Doctor Faircloth, EdD by Steve Slavin
Doctor Faircloth, EdD by Steve Slavin
Elizabeth was a born self-promoter. By the time she started kindergarten, she had already figured out that the trick to getting ahead was to just tell people what they wanted to hear and do what they wanted her to do.
Her kindergarten teacher prized good conduct above all other attributes. Elizbeth won the good conduct sticker every week. She volunteered to do minor tasks like passing out crayons and leading the class in cleaning up around their seats.
At the end of the year, Miss Goodheart presented Elizabeth with the “Best Kindergarten Student of the Year” certificate. In strict confidence, she whispered to Elizabeth’s mother that no other student even came close.
“Mrs. Faircloth, your daughter will go very far in life. Indeed, one day I can just see her becoming the principal of this very school.”
When Elizabeth enrolled at Kean College, just a few miles from where she grew up, she had already mapped out her educational plan and even her career path. She would major in education – not just the easiest college major – but the one that would enable her to reach her vocational goal.
No, Elizabeth would never be a teacher. Indeed, a born misanthrope, she not only despised her follow students, but she craved attaining real power. She wanted to be a college president.
But she was painfully aware that she was, at best, barely a mediocre student. She doubted that she would manage to graduate – even from such a fourth-rate college as Kean – if she majored in English, or math, or philosophy. Those majors attracted really smart students.
After graduating from Kean, she enrolled in a doctoral program at a remote outpost of SUNY (the State University of New York), that had previously been a teachers’ college. There, with a bare minimum of work, she would easily earn a doctorate in educational administration.
Then, following her life plan, she returned to her native New Jersey, where nearly all the county college presidents held EdDs — doctorates in education. And, like chiropractors and podiatrists, they could never forgo the opportunity to address their colleagues – and, of course, to be addressed, themselves – as “Doctor.”
She was well aware that in both undergraduate and graduate programs, those majoring in education consistently had the lowest IQs. She laughed, while thinking to herself, that ‘with my great social skills, I’ll run circles round all those poor fools. In the land of morons, even a mediocrity can be queen.’
Elizabeth was right. Fresh out of grad school, Dr. Elizabeth Faircloth was hired at Washington County College as its Dean of Students. (Full disclosure: There is no Washington County College in New Jersey, nor a Madison County College, another school which is mentioned later. Since almost every county in the state has a county college, the reader is left to guess which ones these are.)
She quickly ingratiated herself with the president and the academic vice president, becoming their indispensable helper. After just a year, Elizabeth became the Academic Dean.
The fact that the overwhelming majority of the students clearly did not belong in college – or even in high school – was just an inconvenient fact at Washington County College, and at nearly every other two-year college in the nation. So Elizabeth fully understood that her title was an oxymoron, although she had never heard of that exact word.
When the president, Dr. John Needham, invited Dr. Faircloth to lunch, she knew something was up. He liked calling her Liz, completely unaware of how much she despised the nickname.
“Now see here, Liz, you’re a very smart girl!” She smiled pleasantly, while she imagined loping off his head off with a machete.
“Why thank you, Doctor Needham!” Needham especially loved being called “Doctor,” as if he were somehow on the same academic level with physicists, semanticists, and other actual scholars.
“Now, despite your modesty, I know you have ambitions. In fact, I see a lot of myself in you.”
Was that some kind of subtle sexual inuendo? Or just her imagination running wild? She figured that now he was going to either make a pass, or perhaps offer her another promotion.
“I have a major problem. Maybe you can help me solve it.”
Was this his way of leading up to a proposition? She wondered.
Then he completely surprised her. “I know you are well aware of why so few of our students are graduating.”
“Math 011.” That was the lower level of the school’s two remedial math courses.
Wow! She had truly underestimated the man. He was actually being straight with her.
“Would you like me to try to help find a solution?” She offered. It was always best to underplay your hand.
“No, Liz, I want to empower you to find a solution. I’m putting you in charge of an academic task force. Your goal will be to substantially raise our graduation rate by getting more students through Math 011.”
“When do I start?”
“You’re already on the clock, so to speak.”
After being accepted at any of the New Jersey county colleges, incoming freshmen are given a placement exam to determine their abilities at reading, writing, and arithmetic. About three quarters of them were deemed unready to do college work. To raise their skills to at least an eighth-grade level, they were placed in remedial courses.
If they were unable to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, these students are enrolled in Math 011. If they had already mastered these skills but could not solve very simple algebraic problems, they were placed in Math 022. Because these were not college-level courses, students received no college credit for taking them. But they were charged the same tuition that was charged for college-level courses.
About fifteen percent of the county college applicants were placed in Math 101, which was “college algebra.” This course fulfilled their math requirement. But the cream of the crop – the top five percent of the freshman class – was not required to take Math 101. These budding rocket scientists had either done well enough in high school advanced placement math courses, or had received a high enough score on the county college placement exam to have fulfilled the college’s math requirement.
