This post is one in a series that discusses the termination of my PhD studies in the Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Studies (RPTS) at Indiana University (IU). These posts proceed in reverse chronological order. The immediately preceding post describes certain events transpiring in mid-September 2010. This post steps back in time to a point a few weeks earlier, when my qualifying paper was being graded.
In the RPTS PhD program at IU, as in other PhD programs, “quals” (often called “comps,” short for a “comprehensive” exam or paper) mark the dividing line between the end of classroom courses and the beginning of work on the dissertation. Across universities generally, as described in more detail elsewhere, the very purpose of the doctoral qualifying requirement is unclear and disputed. It is a medieval tradition that, nowadays, is sometimes used to eliminate unwanted students.
At this point in the narrative, my PhD in RPTS was being terminated due to a failing grade on my qualifying paper. (Some readers may consider it rather obvious, within the next few paragraphs, that my qualifying paper probably did not deserve a failing grade. Those readers may find it unnecessary to plow through this post’s extended argument to that effect; they may instead wish to skip ahead to the next post in this series.)
My qualifying paper was flunked in retaliation. That it, the grading was politically rather than academically motivated. It will take a few steps to demonstrate that. For the moment, let’s just say that, at Indiana University, you can be — I was — expelled for asking the wrong questions.
I can say that with some confidence because, in fact, it happened to me twice. That is, I was pursuing a double PhD major, in two distinct but comparably troubled programs. This series of posts discusses the RPTS (also known as parks & rec) program, where I started. After leaving that program, I went on to two more years of coursework, and another qualifying paper, in social work. A separate series of posts discusses the process that I encountered there.
My qualifying papers received failing grades in both of these programs. In simplest terms, these outcomes may suggest two possibilities: either there was something wrong with me, or there was something wrong with these programs.
Let’s start with me. With apologies to those readers who may already have seen a recitation of my credentials in other posts, and with a desire neither to brag nor to repeat, let me summarize those credentials as follows. I came to IU with a 4.0 GPA in my previous graduate coursework at the University of Missouri. My GRE scores were 760 verbal, 780 math. I had a law degree from Columbia University, and some years of experience as a corporate attorney in a law firm on Wall Street. I had published a critically praised book and a 50,000-word peer-reviewed law journal article. At the time of the qualifying exam in RPTS, I had also published an article, in a peer-reviewed parks & rec journal, that won second place in a national parks & rec writing competition. Later — by the time the dust settled on these qualifying exams — I had also published three peer-reviewed articles in social work.
These are not the credentials of someone who would write failing papers in two separate programs. I admit, I was getting older. At the time of this writing, I was in my mid-50s. Lest anyone suspect senility, however, I should mention that my GRE retake, in September 2011, yielded scores of 170/159 (i.e., 99th and 82nd percentile). (It had been a long time since I had done significant study or work in algebra or geometry.) Moreover, going somewhat out of order, I finished the last year of my master’s in social work at the University of Michigan in 2010. My graduate GPA, as of early 2012, was 3.9.
The GRE is designed to predict success in graduate school. I would expect to face tough sledding if I had enrolled in, say, the doctoral program in Harvard’s School of Education (to cite a program for which GRE information is available). Even there, however, my combined GRE score of 1540 was well above the average 1374 GRE score held by students in that program. Preliminarily, then, one might expect that I would have succeeded at the qualifying stage at Harvard, had I applied to and been enrolled in that program.
IU is not Harvard, nor is it Columbia. In the U.S. News ranking of the world’s 400 best universities, Indiana University – Bloomington (IUB) (where the parks & rec program was located) was 193rd. Indiana University – Purdue University – Indianapolis (IUPUI) (where social work was based) did not make the top 400 list at all. By contrast, Columbia ranked 10th. Similar contrasts appear in other rankings of universities, such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities (2011). Generally, as most readers may know, these other universities from which I obtained graduate degrees (that is, Columbia and Michigan) do tend to be ranked far above IU.
