On May 14, University of Akron professor Liping Liu sent an email to his class sections saying certain categories of students—including women—may see their grades "raised one level or two." Liu claimed his approach was a part of a "national movement to encourage female students to go [in]to information sciences."
Fortunately, the plan appears to have been vetoed. Asked for comment, university officials say that "no adjustment in grades along the lines suggested by the professor has occurred or will be permitted to occur." But Liu's suggestion is still troubling.
According to The College Fix, Liu's email claims that some women in his classes aren't doing very well and would probably have to "repeat the courses or leave the program" without any sort of grade inflation. But artificially boosting someone's grade doesn't set her up for future success. It just makes it easier to advance without a firm grasp of the material.
Liu is right that STEM fields often have gender imbalance. In 2017, only 26 percent of high school students taking the AP computer science test were female. A little less than 18 percent of bachelor's degrees in computer science were given to women in the U.S. But surely the best way to correct such numbers is not to boost students who do not grasp the material at the expense of people who do.
Thankfully, the university agrees. "While the professor's stated intention of encouraging female students to go into the information sciences field may be laudable," says Provost Rex Ramsier, "his approach as described in his email was clearly unacceptable." He reaffirms that the university "follows both the law and its policies and does not discriminate on the basis of sex."
Liu isn't the first college instructor to toy with identity-based grading. In April, a teaching assistant at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Denisha Maddie, tweeted: "Grading papers for my mentors and I'm giving these white students a runnnnn for their grade honey!! The exam is on race." She added two purple devil emojis and one laughing face emoji.
The tweet has since been removed, and Maddie's intent remains unclear. It could've been a careless, offhanded comment from an inexperienced young professional who assumed her sassy tweet would have no repercussions. Or, Maddie might have been bringing race into her grading, when really it shouldn't have been a factor. The Chicago School released a statement shortly after which said "a person affiliated…posted a tweet on their personal account that runs counter to our internal policies related to grading, as well as our core values. The Chicago School does not agree with, or condone, such sentiments or behavior."
A decent point is buried in the TA's tweet—white students might understand less about race than students who've experienced discrimination firsthand—but exam grades are presumably about how well a student has learned the material that has been taught to them, not a student's race. The Chicago School has stated that they're investigating the incident.
In both cases, the universities made the right calls by refusing to buckle to the whims of their instructors. But why are professors and TAs entertaining the idea that students can be rewarded or punished based on identity at all?