As the chairperson of the committee, Elizabeth got to choose who else would serve. Her vice-chairperson was a no-brainer – in more ways than one. Doc O’Brian had made academic history while serving on a similar committee in the business department.
The college’s Institutional Research office had discovered that every semester, more than three-quarters of the students failed the introductory accounting course. How would they ever become business majors, since they were required to pass at least two accounting courses?
Doc O’Brian came up with the brilliant idea of making Washington County College the first institution of higher education in the nation to offer a business major with no accounting requirement. Within a year, business became the college’s most popular major.
Elizabeth decided to pick Doc O’Brian’s brain, such as it was. How could the college raise its graduation rate when hundreds of students each semester failed Math 011? It was a very low-level remedial course – essentially grade school arithmetic such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and decimals. These eighteen-year-olds – most of whom could barely read – were somehow expected to master six years of arithmetical skills in just four months.
So, she invited Doc O’Brian to a bar, a student hangout just a couple of blocks off campus, and plied him with drinks. She quickly realized that the good doctor was definitely no Irish pervert.
Q: What exactly is an Irish pervert?
A: A man who prefers women to whiskey.
Not only was Doc O’Brian a perfect gentleman – at least as long as the whiskey was flowing – but he provided Elizabeth with an answer so obvious, she could not believe she had not thought of it herself.
Whenever the conversation drifted, she brought them back to the basic question: How could the college raise its graduation rate when so many students were failing Math 011?
They were seated in a booth, having a relatively intimate conversation. Suddenly he stood up quite a bit unsteadily, and leaned on the table for support.
“Abolish Math Oh-one-one!” he shouted, while banging his fist on the table for emphasis.
The bar was filled with current students and recent drop-outs. They immediately picked up on the chant: “Abolish Math Oh-one-one!” This was echoed throughout the bar again and again and again as overjoyed patrons raised their glasses in salute. Soon virtually everyone joined in.
“Abolish Math Oh-one-one! Abolish Math Oh-one-one! Abolish Math Oh-one-one!”
Then the bartender, himself a recent drop-out, knocked twice on the bar. And the place went wild!
By the next morning Doc O’Brian had no recollection of his amazing insight, so Elizabeth felt no need to credit him when she met with President Needham. Word of the bar incident had reached him not long after the chanting had finally died down.
He was so struck with the idea he did not bother to go through the usual academic committees for their approval. He just phoned the registrar and told her to remove all the Math 011 courses from the spring schedule. Of course, the Math Chairperson would have to scramble to find enough courses for all his full-timers to teach, but that was his problem.
Washington County College was the first community college in the state to abolish its lowest level remedial math course. This was not because the school’s educational standards were being raised. Just the opposite: they were being lowered.
Elizabeth’s academic reputation – at least on the community college level – quickly spread across the state. Soon, discreet inquiries were being made by college presidential search committees from schools across the nation. Was she available?
Of course, word reached President Needham, himself. He fully understood that because Dr. Faircloth was becoming such a hot academic commodity, it would be very hard to hang on to her.
He wrote a glowing letter of recommendation and placed it in her personnel file. He explained to Dr. Faircloth that she was welcome to remain at the college, but eventually she might want to move on, perhaps even to the presidency of another college. He apologized to her for not offering to arrange for her to be his eventual successor, but he expected to remain in his post until his retirement – a day far in the future. After all, he was only seventy-nine, and he expected to serve for many more years.
Not everyone was ecstatic about dropping Math 011. Obviously, no one in the Math Department was happy to see dozens of classes vanish – and with them the jobs of three untenured full-time faculty members, as well as those of nine much more expendable part-timers.
But the Math Department members were equally concerned with an academic issue. Washington County College, like virtually all the other 1,000 community colleges throughout the nation, was an open enrollment institution. If you lived in the county and had either attained the age of eighteen or had earned a high school diploma, then you were automatically admitted to your local two-year college.
What if you could not do elementary school math – or even read at a sixth-grade level? No problem. They still had to take you.
So, the colleges made a major effort to bring these students up to their institution’s very minimal standards by providing extensive remediation. All these severely academically deficient students were given a fighting chance to finally learn to read, write, and solve arithmetic problems. Still, of those placed in the lowest levels of remedial math and English, perhaps one or two percent were able to master the skills needed to enroll in college-level courses.
But good ole Doc O’Brian had identified the basic problem, and with a bit of whiskey, he was able to solve it. Just abolish the math course that almost everyone was failing. Why hadn’t anyone thought of doing that decades ago?
One year after Elizabeth’s initial success, Madison County College made her an offer she could not refuse. Its Board of Trustees unanimously offered her the presidency of their school. She had actually grown up in a neighboring county, so this was very familiar territory.
