructors, so an incipient case of academic collapse could be diagnosed and treated as it developed.

Today this sort of faculty early warning system is no longer in working order. Indeed, the faculty advising system itself seems no longer to be in working order.

College administrators pretend not to take note of this embarrassing development. For example, the latest edition of the course catalog of the College of Arts and Sciences still roundly declares that “advising by faculty is at the heart of the educational process.” Yet, in actuality, faculty advising in Arts and Sciences — like that of the other undergraduate colleges — operates only at the very crust of the educational process, if even there.

Most of the college’s faculty advisors (and as one of their veteran advisees I can personally testify to this) seem to view their advising and counseling function not as an academic responsibility, but as an academic chore. During their office hours, faculty members are seen by advisees to function mostly as clerks, tenured bureaucrats whose advising obligation to their dozen or so student charges consists solely of rubber-stamping the myriad forms, slips, cards, and petitions with which the college periodically lubricates itself.

Dean of students Elmer Meyer avers: “The faculty advising process is shallow, superficial, and short term.”

(Perhaps the clearest proof of this is the increased use of full-time academic and personal-problem counselors by the advising offices of the various undergraduate colleges, the student unions, and the Office of the Dean of Students itself.)

The deterioration of the university’s academic sensory and guidance system seems to have begun six or seven years ago, when the university administration and faculty hastily altered their relationship with the undergraduate student body from one in which they acted in loco parentis (that is, in place of the students’ reputedly oversolicitous parents) to one in which they acted — in loco avunculus, as a properly magnanimous, but more distinctly removed aunt or uncle.

The new policy was explained by the stirring old Cornell phrase “freedom with responsibility.” It was adopted with the apparent intention of giving entering students virtually total freedom over their personal lives.

Among other things, students were presumed responsible enough to be able to judge for themselves how long and how privately they wanted to entertain students of the opposite sex (witness the speedy abolition of parietal hours system), and whether or not they should bring alcoholic refreshments into their dormitory rooms (and, God forbid, risk endangering their studies). On the face of it, granting complete “freedom of responsibility” meant recognizing certain long denied civil liberties and was joyfully hailed by most segments of the Cornell community (including the writer, a rambunctious undergraduate at the time).

What few people foresaw was that if the new policy liberated students in their personal affairs, it would have the same effect on their academic affairs as well. What had formerly been perceived by both students and the faculty as bona fide academic responsibilities gradually became academic options. Students no longer felt obliged to attend all — most, perhaps, but not all — of their instructors’ classes. (“I can always get the notes from someone else.”) For their part, many instructors were reluctant to give the impression they really disapproved. (“If those students don’t want to show up, its their tough luck.”) And less and less value came to attach to what the catalogs defines as the student’s “responsibility to meet his adviser during pre-administration and administration, to discuss his program for the coming term and to discuss as much more as seems valuable to both.”

The end effect, university officials pretty much concede, has been that in all but a few of the undergraduate colleges Cornell undergraduates must now weather the maelstrom of modern academic life with but a cursory amount of sensible guidance. (The notable exceptions are the College of Agriculture and the School of Hotel Administration, two schools whose administrators have actively resisted the onset of the new in loco avunculus creed.)

So poor is the quality of academic advising today, says john Spencer ’54, director of the Division of Unclassified Students, that he believes “we are defaulting on our obligations to the students.” Spencer sees as inadequate and inaccessible the help available to a student when he or she wants to plan a curriculum or a career that jibes with his interests, aptitudes, and abilities.

Some students in academic difficulty seem to have as much trouble reaching their professors as they do their advisers. A short but trenchant memorandum prepared last year by a group of fourteen underclass dormitory advisers, entitled “Reflections on Our Cornell Experiences,” painted a rather unhappy picture of the Cornell of the 1970s.

“If a student has a low mark in a course,” the authors observed, “regardless of what (s)he has learned (they are usually not closely related) (s)he will probably find it difficult, if not impossible to see the professor of the course….The large impersonal lectures; the fact that the faculty are not rewarded for personal contact or experimental work with the students; the lack of different meeting grounds other than the classroom; and the demand for research all pull the faculty away from contact with students. Some of us…have done well here for four years but have never known a professor personally.”

To be sure, most students are able to survive and indeed succeed at their studies in spite of the state of academic advising and the insulation of professors. Nevertheless, increasing numbers of undergraduate students are not.

