A large community college in northern California is getting a lot of negative ink in the local press. The news broke earlier this week, when county prosecutors filed criminal charges against 34 people—both students and former students—for conspiracy related to alteration of academic transcripts for money. Over a period of six years, hundreds of grades were modified in return for cash payments.
Wednesday morning I was sitting at breakfast with the San Francisco Chronicle in front of me. The article about the grade-change scheme contained a thoroughly shocking paragraph:
When the grade scheme occurred, the district had about 100 people authorized to change grades, including some employees who were also students, school officials said. In the wake of the scandal, the college has changed its policies to allow only 11 people access to the grades and has set up a committee to review requests to add people to that group.A hundred people? Including some student employees? What utter craziness.
Yet I think I know how it happened. Community colleges are places where a lot of the lines are blurred. There are many overlaps in the populations that you might have thought to be distinct: students, faculty, and administration. Lots of people are in two or more of these categories, managing some campus operation while also teaching a course and simultaneously enrolling in someone else's course. I've taken several classes in my district while serving as a full-time math professor.
When people stress the “community” in “community college,” they are making an extremely important point. There is a strong sense of being a community and serving the community. It's usually a very comfortable work environment and less bureaucratic than most organizations. (My sense of things, of course, may be limited by my lack of experience on the management side, which is probably where bureaucratic tendencies are the strongest, but even there a lot of the managers are former teaching colleagues who congenially maintain our collegial environment.)
We hire a lot of students for campus jobs. These jobs are scattered all across the campus, providing assistance in many different offices. Collegiality usually extends to these student employees, causing us to treat them as full participants in the mission of the institution. As we see from this week's shocking story, there are community colleges where this trust has extended entirely too far. The students who sold grade changes to their classmates did not have to resort to skulduggery to perpetrate their crimes. They had access to the student database as part of their jobs. For some reason, no one considered it necessary to restrict access and impose strict controls on who could alter student transcripts. There was a clear conflict of interest in students having access to their own course records.
As noted in the Chronicle article, the college in question has already cut back sharply on access to its grade database. They're shutting the barn door after some of the horses have escaped, but most are still within the stables and the runaways are being rounded up. Students at multiple campuses of the University of California and the California State University are now at risk of expulsion or other academic discipline for having used altered transcripts to gain admission to those schools as transfer students. We haven't heard the end of the story, but the lesson is already being learned.
(Check out the beginning of the following Malcolm in the Middle clip for a tender-hearted look at the question, “Is our students learning?”)