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A while back, there was a question on here about plagiarism. One statement in particular struck me:

The foundation of academia is production and dissemination of knowledge [...] Likewise, since it is such a foundational and corrosive problem, an institution can be badly damaged by tolerating it or by gaining a reputation for tolerating it

It struck me because, having been a teaching assistant in graduate school has made me develop a type of Holden Caulfield-esque outlook on academia. I understand that certain societal problems are extremely complex and multi-layered but, I've seen a lot of things that have made me uneasy. These things are: grade inflation, revision of courses so that they will have a higher success rate, teachers not giving grades for the entire semester for coursework and so on. Therefore I ask; is reputation really so important to a school that things such as this are really necessary to improve the statistics in the school's favour?

In my university, there are students who, no matter how hard a course is, will thrive and those are usually the ones who tend to become good researchers. So by permitting the aforementioned practices are we "softening" our researchers?

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  • Possible duplicate: Why does grade inflation seem to be so severe in the USA?
    – aeismail
    Jan 17, 2016 at 5:48
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    Somehow, I can only hear this title in Jerry Seinfeld's voice. Jan 17, 2016 at 5:48
  • @aeismail That question was more about grade inflation at the high school level, while this question seems more about the undergraduate level.
    – Roger Fan
    Jan 17, 2016 at 5:52
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    Grades are like a currency. It is tempting for the managers of academia to improve grades as it is for central bankers to print money. On the long run, people learn not to do it, but the grade inflation phenomenon is relatively new, driven by the manager-style approach to academia and by political pressures. In the past, the academics were themselves concerned with upholding the quality of their education, and you could have failure rates of 70%-80%. Jan 17, 2016 at 11:59
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    @user119624 : I am not sure what you are asking, exactly. The question is obscured somewhat in your post. Could you clarify the specific question you'd like us to answer? Jan 17, 2016 at 12:03

1 Answer 1

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Here's the thing: I like my students. (I'm talking here about the ones in the major that I teach: the ones I see in my intimate upper-division seminars.) I've watched them learn and grow, struggle and overcome, and generally develop into capable if young professionals.

And they are about to leave the nest. They are going to take their transcripts out into the wider world and compete with other students from other institutions.

But I teach at a small and unheralded place. How are employer going to judge these friends of mine? Unless the employer knows something about my department (most don't but we have a couple of local firm who come to us looking for our best) they're going to have to rely on grades and other "objective" measures to select the ones to be interviewed.

I'm pretty confident that my students can wow them once they get a foot in the door, but they have to get into that office. If the students from that school down the road have systematically higher grades then my people might be at a disadvantage. That's a problem for me, because I want to take care of my people.

So it's a kind of tragedy of the commons: it's in most people's best interests if grades are a honest measure of something, but it's in everyone's personal interests to cheat just a little, and it is very much in everyone's personal interests not to be the only one not cheating.


Note that I say "might be at a disadvantage" because hiring managers may develop a feel for the difference between a 3.5 at my school and one from that place down the road. If they hire enough people in my field. But most of them don't. That's why we have such success locally: these firms see our people as interns and they get a chance to become familiar with the quality of students we produce and with the faculty.

There are other limits, too. If you send some total nincompoop out the door with a strong GPA and a glowing letter of recommendation the employer who hires them is likely to develop a negative opinion of your institution. That puts a very really pressure on the cheating to hold it down to a small degree. At least if your reputation isn't so secure that you don't fear the damage done by a few bozos.

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