Although no whiz at educational research, Dr. Faircloth truly did herself proud by how well she had checked out the educational and vocational backgrounds of the members of the college’s Board of Trustees. As she suspected, not even one had ever been employed by an institution of higher learning. The closest was one poor soul who owned a stake in a school of cosmetology. That reminded her of the big Frankie Avalon production number, “Beauty School Dropout.” from the movie version of Grease.
Less than half the trustees were even community college graduates, let alone people holding advanced degrees such as PhDs, EdDs, CPAs, MBAs, or MAs in education. The deputy chair was a fire chief, and four of the seventeen members were women who listed themselves as community leaders – which Elizabeth knew was a euphemism for either housewife or long-term unemployed.
“What a crew!” she said out loud when she finished going over the list. Always quite aware of her own educational shortcomings, she realized that, by comparison with this group, she was a Rhodes Scholar – perhaps even the recipient of a MacArthur genius award.
In her maiden speech to a very select audience of trustees, top administrators, distinguished alumni, and major financial supporters, Dr. Faircloth laid out her long-term objectives for the college.
Not only would she immediately eliminate the school’s Math 011 course – which were clearly roadblocks to academic success – but she pledged to dramatically raise the college’s graduation rate.
Of all the students who enrolled at community colleges throughout the nation, only just ten percent completed their two-year degrees within four years. Another ten percent transferred to four-year colleges before attaining two-year degrees.
Madison County College was near the bottom of the barrel. Less than fifteen percent of its new enrollees would either get a two-year degree within four years or transfer to a four-year college.
And so, Dr. Faircloth concluded, they all needed to roll up their sleeves and get to work. And getting rid of Math 011 would be just the first step. Everyone expected it. But she had another trick up her sleeve.
Dr. Faircloth’s appointment was not nearly as popular with the faculty as it had been with the Board of Trustees. Indeed, the entire Math Department was up in arms about losing over 70 sections of Math 011. How would they now have enough courses to teach?
She agreed to meet with the department’s full-time faculty to explain her plan, which was basically to divide and conquer the department’s forty-one full-time members. A couple of days before the meeting she reached out to all the full-timers, using the trusty carrot-and- stick approach. All the senior members – those with the highest salaries and the longest service to the college — would be offered very generous retirement packages.
This would lop off about ten of them. Indeed, seven accepted on the spot. The six full-time members without tenure were told that they would be denied tenure, but if they agreed to leave at the end of the next semester, they would receive a full year’s severance pay. Each of them, having read the writing on the wall, agreed to take the money and run.
Now what about all the part-timers who would be laid off? Dr. Faircloth knew that none of the full-timers really cared about them. Everyone understood that laying off the part-timers would help save the jobs of the remaining full-timers. So, no one had a problem with that.
By the time she met with the Math Department faculty, they all knew just where they stood. The ten senior members would all be leaving, along with their six non-tenured colleagues.
Now Dr. Faircloth was ready to drop the other shoe. Not only would the college abolish Math 011, but along with it, 022 as well. This would eliminate another forty-five classes, but every full-timer’s job remained safe.
There was a collective sigh of relief. If their jobs were secure, they could live without teaching these two remedial courses.
Then Dr. Faircloth switched tactics, contending that eliminating Math 011 and 022 would not only provide them with the opportunity to now teach only college-level math courses, but it would also raise the level of intellectual stimulation at the college.
“How many of you enjoyed teaching arithmetic?” she asked. Only one hand was raised.
Dr. Faircloth waited until the laughter subsided. It was an open secret that Professor Snodgrass had been losing it for years, and that teaching 011 and 022 was about all he could still manage.
In fact, he decided on the spot to take up Doctor Faircloth’s early retirement offer. His colleagues joked among themselves that this was Professor Snodgrass’s greatest contribution to the field of mathematics.
Then, Professor Romano had a question. “Dr. Faircloth, since our college has an open enrollment policy, what will happen to all those students who do so poorly on the placement exam that they’re placed in Math 011 or 022?”
She smiled, but remained silent for about ten seconds. Now she was ready to reel them in.
“Let me answer your question with one of my own. What happened to all those ill-prepared students who took Math 011?”
She looked around, seeing a lot of blank faces. What a bunch of morons, she thought.
“All of you know what happened to them.” She waited. And then, one-by-one, a few of the brighter profs began to smile, albeit very tentatively.”
Then she informed the rest: “They failed! They flunked out of the college!”
“Not all of them failed,” said one of the professors.
“Right!” exclaimed someone else. “One or two percent managed to pass 011 and enroll in 022 – which they promptly failed.”
Now she had them just where she wanted them. How could any of them defend what they had been doing for decades? They had been allowing thousands of poorly prepared students to enter the college, knowing nearly all of them would flunk out.
