Students Fail so Professor is Fired

 Students Fail so Professor is Fired

Norfolk State University (Founded 1935) has a distinguished tradition as one of Virginia’s HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). It also has a 12 percent four-year graduation rate and a 30 percent six-year graduation rate. Undergraduate admissions requirements for NSU are a high school diploma or equivalent, a 2.3 GPA, and scores of 800 on the SAT or 17 on the ACT. The school is ranked 34th — last — in the U.S. News & World Report 2008 “America’s Best Black Colleges” rankings.

NSU also has a rule that students must attend at least 80 percent of class sessions or they fail the class, yet the school fired Biology Professor Steven D. Aird for enforcing that rule as well as academic standards. Aird’s class attendance records indicate the average student attended 66 percent of classes, so the mean grade would have been an F on that alone, yet he was criticized by the Dean for awarding Ds or Fs to about 90 percent of students. Were the students so well-prepared that class attendance was unnecessary?  Sadly, no.

“I really care about my students,” said Aird in “That’s why I refuse to lower the bar. The objective should be competence, not grades.”

“Show me how lowering the bar has ever helped anyone,” Aird said in an interview. Continuing the metaphor, he said that officials at Norfolk State have the attitude of “a track coach who tells the team ‘I really want to win this season but I really like you guys, so you can decide whether to come to practice and when.’ “Such a team wouldn’t win,” Aird said, “and a university based on such a principle would not be helping its students.”

Students at NSU feel free to cut class, says Aird, because they understand they will pass no matter how badly they do on tests and papers. Aird did not adhere to this informal compact, believing it harmful to students. He was denied tenure for it, and has documents to prove it.

Aird’s position is defended by former students, many of whom sought and received assistance from him out of class hours. Colleagues affirm that they were reprimanded if their pass rates fell under 70 percent.

In response to complaints from the Dean, Aird wrote:

I believe that we serve our students and our country best when we help our students to discover and develop their abilities, and when we help them develop the intellectual tools and the strength of character to overcome the obstacles they will encounter in life. That cannot be accomplished, as so many at NSU have tried, by pandering to them and to their parents with inflated grades and pass rates.

Is this issue limited to HBCUs? Not according to online comments and the recent Atlantic Monthly article In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.

Dr. Aird is looking for work.


Hat Tip: Scott Jaschik at

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