How Competition Leads to “Content Deflation” in One Anecdote

In A Tale Out of School – A Case Study in Higher Education, I describe how, after pressuring me to change a course I was teaching, the Chairman of the Mathematics Department explained that the Math Department

“…just wrested [a course] from [engineering]…and we don’t want to have to give up [this course]…”

(For those who haven’t read A Tale Out of School – A Case Study in Higher Education, I was teaching an important course required of engineers.  I was following the materials MIT uses in their OpenCourseWare version of the course.  It was a course in ordinary differential equations.)

Earlier the Math Chair had written me,

“…We do have a crisis here, and I’m hopeful that a mid-course correction which brings [the course] in line with the way it has always been taught can salvage the situation.  We are really depending on you.  There is a lot at stake…”

What was at stake?  Education? Or the budget money that goes to the department and school that gets the course?  Does he want the course to be taught “…in line with the way it has always been taught…” because his educational goals are for A students to be able to almost boast that they cannot do, and have never seen, most problems from MIT’s OpenCourseWare version of the same course?  That is what an engineering student tutor, who took it the “…way it has always been taught…” and made an A, wrote.  (See item 5 of Note From Tutor Who Disagrees With How the Course is Taught.) My class was regularly doing MIT level problems and laughed when I read them what the tutor wrote.

I don’t think the Chair had education in mind.  I think he had the threat of losing the course to Engineering in mind.  I am sure a course with about 200 students a semester brings in a lot of money to the School of Arts and Sciences and the Math Department.  Engineering was certainly threatening math.  The Assistant Chair of the Engineering Department that would probably get the course if Engineering took it, wrote, almost from day one of the course, that he thought that engineering might consider using the way I was teaching it to argue for teaching the course themselves.  An Engineering Dean seemed to be much more concerned with “retention” than education or integrity. (See Letter to Assistant Dean of Academic Integrity and Dean of Academic Integrity Responds to My Email.)

I think it is important that I post an idea of the student complaints that the Chair said he was having to deal with.  He didn’t show me any of the student complaints until he wanted me to unilaterally walk away from my contract, and, I then asked to see them.  (He said he wanted to keep using me elsewhere and that if I didn’t walk away from my contract, “bridges would be burned”. )

Here is a link to two of the few (one to three, maybe) unsolicited complaints.  It is important to read because it shows how little it takes for a university to be prodded into a race to the bottom.  The reader should note in advance that the average scores on my tests were in about the low to mid 70’s range – never even close to 47 as mentioned in the letter in “complaint”.  Look here for the complaint.  Letter from Parent and Son

I titled this post “How Competition Leads to “Content Deflation” in One Anecdote”.  In this case, the school was Washington University in St. Louis.  In the most recent fiscal year, their net assets increased by over $500 million.  They have net assets of almost $10 billion.  Clearly, they are not in any financial difficulty.  Yet their system and their people (including many faculty who were well aware of what was happening) led to a competition to see who could deflate the course content the most.  (Math managed to deflate it even more than it had been before the next semester.) What if this were a school in real financial trouble?  What if the professors were not able to teach a demanding course without a lot of unsolicited complaints?  I think it would be even worse.

I hope this post will help people to visualize the realities of what happens when students become consumers, and administrators and faculty take advantage of the fact that students are by definition “uneducated” consumers, who don’t always know what they need.  It is not hard to water down a course so that no student complains and every student passes without letting students know that they are not learning what they need.  David Riesman talks about that and I quote him at David Riesman’s “On Higher Education – The Academic Enterprise in an Era of Rising Student Consumerism”


  1. SSPHDtofinance says:

    I think using MIT Open Courseware was a bad idea. Why not have your lectures and the text in synch? The student can see the same material from slightly different angles. Read the text and work some problems night before. Then your lecture is a review. Or the converse. (Former is better pedagogy, but latter will still work.)

    If you pulled a stunt like that at the Naval Academy, I don’t think they would want you back. Time is short and they want to get the students to learn the material efficiently. Now, if you are unhappy that the grade cutoffs were low or the like, I can sympathize. Or that students were not drilling the material enough, OK. (We had daily collected HW, just like in high school, and got called to the board for recitation…the techniques work.) But going off and using a different course content that doesn’t match the book? I think that was a bad move.

  2. SSPHDtofinance says:

    OK, I read most of the Word document and complaints and such.

    I’m sorry you were in such a situation. Must have felt kind of scary having these people make all these complaints and running around with some wrong impressions. I would have had the balls to talk to you, not just write complaints. Then again, professors and academics really can be a bunch of weasels.

    (Still think the OCW stuff was not a good move. Instead push the kids and drill them. And such.)

    P.s. 43% As is insane. Too many.

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