Phi Beta Cons

Lead Paint

Paul Mehne, the former senior associate dean of the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Camden, New Jersey (UMDNJ–part of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick) faces possible indictment after a federal monitor issued a report Monday that says he doctored students’ grades.  Here is the news story.
Take away quote:  “What troubled investigators, however, is none of his students ever seemed to fail.” 
His particular medical school has been the center of a criminal investigation into a lush jungle of political corruption involving among other things, state senator Wayne Bryant (D-Camden) who approved additional funding for a UMDNJ campus after it hired him as a “community affairs consultant.”  In April, a federal grand jury started handing up indictments of Bryant and others.  One of the poetically nice touches was a charge against R. Michael Gallagher, former dean of the School of Osteopathic Medicine (and pal of Bryant) saying that he had ordered staff members to falsify financial records of the university’s Headache Center. 
Corruption scandals in New Jersey, of course, are about as startling as dimples on little babies, but this little baby has teeth.  If the federal report about Dean Mehne is accurate, he forced directors of medical clerkships to pass students who failed standardized tests in area such as obstetrics and family medicine.  It doesn’t take much stretch of the imagine to see down the road to patients receiving incompetent treatment because of Dean Mehne’s generosity with the grades.  Will he be subject to civil lawsuits if one of those doctors injures or kills a patient?  For the record, Dean Mehne denies he ever violated his institution’s grading policy. 
But this does seem an opportune moment to point out that corruption in the assignment of college grades is not a victimless crime.  It is not an especially uncommon one either.  In December 2005, the former associate registrar of Southern University at Baton Rouge pled guilty to bribery and confessed to collecting almost $30,000 in bribes from students to change their grades.  About two dozen students were identified and eight degrees were revoked.  Earlier this year, Diablo Valley College in California uncovered a grade-fixing scheme involving 74 students, and a going rate of $600 per grade.  Yesterday one of “masterminds” of that scheme, Julian Revilleza, pleaded guilty to 15 counts of computer fraud. 
Grade fixing in elite schools is probably less common because of grade inflation.  Where the average grade is a B+ or A-, there is hardly any temptation to tamper.  Of course, college administrators who browbeat instructors, students who bribe associate registrars, and hackers who break computer security systems aren’t the only ones engaged in distortions of the record of student performance.  There are more genteel forms of corruption, including grade inflation itself, and the dismissal of instructors who inopportunely give failing students failing grades.
The general result of all this is that grades are an increasingly unreliable measure of what a graduate has learned—or even studied.  That fuels Secretary Spellings’ drive for a nation-wide regime of tests and that regime’s unavoidable corollary, the federalization of higher education.  A wary consumer of medical services might shiver to see that his doctor received a degree from UMDNJ during Dean Mehne’s tenure.  A  wary employer might want to question closely a graduate of Southern university of Diablo Valley College.  But maybe we all need to be a bit wary.  Grade fixing in the larger sense is the lead paint on our college diplomas. 


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