How can an individual stop the university's standards and quality from deteriorating?

The business school I am currently at faces a very difficult situation. After a scandal involving fraud around the president a few years ago, in combination probably with fallout from the financial crisis and all, our public image is ruined. We have barely enough students applying to the open undergraduate seats, meaning that almost no selection process can take place. As a consequence, students are walking the campus that barely made it through high school and are, by any standards, not fit for academic career, not even undergrad studies.

As a research assistant, I assisted my chair during the previous and current year with a first-year course, aiming to teach foundations of investments, Markovitz framework, CAPM and APT, and the like. Without going into too much detail here, I can say that this course is not a university level course. The exams are advertised to the students as consisting only of questions they know from tutorials with different numbers or asking for a different variable. No out-of-the-box thinking, no mathematical proof or derivation of one of the financial concepts.

This alone would lead to no necessary problems, and perhaps my own perspective is distorted, as I did my undergrad studies in natural science, but there are additional problems.

Every year, less and less students are coming to the professor's lectures. The tutorials from my colleague and me are visited by 2-7 students out of 35. During longer explanations or examples, they often interrupt without respect and ask "is this relevant for the exam?" Students still perform horribly on the exam, but we cater them by adding an offset, based on at most 15% of the students failing the exam (in reality, around 70% fail the first round). With another incredibly generous offset such that no more than 20% of those in the second exam round fail, there is virtually no selection any more, which is horrible, because we are a small private institution and once were one of few leading business schools in the region, which is no longer the case.

My explanation, which I have presented to my boss, is that the students hear from the previous year's students about the generous offset, and that the university does not want to throw out that many students. Based on this rumor, they study less, so that we are forced to give the offset they expect. Why are we forced? Because the professor admits that he will not be able to explain to the university management if they inquire as to why that many students fail. He claims that many colleagues are wondering where many of our students came from, because it certainly does not seem to be high school, and that only the management, which consists of business types, not academics, know the answer. Probably, we are dependent on the cash flow from the students' tuition fees, but this is a short-term solution at an invaluable long-term cost.

I would believe that a rigorous filtering process should be in place, and rather in the second semester than in the fourth or six semester. But compared to other chairs, we already have a rough reputation, and most of the undergrad program consists of electives in fields like marketing, where I have supervised some exams and had to observe that those exams consist almost entirely of reciting definitions and giving examples that were completely mentioned in the learning materials the students had access to. This is absolutely not worthy of a university, but a degree mill instead.

We are now treating students more and more like customers; many of our best colleagues in the examination office have left us during the past year; officially for personal reasons, but I believe that students claiming "I pay a lot of money, I can demand a good grade" might also be a factor.

Nobody wants to fail the students, but instead hopes that other courses will do this uncomfortable job; and my boss and me are often giving grades in the range 3.5-4 for Bachelor Theses, because "even if they pass, they will not have a good career anyway". Another professor in the department replied to this with: "Well, I would not worry, because the employers will realize quickly the quality of these graduates, and put them into some fixed-income positions or similar where they cannot do any damage." However, I already heard first-hand from professionals that there are complete firms out there that do not even invite our students for interviews any more. Since I am not only doing my PhD here, but also have a Master's degree from this place, you can imagine this gives me a funny feeling.

The off-campus behavior and image of our student body in the local community is disastrous. One and a half weeks ago, a student drove drunk and crashed into a fence in the neighboring village (the fact that we are not in a large city does not help). Everyone in the village knows that it was a student (the car is a quite "unique" one), and there was a newspaper article indicating the BAC of the driver. But since there is no official affiliation between the accident and the university, and the newspaper did not mention that the driver was a student, there is nothing that can be done, as my boss, who is also in the judicial board, says. My boss also says that he is involved more and more often in heavier and heavier cases of students that break rules of common sense, morals and even criminal law worldwide during their exchange semesters.

Last week, I had an internship report on my desk, which is really not a piece of work a student should fail. But it should have; the text was full of language mistakes, typos, even spelling (not typing) the place in his address wrong, formatting was bad, and when describing the $\beta$ in CAPM as "the relative volatility of the asset compared to the market", the paper screamed at me "I don't care about this and have no respect for higher education" at such a volume that I gave a failing grade. (This was the second try; the first one was failed deliberately in summer, as the student claimed not to have enough time to work on it anyway.)