“Cornell is not a place solely for memorizing data or mastering a vocation. It is, instead, a route to intellectual maturity, a means for developing the ideas, insights, and values which form a permanent personal capacity for intelligent thought and action. The Cornell student is prepared to use knowledge well for himself and society. The diversity of Cornell contributes breadth and perspective to strong, specialized programs of study…”

– Cornell University Announcements

After the collapse of the student power/antiwar Movement of the late 1960s, students at Cornell — as at other campuses — began to worry less about politics and society and more about themselves. The campus quieted down, but only in the literal sense of the word. In reality, the Ithaca campus became absorbed in another, if very different sort of turmoil: a “new vocationalism,” as some commentators called it.

Disabused of the pleasant notion that what they thought and did and demonstrated about really could have a lasting impression upon the state of the nation and the world — a notion that was originally propagated by the New Left, then unwittingly encouraged by the government and the media — students (and this includes conservatives and liberals as well as radicals) suddenly found themselves in a dither over what they were going to do with their lives when they graduated. A deflated market for college graduates without professional degrees heightened their sense of insecurity.

A “rush into the future” ensued. The “Cornell experience” came to be seen as merely a mechanism for getting the grades necessary to win admission to the increasingly selective graduate and professional schools, particularly those leading to careers in the established, secure, prestigious professions of law, medicine, and business administration. Competition among and between students has since reached an unparalleled level of intensity. For the student, the campus became increasingly pressurized.

And so it is today.

W. Jack Lewis, the university’s coordinator of religious affairs and long an adviser and counselor to troubled students, has noticed the change: “Some people today are so worried about grades — about climbing the ladder of success — that they are driving themselves to distraction.”

Florence Berger, assistant dean of students, says: “I’ve never seen students in such a state of panic over their grades. Some of them are beginning to act irrationally, like staying in their rooms for an extended period of time in a sort of catatonic paralysis — or jumping into a car the night before an exam and driving off to New York.”

Chilling remarks on the new state of affairs may also be found in the critical memorandum, “Reflections on Our Cornell Experience.” Its authors note that “the intensity of competition” at the university has led to the creation of an atmosphere that makes it difficult for students to benefit form Cornell’s awesome stockpile of knowledge in any but the most narrow way. The word they used most frequently to describe the new class of competition is “destructive.” “We have seen [destructive competition] lead to students hiding books from others, cheating, learning only for the next examination, and concern for nothing but grades.”

The student authors said the desire to learn is corroded and ultimately eliminated by the desire to get a good grade. “…Even when we did learn a great deal, our motivation to learn was all wrong. Rather than being motivated by a love of learning, we were pushed by the external pressures of grades needed for graduate school or for our own self-concepts. Because of the pressure, at the end of the semester, we found ourselves sick of books and study and bitter over the effects of the pressures on ourselves and others…”

“We saw that not only did the pressure of competition hurt student-student relationships and our relationship to what we were studying, but it often damaged the self-concepts of students…as well. Low grades…were seen as a judgment of our worth rather than as an evaluation of work done. This is certainly the students’ problem, of course, but why then does a student who resolves this then see the university in opposition to his growth?”

Indeed, the new vocationalism — the pre-professionalization of the student body — seems to have created a powerfully polarizing conformity: those who, in spite of the poor quality of the academic support system, can fix their vocational star and guide themselves by it and can therefore withstand the intense competitive pressures are thought of, and think of themselves, as “together.” Those who cannot, for one reason or another, are subjected to severe peer and parental pressure and, if sufficiently sensitive and impressionable, are made to think that they are somehow inadequate, that they do not belong. Increasing numbers of this group, the new dropouts, are taking leaves of absences.

Some leave the school altogether. Others hang on. These are the young men and women one notices at night in the dim corners of Collegetown bars, slumped in chairs, nursing beers, dragging on cigarettes, a new lost generation of sorts. Some will get by, easing their way into “gut” courses, just barely maintaining the minimum cumulative average required for good academic standing. Others, somewhat more oblivious to their fate, will let themselves fall below their respective colleges’ waterlines (usually a C-minus) and be placed on final warning, suspended, or expelled.

“The Cornell of the fifties and earlier is indeed gone. And defined in old Cornell’s terms, today’s Cornell certainly has declined its way into the seventies. By then, perhaps it is time to forget old Cornell. Perhaps it is time to design a new Cornell, one that incorporates as many of the old values as is feasible and desirable, one that will function usefully and gracefully in the real world of the seventies…”

– Editorial in The Cornell Daily Sun, March 11, 1974

Given, then, that for an increased number of students Cornell is not quite what it used to be — that Cornell students and faculty have grown alienated from one another, that students have become confused over the purpose of their daily studies, that the faculty has neglected its advising and some of its teaching responsibilities, that the academic environment has become more highly competitive, that “freedom with responsibility” has become a mask for student irresponsibility — where does a university go from here?