For personal reasons related to my childhood and family in Indiana, IU’s were the only PhD programs I applied to. Careerwise, it was a mistake to go there. This sort of university, and this sort of program in particular, rarely sees the most inquisitive, intellectually oriented students. At best, RPTS attracted maybe one or two PhD students per year with relatively strong credentials, and it achieved that primarily through funding enticements.
There may be many college and university programs, not ranked highly by U.S. News, where students are encouraged to be inquisitive and to depart from the prevailing orthodoxy. Unfortunately, in the situation I encountered at RPTS, professors (even at the doctoral level) were not used to being questioned or challenged, and didn’t much appreciate it.
While people normally speak of overqualification in the workplace rather than in the university, it is not difficult to imagine what would happen if, say, a Nobel laureate chose to join a second-rate college riven by squabbling and backstabbing. Indeed, most of us have probably had the experience, at one time or another, of being defeated by relatively unintelligent persons who were good at politics on their home turf.
Unfortunately, the world does not have a GRE-like test of educational competence, administered by ETS to faculty nationwide, whose score would grow stale every five years as the GRE does. There is a glaring shortage of good information about professors’ suitability for their comfortable and relatively well-paid positions.
This gap in the data is unjustified. We have plenty of schools collecting student course evaluations, and yet they are somehow permitted to keep the results secret from students, taxpayers, and other stakeholders. You cannot buy a refrigerator in the United States without getting a yellow sticker that tells you how the thing will perform; and yet your multiyear degree, costing many tens of thousands of dollars, can be a shot in the dark, largely uninformed by obtainable, year-by-year data on specific program outcomes — in terms of, say, previous students’ graduation rates, employment, salaries, job persistence, and career satisfaction. Data of that sort could have highlighted problems in these programs long before they reached their current state.
It may sound slightly ridiculous, but in the classroom I really did try to avoid digging into subjects beyond professors’ apparent comfort level, or asking questions to which they might not know the answers. And yet it may ultimately not be possible for good students to consistently serve their professors’ comfort. The first post in this series indicates that, for example, Bryan McCormick, chair of RPTS, seemed inordinately concerned with making sure that students’ curiosity would not lead them to contradict their professors. Indiana was paying Bryan more than $92,000, plus excellent benefits, to provide this service — and that was in 2008, before he became department chair.
In the large majority of cases, these professors had obtained their positions by focusing almost exclusively on the literature of their narrow field. They did not necessarily know, and typically were not very curious, about related fields. Sometimes this could have bizarre effects — as when, for instance, Bryan tried to tell us that animals have no emotions. If I wanted to learn about matters outside of these professors’ little world, it was often up to me to do so on my own. And to some extent, I did. I discovered many articles, and sometimes entire fields of seemingly important, relevant knowledge, that were barely mentioned in our doctoral-level classes.
This seemed to be part of a broader phenomenon, extending beyond the academic literature. For instance, in practice-oriented parks & rec courses within the area of therapeutic recreation, I was taught by PhDs with no clinical credentials. Likewise, my social work clinical mental health courses on psychiatric diagnoses were taught by social work MSWs without formal psychiatric training.
I wasn’t trying to use what I did learn to make anyone feel ignorant. But at a certain point, it’s not a question of what you intend; it’s a question of what you cannot help doing. It may only take one stray question in class, or one reference to superseding research that the professor has never heard of, to acquire an unwelcome tinge in his/her eyes. Things can get much worse if a student dares not to conform to the unwritten code of real university ethics — if, for example, s/he challenges faculty abuse or corruption, rather than playing the “go along to get along” game. As more fully developed elsewhere, success in the university often depends more upon politically astute immorality than upon academic ability.
The supremacy of politics over academic competence cannot be good for IU’s long-term prospects. To be sure, many universities, including some of the most prestigious, have problems of politics superseding excellence. But universities indulging that sort of nonsense may not achieve, or remain at, the top of academic rankings. There are just too many worthy, self-improving competitors.
It can be difficult for a state school to break into the ranks of the most elite universities. Difficult, but not impossible. Michigan has done it; so has Berkeley. In many fields, others join them — Texas, for example, and Illinois. Generally, IU is not at that level. The U.S. News list of fields in which IUB was ranked, as of 2012, conveys an impression of a second-tier university at best, with many programs ranked in the 20s (e.g., business school ranked 23rd, education school 21st, law school 26th). Social work at IUPUI, likewise, was ranked 26th. (In social work, Columbia ranked 5th, and Michigan was tied for number 1.)
