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The Weekly Blab 4.1

The Weekly Blab

Volume 4, Issue 1—October 8, 2009


The Year Begins:

Another academic year begins and SPSU is off to a good start.  We’ve gotten the three core engineering programs approved, and hired a batch of faculty to teach in those programs, several of whom will join our faculty in January.  We’ve got $100M of major construction taking place on the campus.  Jeff Ray’s office seems to be the place to be—there’s a great view of the Building I-2 construction, with the ETC construction and parking deck in the distance.  And check out the size of that crane!  It would be great to see them hang a basket on it, and give rides from one side of the construction to the other.  I’d pay $10 to ride on that.  We’ve also gotten word on ABET accreditation—all our ET programs were reaccredited for the maximum, and the IT program was newly accredited.


Budget-wise, things aren’t quite so hot.  We’re starting the year with a ca. 5% budget cut, and all pretty much all full-timers have three furlough days to look forward to each semester.  The August tax revenues didn’t look so hot (compared to August one year ago), so more cuts may be in the offing.  On the more positive side, it is beginning to look like we’re slowly coming out of the recession, so things may pick up.  Despite our challenges, we’re better off at SPSU than most.


Issues to Consider:  Graduation Rates

One issue that will be looked at closely by the Board of Regents this year is Graduation Rates.  Yes, they’re back.  Currently, the graduation rate as measured by the USG at SPSU is 29.8%--with rounding, let’s call it 30%.  This rate refers to first-time first-year students, and measures what percentage of them graduate from SPSU within six years.  If students transfer to another university, they don’t show up in this statistic, even if they graduate.  Students who transfer here also don’t count in this statistic.  So, the first thing we know is that the way that the USG (and the federal government) measures graduation rates is not particularly apt for us.


Interestingly, it’s actually a small improvement from a few years ago—our graduation rate was about 23% back in 2005.  Our current rate puts us 7th from the bottom in the USG, with Columbus State, Armstrong Atlantic, Clayton, Augusta, Macon, and Dalton behind us.  There are another five universities in the 32-35% range.  The “good” news there is that with a small increase in our graduation rates, we can vault into the top half of the “standings”.  The high in the USG is at UGA and Georgia Tech, both in the 77-78% range.  Among state university systems, the USG ranks 42nd.  Georgia’s high school graduation rate is 49th among the states.  So, we’ve got a long way to go.


What’s the reason we’re so low?  That’s actually a bad question, in that there is no one reason-- it’s a combination of lots of factors.  More research is needed, but here are a few things we know:

  • SPSU offers a narrower range of degree programs than most universities.  Students often transfer to other universities that offer the programs they want.  We’ve successfully been working to expand our degree offerings, but we’re still relatively narrow.
  • We offer a harder mix of degree programs than most universities.
  • We have Georgia Tech down the street as many of our students’ first choice.  About 20-25% of our best students transfer there.  An even larger number transfer from Georgia Tech to here.  The statistic doesn’t recognize either fact.
  • Many of our students are the first in their families to attend college.  Such students typically graduate at lower rates.
  • We have a large number of economically disadvantaged students.  Such students typically graduate at lower rates, since financial issues impede their progress.
  • We don’t have a lot of co-curricular activities, compared to other universities.  This includes sports, clubs, and events.  These types of activities typically “bond” the students to the university, and improve graduation rates.
  • Our advising program is relatively thin.  This is something else that is improving as of late, but we’re understaffed here and there are still lots of holes.
  • We’re a young university, and as such, we don’t have a lot of “prestige recognition” which often accrues to older institutions.


All of these are explanations, but do they really apply to us more than other USG schools, and do they apply to us more than they do to our comparator schools?  Our graduation rate is 4th from the bottom there, with only University of DC, IUPU-Fort Wayne, and Southern University below us.  Michigan Tech has a graduation rate of 65%, and Cal-Poly Pomona has one of 50%. 


More on this to come, but I’m curious as to what you all think may be reasons for our low numbers, and what steps you believe we might take to increase our graduation rates.  I’ll summarize any responses I get in the next issue of the Blab.  A prize of a great jazz CD goes to the best “how to improve graduation rates” suggestion.


Issues to Consider:  Academic Integrity

Another issue that has come up a bit lately is our process (or lack thereof) in dealing with academic integrity, both inside and outside the classroom.  We all know that students are using more technological means to cheat these days, be they cell phones, pda’s, online paper mills, or whatever.  Our current practice is that faculty handle such things individually, which allows (in theory) a student to cheat multiple times and only be subject to minor sanctions, since there is no central collection point that keeps track.  The Deans Council has asked the Faculty Senate to consider developing some expanded procedures in this area, and I hope they will do so. 


In the meantime, I’ve come across two interesting articles on the subject that I’d like to comment on.  The first is “Online Social Culture:  Does it Foster Original Work or Encourage Plagiarism?” by Janet Salmons (http://www.vision2lead.com/Originality.pdf).  In this paper, Dr. Salmons sees plagiarism as part of a continuum of how original sources are used in subsequent work.  Plagiarism (defined as using others’ work, as a whole, without attribution) is the negative end of the scale, followed by Inappropriate Paraphrasing (adapting others’ work without attribution), Misuse of Sources (improper or missing citations), and Uncritical Citing (copying others’ ideas with proper citation, but without analyzing them or synthesizing new ideas).  The positive end of the scale is Intertextuality (respectfully building on others’ work to create new ideas, with proper attribution).  The term “intertextuality” was coined by Julia Kristeva, a well-known philosopher in the area of critical analysis.  I like the idea of looking at plagiarism as part of a continuum—too often we treat it as a much simpler concept than it is, and miss the opportunity to encourage our students towards positive building on others’ work.


The other paper was called “Five Steps to Reduce Cheating” by Mary Bart (in Faculty Focus).  She interviews the authors of CHEATING IN SCHOOL: What We Know and What We Can Do, Stephen F. Davis, Patrick F. Drinan, and Tricia Bertram Gallant.  They suggest five common sense strategies:

  • “Clearly articulate your expectations for the class and EACH INDIVIDUAL ASSIGNMENT.”  Let students know what outside resources can and can’t be used.
  • “Explicitly link assignments to learning objectives. Students often cheat on assignments that they see as meaningless or “busy-work.”…
  • “Reduce temptations to cheating…For example, space students out during exams, provide multiple versions of the same test, require students to leave all non-essential materials at the front of the room, and have the WiFi turned off in the test room.”
  • “Talk to students about the relation of academic integrity to professional ethics and their future chosen career…    
  • “Report all cheating when you see it, rather than ignore it or handle it on your own…Also, many professors mistakenly assume that they can reduce cheating on their own, but it takes the entire campus. If instructors do not report cheating, that same student may be cheating in other courses and no one would ever know!”

I would add one more strategy:

  • If you are assigning a term paper, require students to turn in periodic drafts before the final paper.  This not only keeps them on task and avoids a last minute rush, but also impedes their buying a finished term paper on line.


Again, your thoughts on this matter are welcomed.