Then, after the student calling me frantically and the examination office and the program director contacting me, I gave a passing grade, because I had to admit that some parts of the work were presented, in their unprecedented shallowness, "plausibly", hence ticking off the "plausible presentation" checkbox on the examination sheet and finding good sub-grades for a work that, in its entirety, was not worthy of a sixth semester students. During this process, I was kindly reminded from my boss to "keep in mind that you are ruining his entire career, as he will be ex-matriculated and barred from studying business studies again" - a little too much to not be influenced, I would say in hindsight.

I ended by inviting the student into my office, rubbing every single error in the file into his face, demanding an explanation for the horrendous work, and telling him that only the static examination sheet saved him, while any employer would have fired him on the spot.

The reaction was not understanding at all, and as my colleague pointed out, did not even once say thanks for me taking the extra time to go through the work again, after the failing grade was practically set.

And now, having let the work pass, I think I have become part of the problem. What should I do? How can I prevent myself (and others) from doing what I did, and falling into this abyss?

• A long question with a short answer: run, run away! – Massimo Ortolano Feb 2 '16 at 22:41
• That doesn't sound good. However, there is a general trend now to "be more inclusive" (which translates into being less selective), so, what you describe in drastic words, can be seen in possibly more mild form at other locations, too. Once your department lost reputation rapidly, it is very difficult to rebuild, though not impossible. It takes time, convincing your superiors and slowly raising of the standards by concerted action. If you are sufficiently compensated for your efforts by freedom of research/career, then it may be an option to stay, else leave fast, before it drags you down. – Captain Emacs Feb 3 '16 at 0:18
• According to your other question, you are not a faculty member but a PhD student. In this case that seems like very good news: soon enough you will finish your degree and move on. Trying to reverse the trajectory of a university as a student seems wholly quixotic: this is really not your problem to solve. – Pete L. Clark Feb 3 '16 at 2:14
• If you have only recently started your PhD, you could consider applying for positions at other institutions. Jumping ship might cost you a year or two, but if you're willing to make that sacrifice to get a better degree at a "healthy" institution, it's worth a shot... – Moriarty Feb 3 '16 at 8:43
• "we are a small private institution and once were one of few leading business schools in the region, which is no longer the case." -- boo hoo. – Wetlab Walter Apr 23 '16 at 16:07

Oh dear, what a sad story. To address your question, the rot in large institutions usually starts at the top, and it's only the people at the top who have the power to stop it, if anyone does. The key word is leadership, and it sounds like your school has a very poor excuse for one at the moment -- a sad irony, since it's precisely business school types whom you'd expect to have a firm understanding of the principles of leadership and sound management.

• I think the business school types running the university have a very firm understanding of sound management here. They have probably rightly decided that the university has no long term future as a reputable institution, and the best way to continue to succeed and survive in the short term is as a diploma mill. Many diploma mills, as long as they maintain the right to offer legally recognized degrees, are financially quite successful even if they provide almost no education. To business school types, financial success is often the most important kind. Sorry to be cynical about this. – Alexander Woo Feb 3 '16 at 9:35
• @AlexanderWoo I suppose you can look at it that way, but personally I do not consider running your organization to the ground, even if you make money for a few years while doing so, to be an example of sound management. On the other hand, sacrificing some short term profits for the long-term goal of restoring your school's reputation so that you can continue to thrive (and make money) sustainably for the indefinite future - that's what I would call sound management. – Dan Romik Feb 3 '16 at 9:41
• @DanRomik This is true, if you have the owner support and financial backing to be able to do this. If you don't have the funds to sacrifice in the short term for long-term goals, doing a sort of controlled exit is sadly a rational strategy. – xLeitix Feb 3 '16 at 10:00
• @xLeitix you may be right, but I think you're being very charitable in your assumptions. For every manager rationally navigating his company to a "controlled exit" you will find hundreds who are behaving in the same way not because it's the rational way to behave but because they're just incompetent. I'm willing to bet that's the case here as well. – Dan Romik Feb 3 '16 at 10:04
• @DanRomik No - my point is that the ONLY way in most sectors (most definitely including education) to survive and make money (without large subsidies) is to do a very good sales/marketing job on crappy products. There are for all practical purposes ZERO reputable educational institutions that survive without significant aid from either the government or private donors. – Alexander Woo Feb 3 '16 at 10:21

Sad to say, as an individual (moreover a low-level position one, like a graduate student) is very unlikely to make a difference in any reasonable time. Only a concerted effort by faculty and students can make a difference here. And it looks like administration/faculty have all but given up, by what you tell.

An Arab proverb says that reputation grows like a tree, and falls like a fruit.

It is much more likely that your continued stay there ruins your reputation than you making any noticeable difference in the reputation of the school (how many schools are you aware of whose reputation rests on some student?).