I do not think my difficulties were due solely to IU’s general rank. Surely there were departments at IU where I would have enjoyed a better fit. My situation was compounded by the intellectually inferior ambiance of social work and parks & rec in particular. Those are among the least competitive fields of study available in contemporary American universities. According to the Educational Testing Service (ETS) Guide to the Use of Scores (2010, p. 19), average GRE General Test scores for test-takers who planned to apply to graduate programs in social work were 429 verbal, 466 quantitative, for a combined total of 895. An extended version of Table 4 in that Guide stated, similarly, that GRE-takers expressing an intention to apply to parks & rec programs averaged 424/525 (verbal/quantitative), for a total of 949. These averages of 895 and 949 were well below the average for all GRE-takers. The overall average, according to ETS (2008), was 462/584 (1046 combined).
There were not many parks & rec PhD programs nationwide, and there was no U.S. News ranking in that discipline. Nonetheless, it was clear that IUB’s parks & rec program was not among the leaders in the field. Some of the program’s graduates struggled to find employment. Its graduates were not generally trained to be good researchers, and potential employers would sometimes say so.
(Of course, questions may arise from the thought that I would have chosen these particular fields for my doctoral study. With better information about other fields, I probably would have made different choices. At the same time, I had already taken my turn in the hyper-competitive field of law. I did consciously choose fields that seemed, at least in theory, to be less harsh and more open to positive perspectives on life.)
The average GRE scores provided by ETS were for future master’s and doctoral program applicants mixed together. It might seem that the scores of admitted PhD students would be higher than those ETS-reported averages. But this assumption would not necessarily be true. One can get a sense of the situation from this excerpt from IU’s parks & rec PhD program webpage:
To be considered for admission, applicants for the doctoral program must have a minimum GRE score of 600 in one of the following areas: verbal, quantitative, or analytical; a strong composite GRE score; be in the top 50th percentile [sic] on the GRE; and have an undergraduate GPA of at least 3.0 or better with a graduate GPA of at least 3.5.
In other words (leaving aside the analytical section, which is no longer part of the GRE), it appears that one could enter the PhD program in RPTS with a combined GRE score equal to the overall average of 1046 — with, say, a score of 446 verbal, 600 math. So, to cite one example, entrance expectations for this program were quite different from those of Cornell’s PhD program in electrical engineering (stated minimum GRE for applicants: 500 verbal, 750 quantitative).
These programs at IU did admit some students who appeared unqualified for critical intellectual work at the doctoral level. I have provided an illustration in social work. These programs also admitted many international students who would have been academically qualified in programs conducted in their native cultures and/or languages, but who were not able to follow and engage in ordinary English-language classroom discussion. This sometimes resulted in rather extreme situations. For example, in some of our parks & rec PhD-level courses, approximately half of the student enrollment consisted of primarily East Asian students, who sat silently through the entire semester while the American students and the professor talked among themselves.
I do know that admissions officers have had difficulties in detecting fraudulent TOEFL scores and such; I am confident that many international students have benefited from their American PhD educations despite language difficulties; I realize that universities appreciate the cash that some such students provide; and I have had personal friends among these sorts of international students. The focus here is just on the fact that these Asian students received passing grades, almost without exception; they proceeded through the qualifying phase and on to graduation.
To summarize, the question is whether I was likely to write two failing qualifying papers. I have suggested that perhaps the problem lay in the program rather than in the student. In support of that perspective, I have provided some indications that the grades were probably motivated by dislike, resentment, or some other emotion unrelated to genuine academic merit.
As any good educator knows, it makes no sense to rush toward dismissing a good student. Long before the point of serious criticism of the learner, one should verify that his/her alleged problems are not, in fact, problems arising from the teacher, the educational context, or other forces beyond his/her control. In that spirit, the next post in this series moves from the background factors developed in the present post to a direct examination of the grades given to my RPTS qualifying paper.