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A Conflict on Integrity Surfaces

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By Mary Pat Flaherty and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 9, 2006

As Gallaudet searches for its next president, the university is wrestling with divisions that go beyond the recent protests, with faculty and staff charging that some administrators have compromised academic standards and jeopardized the institution's integrity and performance.

Faculty members were asked by administrators to change grades of several failing students, according to internal documents and interviews. Faculty reports to the board of trustees have warned that the university is admitting students with very low academic skills without giving professors the necessary training and resources to help them.

"There are some students who cannot multiply 4 x 4 and come up with 16 without a calculator," and others who cannot read English well enough to comprehend a basic news story, faculty members reported to the board last year.

The complaints build on criticism earlier this year from the Office of Management and Budget, which concluded in an assessment that "Gallaudet failed to meet its goals or showed declining performance in key areas, including the number of students who stay in school, graduate and either pursue graduate degrees or find jobs upon graduation." The agency labeled as "ineffective" the use of $108 million in annual federal funding that goes to the university -- supplying two-thirds of its budget -- and said that the school needed closer monitoring.

The protesters who forced the ouster of incoming president Jane K. Fernandes last week have driven to the surface these and other painful debates over the school's accountability. Some faculty members say the problems are part of a larger pattern among administrators of hiding weaknesses and keeping enrollment up, even as medical and other changes have expanded educational options for deaf students.

"The unstated fear among many faculty is that the [Gallaudet] administration is [so] desperate" for warm bodies "that they'll go out and yank people off the street who don't have the skills or who are not ready for the college experience," faculty chair Mark Weinberg said, adding that he doesn't want to undermine the school and its many bright students but hopes this can be a turning point for Gallaudet to solve problems.

University officials say the focus on problems ignores Gallaudet's strengths. They deny that there is a pattern of grade-changing or admitting unqualified students and say the federal review minimized the school's unique mission.

Outgoing President I. King Jordan, in a written statement, said that the university remains strong. "Today more than ever . . . it should be clear to all that Gallaudet is far greater than the sum of its parts," he said. ". . . We remain a community united in a common cause."

Since it became a college in 1864, Gallaudet has been the nation's lone liberal arts institution for the deaf and hard of hearing. For many, it also has been a leading cultural center. Critics say its cherished standing has protected it from rigorous scrutiny.

Gallaudet has a "grand tradition" with a hard-to-serve population, noted John H. Hager, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services at the Department of Education. Congress "is always saying nice things about Gallaudet" as it appropriates money for the university. By law, the department is supposed to monitor Gallaudet's performance, but, Hager acknowledged, "we were never in a true supervisory role."

Changing Grades

Faculty and staff cite several examples of occasions when administrators reviewed staff decisions on grades and asked for changes or readmitted failed students.

In one instance, five students who had failed a remedial math course complained to Karen Kimmel, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Sciences and Technologies. Kimmel questioned the weight given to the must-pass exit exam and whether students were aware of its significance, according to e-mails she sent faculty members.


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