Sunday, September 13, 2009

THE RIGHT THING: COLLECTION IN THE CLASSROOM

Several years ago, after retiring from a long career as a human-resources professional, a reader from New York accepted a position teaching graduate-level human-resources courses as an adjunct professor at a nearby college.

Adjunct professors are traditionally hired on a course-by-course basis by colleges or universities that need to find instructors to teach courses that their full-time faculty cannot cover. As such, adjuncts often serve on a temporary basis and may find themselves without a teaching assignment if their services aren't needed in a particular semester.

In the past few years my reader has taught roughly 35 courses in labor relations, staffing and recruiting, employee benefits and other human-resources-related courses. Generally he has been pleased with his work, and the college has been pleased with him.

All that changed, however, when he received an e-mail from the college administration saying that some students in his class were behind in tuition payments. Representatives from the purser's office might come to his classroom, the e-mail added, to deliver letters to any students who owed money.

My reader objected to this, and sent back an e-mail saying so. It could prove embarrassing to any students who were singled out, he argued, and it was not directly related to the instruction taking place in his classroom.

He also gave his students a heads-up, reading them the e-mail from the college and letting them know that, if anyone came into their classroom to deliver such letters, he would excuse all his students from the class. He also let a representative from the purser's office know of his plan.

The provost of the college, who serves as its chief academic official, interceded at this point, calling my reader to discuss the matter. He said that visits to the classroom were the best way the administration had to collect past-due tuition payments.

"I voiced my objections to the method chosen," my reader writes.

My reader believes that the college would be better advised to send letters or e-mails to students in arrears, informing them that they could no longer attend classes until their tuition was paid.

"If they had chosen this option, and advised me," he writes, "I could have discreetly taken any students aside privately and suggested that they contact the purser's office, without embarrassing the student. Instead they proposed sending `bill collectors' into classrooms to present `collection letters.'"

Since my reader took his stand, no purser's representatives have shown up at his classroom door. However, he has not been invited back to teach any future course or courses. No reason was given, and of course the college is not obligated to give one, regardless of his successful service as an adjunct professor.

It's hard to see how singling out students in front of their classmates would solve the issue facing the college. Clearly there was no expectation that the students would get out their checkbooks and pay up on the spot. If hand-delivering the letters to students during class was an attempt to shame them in front of their peers and pressure them into paying up, it was the wrong thing to do.

Obviously the students are responsible for paying what they owe, and the college is entitled to seek payment. The right thing for the college to do, however, was exactly what my reader suggests: Let the students know directly, outside the classroom, that they would not be able to attend classes or receive grades until their tuition was up to date. It would also be entirely appropriate for the college to require faculty members, including my reader, to cooperate with this effort.

My reader was correct to disagree with the collection ploy, and to tell the college that he would not cooperate with it. However, I think he was wrong to convey his feelings to the students before he had discussed it with the provost.

A teacher is a representative of the college, and it's legitimate for the college to feel that its representatives should keep disagreements in house for as long as possible, rather than immediately broadcast them to the students and, by extension, to the general public.

Both sides in this dispute have done the wrong thing, and both need to make amends.

Most colleges and universities make it a point of pride to support their instructors, even when they question the status quo. It's more awkward when it's the status quo at the college itself that is being challenged, but the principle should be the same. Whether or not it is required by policy, the college owes my reader an explanation for his suddenly being frozen out.

If, as seems likely, it's because of this disagreement, the college should make a good-faith attempt to find common ground for the future and, if that can be done, should invite this teacher back into the classroom.

My reader should admit that, while his opinion of the college's collection policies has not changed, he was wrong to go public with his objections without a more substantial attempt to settle things with the college behind closed doors.

It would be no compromise of his principles to agree to discuss any future issues of this nature with the administration before airing them to his students.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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