Some administrators, teachers, and students suggest Cornell simply throw up its collective hands and resign itself to changes that work against all students getting the most out of their years at Cornell. I am not one of them. I believe, along with many others with whom I have spoken, that much can be done to tackle the myriad problems that have appeared with the liberation of students and faculty.

Here, for instance, are a number of ideas that have varying degrees of support on campus, and in some instances and in some colleges are being considered actively and proposed.

Bring back mid-term grades. Students need to know how they are faring in their courses by the sixth or seventh week of a semester, as a jog that alerts them to the pitfalls they are facing before they are too deep to climb out in time for finals week. By the same token, faculty advisers need the information when it can still help effect a last-minute recovery.

Abolish the curve, at least for an experimental period. The “curve” describes the grading system, widely used by instructors in science and social science departments, founded on the assumption that in each group of students a certain number will do “F” work, a few more will do “D” work, a great many will do “C” work, some will do “B” work, and a select few will do “A” work. What results, when the curve is in effect, is a dog-eat-dog competition for the few available “A”s.

These are days of intense, almost obsessive preoccupation with grades, particularly among science and social science students preparing for medical, graduate, and professional schools. The additional spur to achievement provided by the curve seemed superfluous. It helps breed the “destructive excesses” described by the fourteen dorm advisers. An experimental moratorium on the use of the curve would allow time to see if the quality of students’ work falls of appreciably as a result.

Abolish letter grades for underclassmen. Allowing underclassmen (i.e. freshmen and first-term sophomores) to take all their courses on a pass/fail basis would give them an opportunity to explore their academic interests, strengths, and weaknesses using Cornell’s diverse curriculum, without worrying about keeping up with classmates and proving themselves to expense-minded parents. The absence of recorded grades for the first three semesters should not prove a liability given, two or three years late, these students begin applying to graduate and professional schools, because graduate and professional admissions committees almost invariably attach the greatest weight to the quality of a student’s work during his junior and senior years, after he has declared a major.

Yet to be proved is whether not being graded at the outset of a college career will prove to be too much freedom for students in an unfamiliar academic and social setting, and whether an absence of grades provides any students with enough incentives for study. For these reasons, as with suspension of the “curve,” the idea is being proposed on an experimental basis.

Resuscitate the faculty advising system in colleges that have let it atrophy. Observers agree that it will take leadership by the university’s hundred or so department chairmen to bring the system back to life. One such step should be to “monitor” faculty advisers by requiring written evaluations of the advisers by the advisees. Another would be to offer faculty members teaching credit in exchange for the scheduling of several daily office hours (most Cornell faculty members currently hold one and a half, two, or two-and-a-half office hours a week).

Design more courses for non-majors. Today, many undergraduates — underclassmen and upperclassmen — are afraid to take courses in subjects outside their majors and intended majors; they fear — often with good reason — that as non-majors in courses taken by a preponderance of majors, they will be at a distinct competitive disadvantage. Failure to explore the great variety of fields available at Cornell results.

A way to flight the spread of this provincialism and restore the university’s tradition to academic diversity would be to design and introduce into the college curricula more courses like the highly popular “Physics for Poets” and “British Literature,” both of which are specifically designed for, and consistently attract, non-majors from within the College of Arts and Sciences and students from outside the college.

Develop a sound and attractive work-study program. Piqued and frustrated by the pace of contemporary academic life at Cornell, more and more undergraduates are either withdrawing from the university or taking hasty, “escape valve” leaves of absence. Last year almost one thousand students took voluntary leaves of absence; no more than half are expected to resume their studies.

A program in which Cornell helped find off-campus work for students and offered academic credit for work that had academic value could help alter the current vogue of dropping out. It might also help students plan for their post-graduate futures more wisely by giving them a firsthand look at the careers and vocations American society currently has to offer; today too many students know of no other way to make a decent and rewarding living “out there” except in the easily identified careers of lawyer, physician, and businessman.

Indeed, without such a program, one easily sees Cornell becoming a school peopled only by pre-professional grinds. As Change Magazine commented editorially in November 1973, “…Let us not make the mistake of confusing Hire education with Higher.”

I don’t kid myself. Putting the assorted changes outlined above into effect will not eliminate academic failure at Cornell. But they might help control it, and in the process reaffirm the university’s commitment to humanistic education.

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