So, Madison County College – and basically all the other community colleges throughout the nation had knowingly been accepting hordes of students who were incapable of doing college work. But this greatly boosted enrollment, providing jobs to dozens of professors.
Up to this point, Dr. Faircloth had actually been telling the truth. But as we all know, the truth does have consequences, some of which are rather unpleasant to face.
She had promised that she would drastically raise the graduation rate of Madison County College, and now she would be able to do so. Most of the college’s incoming freshmen were the heart and soul of higher education’s walking wounded, or perhaps even more accurately, its zombies.
After all, weren’t their brains academically dead? How can you learn when you can barely read? What is the point of their being in college?
Well, there really is a point! They wanted a college degree – even a two-year Associate of Arts degree, also known as the ASS degree. Even if they never enrolled in a four-year college, they had that degree to hang on their wall. They had earned an academic credential.
And it was Dr. Faircloth’s job to see that they earned that degree. But eliminating Math 011 and 022 would not be enough. Nearly every student still needed to pass Math 101 – the required college-level math course.
But if most of the students were incapable of doing simple arithmetic – let alone introductory algebra – how could they ever pass a course that required just those skills? Even Albert Einstein would never have been able to solve that math problem. But then again, the good Doctor Einstein did not have a degree in educational administration.
The college’s department chairs had the authority to grant students waivers to skip a required course for good cause. It was up to the Chairs to determine if the cause was good enough.
So, she reasoned, if the Math Chair granted waivers to all the students who could not pass the required math course, they could just skip it and be able to graduate. But the Math Chair would never agree to this. It would make a complete mockery of the college and its reputation for academic integrity.
Dr. Faircloth knew just what to do. She went before the Board of Trustees and explained that to reduce the college’s administrative bureaucracy, she was going to abolish the post of Department Chair. Let them all go back to teaching.
The Board agreed unanimously. The Fire Chief stood up and yelled, “Hear, hear!” and everyone else followed suit. Little did they realize that they had just acquiesced to excising the college’s last shred of academic integrity.
Dr. Faircloth gave the job of granting waivers to one of her handpicked deans. The gentleman never refused a request. No Madison County College student was held back from graduating because she or he did not fulfill the college’s math requirement.
In just one year the number of “Ps” for passing grade for Math 101 shot up from 17 to 1,043. The next year it climbed to 1,466.
Not surprisingly, the college’s graduation rate rose sharply, more than tripling over the next two years. Dr. Faircloth was voted the Two-Year College President of the Year and became an academic celebrity. She was even asked to pose for a Dewar’s liquor ad.
Her future seemed unlimited. Who knew how high she might rise? But she had neglected to cover her two essential bases — her academic base and her political base.
Madison County College sent most of its best and its brightest students to dozens of nearby public and private institutions of higher learning. Nearly all of these schools had articulation agreements with Madison and the other county colleges, guaranteeing that their graduates successfully completed certain required courses. The four-year schools extended automatic acceptances with advanced standing to all the Madison graduates who fulfilled these graduation requirements.
A college-level math course was a universal requirement, so it was assumed that every Madison graduate had passed Math 101. A very small number of waivers granted by Department Chairs was acceptable. But some college dean routinely signing huge numbers of Math 101 waivers each year would eventually raise more than a few eye-brows in college admissions offices.
Within a year or two, all the four-year colleges and universities withdrew from their articulation agreements with Madison County College. Word quickly got through to the Madison County legislators, who were paying one third of the tuition costs of each student. And days later, the entire state legislature – which had also been footing one third of the tuition bill – was up in arms.
But still another very serious political issue had also arisen. While Madison, like all the other county colleges in New Jersey, remained an open enrollment college, the most poorly prepared students were now staying away in droves, as even they began to realize how little value a Madison County College degree now had. Although completely unable to do college level work, now they were not even offered any form of remediation.
Dozens of four-year colleges were piling on, revoking the admissions of hundreds of Madison County College graduates, and even expelling still more who were discovered to be unable to read, write, or do simple arithmetic. Indeed, some of these students even joined in a class action lawsuit against Madison County College for theft of honest services.
The Madison County legislators and the county’s state assembly and senate members held a raucous public meeting in the college auditorium with the Board of Trustees. Members of several local police forces were dispatched to ensure order.
The state and county would take full control of the college until it could again operate as a viable educational institution. But the trustees declared this arrangement completely unacceptable. None of them could even begin to grasp what had gone wrong, and why the legislators were placing the blame on Dr. Faircloth.
After all, they had just given her a five-year contract extension as a reward for tripling the college’s graduation rate. How do you fire someone who was doing such a great job?
If anything, they were ready to stand by their principles. And so, then and there they made the greatest contribution to higher education in the history of Madison County. They stood up, shouted out their resignations, and marched proudly out of the auditorium.
Copyright Steve Slavin 2021