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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The College Student From Hell

     In 2009, Megan Thode, a graduate student at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, looked forward to earning her master's degree in counseling and human services. To acquire the degree which she would need to qualify for a state counseling license, Thode had to earn at least a B grade in her fieldwork class taught by Professor Amanda Eckhardt. Professor Eckhardt, however, upset the applecart when she issued Thode a C-plus. That's when all hell broke out at Lehigh University. (In academia, this is what passes for major conflict.)

     While colleges and universities have established procedures for student grade appeals, unless a disgruntled student can prove that the professor made an error in calculating the grade, the student doesn't have a chance. (Some students, notwithstanding these policies, get their grades changed by becoming such pains-in-the-neck they wear their professors down. In our sob-story culture everyone has a gut-wrenching tale of woe. Kids who brown-nosed their way through high school are the best at this. Most professors, however, will fight to the death over a contested grade.) Megan Thode and her father, a Lehigh professor, met with Professor Eckhardt who explained that the C-plus was based on the fact Thode's score for the class participation phase of the course was a zero out of a possible twenty-five. Ouch. The goose-egg bumped her down a full letter grade. (In the old days, parents of college kids didn't get involved in their academic affairs. Back then, college-aged people were supposed to be entering adulthood.)

     When Professor Eckhardt said she would not change Thode's fieldwork grade, the frustrated student filed an internal grievance against her. Thode not only demanded that her grade be changed to a B, she expected the professor to apologize to her in writing for the C-plus, and to compensate her for the adverse financial consequences of being an unlicensed counselor. Thode did not get her grade bumped up, there was no apology, and no compensation. Having exhausted her in-house administrative remedies, Thode got herself a lawyer. (This is also new. In the past, bringing a lawyer into a situation like this was unheard of. Back then, lawyers had better things to do.)

     Through her attorney, Richard J. Orloski, Megan Thode filed a $1.3 million lawsuit against Lehigh University and Professor Eckhardt in which the plaintiff alleged breach of contract and sexual discrimination. (Exactly what contract the school and professor violated is unclear.) As to the sexual discrimination charge, Thode claimed that she had been punished by her professor because she, Thode, was a strong supporter of gay and lesbian rights. (It would be almost impossible to find a college professor anywhere who didn't strongly support gay and lesbian rights. If Thode had supported free speech and gun rights, the lawyer may have had a case.)

     Thode's suit came to trial in February 2013 before Northhampton County Judge Emil Giordano. The plaintiff's attorney, in addressing the bench, said that as a result of the defendant professor's low grade, his client had "literally lost a career." (Counseling is now a "career"? Good heavens.)

     Neil Hamburg, the attorney representing Professor Eckhardt and Lehigh University, in making the case that this lawsuit was absurd, said, "I think if your honor changed the grade, you'd be the first court in the history of jurisprudence to change an academic grade"

     Judge Giordano indicated his agreement with the defendant's attorney when he said, "I've practiced law for longer than I'd like to admit and I've never seen anything like this."

     Attorney Hamburg, in defending Professor Eckhardt's evaluation of the plaintiff's academic performance, acknowledged that on paper Thode had been an excellent student. But regarding her classroom participation, Hamburg said that the student "showed unprofessional behavior that included swearing in class, and, on one occasion, having an outburst in which she began crying. She has to get through the program," the attorney said. "She has to meet the academic standards."

     Since there is nothing in the professor-student relationship that guarantees the student a good grade, or even a passing grade, there was no breach of contract in this case. And without solid proof of the defendant's sexual discrimination based on a dislike of people who supported gay and lesbian rights, the suit fails on that rationale as well.

     If the plaintiff prevailed in her case, it would create an employment boom in the legal profession, at least until college grades became a thing of the past. In time, students would be able to acquire their degrees without any proof they had learned anything. Eventually, there would be no need for classrooms or campuses. This would lower the cost of a college education. Career fast-food servers would all have Ph.Ds. Students could simply buy diplomas online, and colleges professors across the nation would lose their ivory tower jobs and end up flipping burgers with everyone else.

     On February 14, 2013, Judge Giordano ruled in favor of Professor Eckhardt and Lehigh University. He wrote: "Plaintiff has failed to establish that the university based the awarded grade of a C-plus on anything other than purely academic reasons. With this decision, Judge Giordano dealt a blow to the legal profession, but saved higher education. 

1 comment:

  1. Good thing she's the exception not the rule, although I'm sure many will disagree. We've had 2 daughters go through/are in uni and both became/are becoming responsible, critical thinking, outspoken about the state of the world and how they want to help and aware, contributing citizens. I love what they became/are becoming because they are challenged to think, act, contribute. I'll admit we were very hands off parents in many ways. Forgot your paper? Sorry, you'll have to do it over. Forgot to do homework? No you may not stay home to do it. Actions=consequences and ours learned that lesson early and have thanked us for it. Can't speak for others but we chose that path because it's what we were taught.

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