CUP Prairies & Northern Bureau Chief
Mikhail Kovalyov has experienced the unpleasant after-effect of standing up for his students.
The University of Alberta administration asked the professor to retire early after a conflict regarding what he sees as the arbitrary grading process at the U of A.
“I tried to reason with the department,” Kovalyov said, “but there was no reasoning.”
The trouble began in 2004, when the university instituted a new grading policy. The policy has a recommended grade distribution and sets a mean grade of B-, or 2.62 on the four-point scale used at the U of A. Kovalyov says he has done his best to hew to this policy since its adoption.
“In the past several years, however,” Kovalyov wrote in a letter to media outlets, “practically every semester after I handed in grades, I received an email from [math department Faculty Service Officer] Dr. McNeilly ”˜suggesting’ that I lower the grades assigned and fail more students.”
Kovalyov said he balked at the suggestion as it goes against both the university’s grading policy and the grading policy he announces to his students at the beginning of each term.
“Since I announced each term my policy of adhering to the [university’s] suggested grade distribution, it was my obligation to do so.”
Several years of conflict between Kovalyov and the U of A math department ensued. Kovalyov says that in 2009 McNeilly told him that instead of aiming for the grading policy’s suggested mean grade of 2.62, Kovalyov should try for a mean grade of 2.0 in each class.
Following this new instruction, Kovalyov handed in grades for a first-year calculus class that had an average of 2.1. He says he had made his final harder and had marked it more strictly in an effort to adhere to the grading requirements, and this had already resulted in 17 students failing.
“I then received an email that the grades I had assigned had been lowered even further,” Kovalyov said. “They were considerably lowered, to an average of 1.7, and many students failed who deserved to pass. The committee lowering the grades didn’t look at a single student’s exam.”
After sending an email to students informing them of this change and that he disagreed with it, Kovalyov said he received emails from students saying their grade appeals were not being considered.
He sent out another email offering support to his students, and accompanied one student to his appeal. According to Kovalyov, that was the point when “all hell broke loose.” Kovalyov was suspended from teaching and offered an early retirement package, in effect an attempt to have him resign early.
U of A vice-provost Colleen Skidmore would not comment on any of the specifics of this case, citing that it is a faculty issue and as such is confidential.
She did say that “a professor’s final marks are unofficial until they’ve been approved by a faculty council,” which is often delegated to the dean of a college.
Kovalyov is not the first professor who has come into conflict with his university administration over grades in recent years. University of Manitoba professor Gabor Lukacs is embroiled in a legal debate with his administration over the decision to give a Ph.D. candidate his degree despite his inability to complete an exam and some of the required course work.
In 2009, University of Ottawa professor Denis Rancourt was dismissed from his position because of his approach to the process of teaching. He awarded all the students in one of his classes grades of A+.
Kovalyov has said he intends to continue this fight and to see the grades he gave his students reinstated.