Failing grades for an open-door policy
Carleton professors vote for radical change
It was not meant to be a trick question. On the December exam in Introduction to Psychology, Carleton University professor Alan Moffitt asked students whether they would be more likely to feel jet lag after flying to Los Angeles or New York City. “There were 400 students in the class,” recalls Moffitt, “and, one by one, about 25 of them put up their hands.” The reason: “They wanted to know whether LA was east or west of Ottawa.” A 15-year veteran of Carleton, Moffitt describes that exam-hall scene as increasingly typical of his experience at a university where teaching, he says, “has become a ghastly, uphill battle.” And it is one that Moffitt is not alone in fighting. According to a recent study released by two professors at the Ottawa university, Carleton accepted seven of every 10 Ontario high-school graduates who entered university with an average under 65 per cent in 1993—compared with 44 per cent five years earlier. And over the past two years, the university has dropped to last place in its share of Ontario Scholars—high-school graduates with 80 per cent or better. Last week, professors in the 254-member faculty of social science voted by an 8-to-l margin to increase average entering grades starting this fall—a strictly symbolic, but unequivocal, act of protest. But some observers wonder if anything can now save an institution that for years has been known as “Last Chance U.” “I just hope it isn’t too late for them,” says Gregory
Marcotte, executive director of the Ontario Universities Application Centre in Guelph, a clearinghouse for high-school students seeking a place at university. “It will be hard to tum a reputation like Carleton’s around.” For political science professors Sharon Sutherland and Glen Williams, who spent seven weeks last summer preparing their unauthorized report on the state of the university, last week’s vote was a vindication of their belief that, in Sutherland’s words, “the administration’s chosen course of action is a ruined path.” Combining data from government agencies and the university, the two pro-
fessors unspooled the story of Carleton’s precipitous downhill slide, and of the policies that have led, in Williams’s words, to the “dedication of an entire institution to the province’s weakest students.” Central to their findings is the fact that Carleton has Med to serve many of those students well. In their words, the university has become “an admissions treadmill,” particularly in its open-admissions bachelor of arts program, which houses the faculties of arts and social science, and which is home to 70 per cent of Carleton students. Each year since the late 1970s, greater numbers of new full-time students have been admitted to Carleton’s first-year classes, reaching a total of 4,625 in 1993, a 273-percent jump from 1978—the largest growth rate in the province. But although more students have been getting in, an alarmingly small proportion are surviving into the upper years. By the fall of 1993, fully 45 per cent of all students in the BA program were in first year, compared with 31 per cent in 1978. Looking at comparable student numbers for Toronto’s York University—the only Ontario school whose growth comes anywhere close to Carleton’s over the same period—the authors found that 28 per cent of its students were in the first year of the BA in 1993. York, in other words, had been able to achieve more balanced growth, promoting a healthy percentage of its students into the upper years. The issue of responsibility for Carleton’s state of affairs is a matter of
considerable disagreement on campus. President Robin Farquhar insists that he has long tried to muster interest about low standards, recalling an open-door debate in the early 1990s, which only one professor made the effort to attend. “There has been little evidence until recently,” he says, “that the faculty was concerned.” Others beg to differ. They criticize the leadership of the university, especially at a time when almost every Canadian university is scrambling to balance its books in the face of provincial government cutbacks, and when federal plans for an overhaul in funding are threatening enormous hikes in tuition. “I am very worried about how our image, and our standards, have been allowed to decline to where they are,” says James Wright chairman of the chemistry department who points to a “negative halo” that has been cast over many otherwise fine faculties by the open-admissions BA. “And I think what the administration has on its hands is an acute case of the ‘We’ve had it up to here’ syndrome.”
While the academic repercussions are clear to those on the front lines of learning, Sutherland and Williams have chronicled what they term “the extent and logic of the institutional disaster” facing Carleton. It is, in a sense, a case of simple mathematics. The Ontario government funds universities according to the program and year in which students are enrolled. It pays one “basic income unit,” worth roughly $5,300, for first-year arts students—but 1.5 units for arts students able to maintain an honors average and continue beyond first year.
Losing students in the upper years has made Carleton increasingly dependent on loading up its first-year classes. Between 1991 and 1993,
Carleton increased its first-year intake by 19 per cent, at a time when most other Ontario universities were staying the course or even cutting back admissions. The result, in the words of the Sutherland-Williams report, is that Carleton has been forced to “dip ever deeper into the provincial pool of Year 1 candidates with very low averages.”
The debate over standards at Carleton is not new—and it appears that almost no one on campus is suggesting that the university completely relinquish a time-honored tradition of giving late bloomers a second chance. In fact, since its founding in 1942, Carleton has often proudly billed itself as “the open access university”: offering returning war veterans a chance to get a degree, and later retooling to serve local blue-collar and middle-class students. But in recent years, several factors have combind to transform the promise of a second chance into a last-chance school for those least likely to succeed.
Although the Sutherland-Williams report, and the recent faculty vote, have increased the pitch of the debate, the Carleton community has been openly wrestling with its image at least since late 1991, when the university placed 44th out of 46 schools in Maclean’s first annual ranking of Canadian universities—as well as 44th in a category that measured average entering grades.
(The university took part the following year, before dropping out of the exercise. Last week, Farquhar announced that Carleton may take part in the 1995 survey.)
