Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Cheating at Boston University

Intellectual Fraudulence and Deceit —
Defending Students’ Rights to Get the Education They Are Paying For

As previous blog postings have documented, there have been a number of reasons I have been subjected to punishments and threats by Boston University administrators. One of the main ones has been my attempt to defend students’ rights to obtain a top-flight education for the exorbitant amount they are paying to attend the university (last time I checked, a few years ago, something north of $50,000 a year, no doubt higher, perhaps considerably higher, than that now since it goes up every year). The sad fact is that they are being cheated academically, intellectually, and financially—and have been for years. I have written so many memos and held so many meetings with administrators that I have lost count, in which I have outlined the glaring academic and intellectual deficiencies of the Boston University film program, and of the graduate Film Studies, Screenwriting, and Production programs in particular. I have outlined the problems in detail; I have proposed solutions; I have offered to meet with administrators to discuss details. To call the response discouraging would be an extreme understatement. I have been shouted down at meetings, told to “shut up” and that “no one is interested in [my] opinion,” as well as being told to my face that I am “a troublemaker” (and had it reported to me dozens more times by colleagues that I have been called one behind my back) even to raise these issues—with the avowed justification that as long as students keep applying to these programs and paying their tuition bills, there is no problem, there can be no problem. More than one senior administrator has been shockingly frank, in private conversation behind closed doors in his office, either telling me outright that “it’s about the money,” that “programs exist to bring money into the institutions that run them,” and what I am proposing “would cost money,” and what is my problem that I can't understand that?—Q.E.D., end of discussion; or reminding me that as long as “the tuition dollars keep flowing in” and “the students aren’t complaining,” how in the world can I argue that there is anything wrong? The first few times I heard it, the cynicism of the logic, which would do honor to a snake-oil salesman, used to leave me speechless. I am now used to it. I've heard it too many times since then, used to justify too many shabby and unethical academic practices, too many pedagogical and intellectual violations of trust to be shocked by it anymore.

I have also been warned (with various threats appended and not a little shouting and desk pounding for emphasis on occasion) not to discuss my concerns in interviews with journalists or to mention them to prospective students at open house or information sessions. A senior administrator has explained the logic of this prohibition as being that as long as I am being paid by BU (at however reduced a salary because of years of past financial punishments), the university has the right to control what I say and whom I say it to. So much for the value of debate and discussion—or the respect for free expression—at Boston University.

The result has been that, to the best of my knowledge, not a single one of the issues I have raised has been addressed and discussed, let alone corrected—so that students, particularly graduate students in the film program, continue to be intellectually cheated and academically defrauded. I’m going to devote this posting and the ones that follow it to reviewing, in extreme summary form, some of the things my reports and meetings have covered.

The most obvious problem with the graduate Film Studies program at Boston University, not to put too fine a point on it, is the pretense that a graduate Film Studies program actually exists at Boston University. In fact there is none (outside the statements that one exists on the Boston University web site and the claims for its existence at open house and information session events). Graduate students in Film Studies get their education by being thrown into already existing, introductory-level, undergraduate film courses, where they sit next to sophomores, juniors, and non-film majors and listen to presentations designed for sophomores, juniors, and non-film majors, many of them taking the first and only film course they will ever take, who vastly outnumber them. The grad students (a tiny handful in a sea of undergraduates and non-majors in each course) might as well be back in their sophomore year in the institutions they came from. Pedagogically and intellectually, they are paying for caviar and getting a Big Mac.

A situation this wrong could not continue without being hidden and deceptively labeled. The intellectual fraudulence of advertising and admitting students to a program in which grad students are only taking low-level undergraduate courses would be too obvious to pass muster if it weren’t deceptively camouflaged and concealed. The first deception is simply not to publicize the lack of graduate courses on the university web site. The second is not to mention it to students applying for admission and attending any of the various open-house and information session events (and, as I noted above, to forbid me to tell students the facts). The third is by assigning many of the courses in question two entirely different sets of course numbers and/or listing them separately in both the undergraduate and graduate course listings as if they were separate courses. The introductory, no prerequisites, open-to-non-film majors, undergraduate course is listed with one number in the undergraduate offerings and then listed again with a different number attached to it in the graduate-level listings, as if there were two different sets of courses rather than the same course, with the same students and same meeting times and locations being listed and described twice. (At other times, under the assumption that prospective graduate students won’t be reading the undergraduate listings, the course number, title, and description are simply kept the same in both places.) In any case, however it is done, the facts are concealed from incoming grad students until they walk into the classroom and suddenly realize that their downpayment and tuition checks have only bought them a seat sitting next to a sophomore non-film major in a low-level undergraduate course.

Rampant cheating is taking place at Boston University, and I am not referring to student conduct. Administrators are cheating the students and have been getting away with it for years and years. (I’ve actually been surprised that no student has taken the university to court for false advertising, knowing misrepresentation, and violation of contract; I’m not a lawyer, but by my lights, it would be an easy win—or fat settlement.) For their contributions to this game of intellectual bait and switch, the administrators who have been most instrumental in guiding the program in this cheap-it-out race to the bottom have received promotions and pay raises. “It’s about the money,” after all. Actually creating and staffing graduate-level courses would cost too much, so why bother if the students keep applying and their (or their parents’) checks don’t bounce? As long as they are willing to take out ever bigger loans every year and to keep going into debt that will last for decades, why not fleece them? They are too young (and trusting) to realize how they are being cheated.

[To be continued in Part 2]

For a more general consideration of concerns I have expressed 
about the serious intellectual and pedagogical deficiencies 
of the Boston University film program, 
see parts 4 ("Pretend Filmmakers"), 5 ("Pretend Thinking"), 
and 6 ("Pedagogical Betrayals of Trust") in this posting.