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TAKING BACK THE CLASSROOM: Does a professor have a right to fail an entire class?

Texas A&M Professor’s Message to his Students:

"I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

Is he a hero or a villain? You make the call.

Last week it was disclosed that Irwin Horowitz, an instructional associate professor in the department of maritime administration at Texas A&M Galveston, said in an email to his strategic management students that they were a disgrace, that they lacked maturity -- and that he would fail the entire class.

Horwitz told CNN affiliate KPRC that he had finally reached a breaking point. "Enough was enough," Horwitz said. "It became apparent that they couldn't do just some of the most simple and basic things that they should've been able to do at that point." He gave calculating break-even analysis as an example of their academic deficiencies.

Horwitz questioned students' character and called them crude and rude in his email to students. "I have seen cheating, been told by students to 'chill out,' 'get out of my space,' 'go back and teach,' refuse to leave the room after being told to do so following inappropriate conduct, called a 'f*****g moron' several times by a student to my face..."

It didn’t stop there. Horowitz told his students that he was walking out. “I am frankly and completely disgusted. You all lack the honor and maturity to live up to the standards that Texas A&M holds, and the competence and/or desire to do the quality work necessary to pass the course just on a grade level…. I will no longer be teaching the course, and all are being awarded a failing grade."

Asked if the decision to fail every one of the 30-plus enrollees was fair to every student, Horwitz said that "a few" students had not engaged in misbehavior, and he said that those students were also the best academic performers. Horwitz said he offered to the university that he would continue to teach just those students, but was told that wasn't possible, so he felt he had no choice but to fail everyone and leave the course.

As you might expect, the students in his class were not very happy with Horowitz’s decision. John Shaw told KPRC he was worried about the job he has lined up after graduation. "Just ridiculous, because, I mean, I had never had a problem in the class," Shaw said. "I thought I had done pretty well, done pretty well on the first test and everything else that's going on. I get an email saying I am going to get an F in the class, and just kind of -- it was overwhelming."

The University basically disassociated itself from Horowitz’s actions. Patrick Louchouarn, the vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer, said Texas A&M Galveston will not necessarily stand by the failing grades Horwitz planned to hand out. "The report that all students in this class will be failed is not correct," Louchouarn said. "Each student will receive an individual grade based upon work completed during the semester. The university is listening to concerns about this issue from students and faculty and will address them according to our policies."

Response to Horowitz’s actions has been intense. He said that he has received emails that were quite critical and mocked him, and others that praised him for taking a stand. Horowitz said he believes his academic freedom has been violated in this case, because the university is changing the grades he has assigned.

I must admit to be fascinated by what Horowitz describes and the bold action he took. To be honest, rude behavior is nothing unusual for my students. Many simply continue to talk well after I have started to teach the class. Others are clearly distracted in class. Still others tune me out early in my coverage of the material perhaps because they find me boring. They may be right about that – or maybe not.

Nevertheless, as a student I learned to respect my teachers simply because they had reached a high level of academic achievement and were trying their best to teach the material. We live in a different time.

Don’t get me wrong. I can’t condone what Horowitz did. By threatening to fail all of the students, he mostly harms the best students who, he admits, also didn’t cause any classroom disruptions. Perhaps a better strategy would have been to give low/failing grades to the disrupters and cheaters while grading the high-character students fairly based on being attentive, respectful, and their performance in the class.

In my 30+ years of teaching I have noticed a marked shift from the “good old days” when (at least) some students had a genuine thirst for knowledge. They sought to expand their horizons in part to become good people and contributing members of society. Unfortunately, today it’s more about the grades and an entitlement mentality.

We can blame society for fostering an entitlement mentality given that it seems an integral part of our culture today. We can blame parents for a lack of direction and their failure to set and enforce consequences for bad behavior. We can blame social media in that it has contributed to the declining ability of Millennials to focus for more than a minute or two before needing new entertainment. But, let's not forget to blame the students as well for their irresponsible behavior.

True learning, true education, doesn’t come easy. It takes time and effort, repetition of certain practices, reflective thought, and just caring about who you are, what you want to become, and what you will do with your life. None of this is possible in an environment where the pursuit of self-interest trumps all else.

So, I say good for you Professor Horowitz. I may not agree with your methods but I do agree with the message you were trying to send.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 5, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.

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