Two weeks after publication of the initial ranking, 600 students and faculty packed a special meeting, demanding answers to what Sutherland says quickly became known as “the Maclean’s shock.” Two months later, Farquhar established the Commission on the Second Half-Century, whose report in September, 1993, provided the first official documentation of some of the issues at stake. Noting that full-time student numbers had nearly doubled in the BA program, to 10,439, between 1980 and 1990, while BA faculty numbers had grown by only 10 per cent, the report concluded that “revenue-driven growth” had left much of Carleton “bursting at the seams.” And pointing to
an alarmingly high failure rate among students admitted with low highschool averages, the report implored the administration to “tackle the question of the top-heavy numbers of academically marginal students.” Although it caused a temporary stir, the report stopped short of calling for an end to open admissions. Three months later, in a gesture that Farquhar now describes as “a watershed of sorts,” the faculty board representing social science professors passed a motion recommending that the university raise the minimum entrance average for social science to 70 per cent In the heated discussion that preceded the motion, professors described students unable to cope with third-year research papers, and of fears that Carleton was “simply exploiting” its weaker students by opening its doors—only to offer them a slim chance of survival. The motion passed by a healthy majority.
Since then, Farquhar, who has been at the helm since 1989, and who is currently considering whether to seek reappointment to a second term, has twice asked senate committees to investigate the situation. In the end, the committees produced a single “progress report,” floated last December, that dismissed calls for an increase in entrance requirements, while proposing a minimum three-year cap on admissions to the BA “at a level below” Carleton’s all-time highest intake. The student newspaper, The Charlatan, called it “a courageous step sideways,” lambasting an “administration content to bravely do nothing, while sending out PR kits telling the world everything is just swell.”
Late last month, Farquhar made his own tentative suggestions for change—a broad, sixpoint set of proposals titled ‘Towards a Plan for Renewal.” listing potential solutions to what it called the “admissions/image problem”—from reducing overall student numbers to increasing scholarships—the plan did not spell out which of those Farquhar intends to pursue. But Maureen O’Neil, chairwoman of the university’s board of governors, confirms that the president has agreed to present the board with a narrower set of options, along with the budgetary implications of each, by March.
In the meantime, many Carleton professors worry about the likelihood of reversing trends that they say have become embedded in the university’s academic culture. Among the social science faculty who voted to increase admissions standards last week was economics department chairman Donald McFetridge, who has taught at Carleton since 1975. “What I have witnessed is not just a passive growth in the number of weak students,” says McFetridge, “but a steady driving out of the strong students by the weak. Weak kids tend to speak up if they can’t follow—especially if they are the majority. Strong kids are just losing interest” Associate professor Lawrence Schembri, a student adviser in the economics department insists that it is the academically poor students who suffer most from that grim logic, as word of lower standards leaks out—and bright students keep away. “Slower students,” says Schembri, “end up deprived of exposure to those who are more motivated and more skilled than themselves.”
At the same time, Farquhar and others acknowledge that Carleton’s battered BA program is casting a dark shadow on the university’s other faculties. “I call it the ‘anchor effect,’ ” says chemistry chairman Wright, who notes that his department’s average entering grade—75 per cent in 1993, compared with a provincial average of 82 per cent—is among the lowest in Ontario, despite the absence of an open-admissions policy in the bachelor of science. “The low end, the huge arts end, is dragging all of us down with it,” he adds. “A lot of kids hear ‘Last Chance U.,’ and then just don’t bother to check us out”
Wright, for one, insists that Ontario’s other uni-
versifies share some of the blame for Carleton’s current woes—by failing to guarantee more space in their first-year classes for local students with low high-school grades. “The province is collectively using Carleton to get rid of its guilty conscience,” claims Wright “Other universities essentially say, ‘Look, poor students can get in somewhere—Carleton.’ And Carleton has somewhat bought into that.” But others charge that it is up to Carleton to get its own house in order. “The reality is that the universities compete for the best students,” says Ron Scriver, director of operations at the application centre in Guelph. “Short of an introduction of government rules that would force every university to admit weak students over strong ones, that’s not going to change.”
Indeed, O’Neil and others say that one of the first things on Carleton’s agenda must be to launch “a full-scale reconsideration” of the whole notion of accessibility—a debate that has already unfolded on many other campuses. The University of Guelph, for one, asks applicants with grades below the cutoff to submit personal portfolios outlining such extracurricular activities as student council posts and athletics. At York, students with marks below the cutoff are invited, in the words of vice-president of institutional affairs Sheldon Levy, “to make the case for being a special case,” before committees that judge the potential for low achievers to become late bloomers—and that track the success rate of those subsequently admitted. Farquhar says that he is considering implementing a similar system. As well, he notes, two psychology professors at Carleton are in the preliminary stages of devising a test to identify students with academic skills greater than those reflected in their high-school grades.
In the meantime, however, Farquhar concedes that his first priority is to reverse Carleton’s image in the eyes of students who have already proven that they are capable of success. And he acknowledges that the need to get on with that “repositioning” of the university, as he describes it, is especially critical in the face of Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy’s recent proposals to shift a large portion of government funding from university grants to student loans—a move that would dramatically increase tuition, and presumably create students more determined than ever to secure a top-drawer degree. “This is not a great time to have to be experimenting,” says Farquhar, “but it is no time not to experiment, either.” Wright, for one, says he is heartened to see the debate become so open—although his optimism is clearly guarded. “As a university, we are dealing with the lowestend students, and it appears that we are disastrously depleted at the high end,” says Wright. “And right now, there are more questions than answers about where we should go from here.”