There can be no question that Ben Alexander, president of the University of the District of Columbia, is correct in his determination to insist on college-level academic standards for his students.
Still, as several faculty members have told me, it isn't quite so simple a matter as threatening underachieving students with academic probation or suspension if they fail to shape up. The problem, they say, is not laziness (as Alexander seems to think) but that too many of the students entering this open-admissions university lack too many of the basic skills necessary for college-level work. Nor is the remedial help, of which Alexander also speaks, there in a sufficiently organized fashion. The no-nonsense Alexander would do well to listen to some of the faculty. Especially should he spend some time with William Haskett, a history professor, whose analysis seems to me to make a lot of sense.
"It is easy to overlook the obvious," says Haskett, "and never more so when we have constructed institutional commitments which require that we do so."
The "obvious" here is "the mismatch between the skills of our entering students and the kinds of courses we offer them outside the remedial courses in English and mathematics, which most of them are required to take. What this means is simply this: we first designate virtually all our incoming students as in need of remedial work at a very basic level in reading, writing and mathematics. We then do not act on the logic of this requirement by barring them from other courses which require--indeed, depend upon--those very skills.
"As a result, students without the requisite skills and competencies are in courses with which they cannot cope at any acceptable level. This, in turn, has deleterious effects on the courses and their instructors, who confront impossible dilemmas. Either they reduce the level of the course and simplify its content to some level which the students can work with--at the cost of richness of content and complexity of presentation; or they struggle across a very wide gap to attempt to help students without skills to deal with materials that require them."
Haskett, British born and educated, does not oppose the concept of open admissions. In fact, he says one of his major frustrations with the British system is the rigidity that denies university training to far too many students, based on early examinations. But open admission requires some adjustments that hardly any school in America has handled well, he believes.
The adjustments, he says, are "not just a matter of standards and toughness." Nor can they be made through "remediation" in a university college without faculty of its own by using regular academic faculty who are "not particularly well prepared to do remedial work."
What would Haskett do? Acknowledging that his is just one of many possible approaches, he suggests that UDC remove the distraction of regular course work during a year of skills-improvement and then "require a demonstration of actual skill as a condition to enrolling in disciplinary courses which require and depend upon them."
Under his proposal, most students would take a full year of catch-up work before beginning study in their chosen disciplines. But any student could choose at any time (perhaps upon advice from a counselor) to take an examination for entering the regular academic curriculum.
Haskett acknowledges that his suggestion, coming out of "one person's analysis, based on inadequate data and personal gathering of impressions," is open to discussion. But, he insists, it "constitutes what I believe we ought to be talking about. The net effect of what we are doing now (probation and suspensions) is to threaten students, which has rather less than no effect."