by James A. Bacon
Once upon a time, the University of Virginia was known for the excellence of its English Department — one of the most highly regarded in the country. Perhaps it still is. But you wouldn’t know it from the decline in the number of students earning B.A. and graduate degrees.
The number of degrees awarded has declined by almost half — from 404 in the 1999-2000 academic year to 210 in the 2021-22 year, according data contained in the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia database.
To be sure, the precipitous decline in the number of students studying English at UVa reflects a national phenomenon. “During the past decade, the study of English and history at the collegiate level has fallen by a full third. Humanities enrollment in the United States has declined over all by seventeen per cent,” writes The New Yorker in “The End of the English Major.”
The article explores many potential causes. Declining funding for the humanities. The rise of social media and the diminution of of attention spans. The surging cost of a college degree and practical decisions by students to master disciplines with a greater financial payoff. Continue reading →
by Loren Lomasky
Poor University of Virginia, the bad luck just kept coming. In 2014 the campus was rocked by the story of a vicious gang rape perpetrated at one of the fraternities. “Story” is is the operative word; it transpired that the Rolling Stone expose was entirely fabricated. Three years later the alt right came to town. Although to the best of my knowledge no actual member of the university community took part in its marches, the image of troglodytic wielders ot tiki torches spreading their menace across grounds was indelibly etched into the American imagination. And then came Covid.
These were external inflictions, but on Nov. 13, 2022, the University experienced an unexpected trauma. On a bus returning from a cultural outing to Washington, DC, one student gunned down three others. UVA responded by sending teams of counselors across the campus to respond to the pain of those who had lost friends or classmates. The university has no special expertise in psychological healing, but to its credit it did what it could.
Entirely different were alterations made to the academic mission. Backed by university president James Ryan, provost Ian Baucom decreed that no graded assignments be required from students until after the Thanksgiving break, that is, the close of term. What if periodic writing papers is necessary to the integrity of the particular course? The question did not arise; upholding academic standards had no place on the administration’s priority list.
In case these measures were insufficient to calm the atmosphere, Baucom also decreed that all Fall semester classes were now Pass-No Pass. At first glance this may not seem especially radical. Almost all colleges offer an option for students to take an occasional ungraded class. Typically that option will be elected so that one can try out a subject distant from one’s major without undue risk to the gradepoint average. That, however, is not at all like what the administration imposed. First, Pass-No Pass was not an option available to some students for some courses; everyone in every course was summarily included. Second, it was not a choice between a graded or ungraded course. Rather, all students would complete the class, find out in the fullness of time what grade had been assigned to them, and only at that point choose whether to keep the grade or simply receive credit for the course. Presumably the idea behind the policy – I say “presumably” because the administration is not often inclined to spell out its reasoning – is to minimize potential anxiety. Students need not worry about receiving an undesired grade because they can simply make it go away. Continue reading →
In the spring of 1992, the cumulative Grade Point Average (GPA) of University of Virginia undergraduate students was 3.1, according to data maintained by the office of Institutional Research and Analysis. By 2021, the average GPA had soared to 3.6.
Grade inflation is a national phenomenon in U.S. higher education, so there may be nothing unusual about the long-term trend at UVa.
What does stand out in the chart is how grade inflation has accelerated in the past few years. The dot in the graph represents 2018, the year Jim Ryan became president. The average GPA that year was 3.4. Within three years, it shot up to 3.6. Viewing the UVa data in isolation, however, cannot tell us whether that incipient hockey stick is unique to the University or common to higher-ed nationally.
An average of 3.6 implies that at least 60% of all grades are As — and that assumes that the rest are Bs. If we assume that students occasionally are assigned Cs or Ds, the percentage of As is likely even higher. It would be interesting to see the grade distributions. Unfortunately, UVa does not provide that information. Still, based on the data made public, one must wonder, does anyone ever receive a failing grade anymore? Continue reading →
by James A. Bacon
There is a shortage of doctors, scientists, engineers and other employees with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) backgrounds in the U.S. economy. One reason is that American institutions of higher education aren’t turning out enough graduates with STEM degrees. And a big reason for that is that roughly half the students who enter STEM programs drop out. The labor shortage is especially marked among Hispanics and African-Americans.
The University of Virginia is trying to address disparities in STEM degrees awarded by applying university funds to leverage a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute — $7.7 million total over five years — to support the Driving Change and Inclusive Excellence 3 initiatives that aim to “enhance the academic experience and success of STEM students, particularly those who belong to historically excluded groups.”
The project director is Josipa Roksa, a professor of sociology and education who gained notoriety a decade ago as co-author of “Academically Adrift,” a book that showed that more than one-third of college students showed “almost no significant improvement in learning” during their four years in college. Since then, her research has focused on racial/ethnic inequalities in learning.
The underlying problem is that many students who enter UVa STEM programs are academically unprepared for the courses taught. Continue reading →
by James A. Bacon
Like most higher-ed critics, Bacon’s Rebellion conducts analysis of Virginia’s higher-ed institutions from a politically conservative perspective. Colleges and universities have mostly gotten a pass from commentators on the left wing of the political spectrum because, I would suggest, colleges and universities are almost all leftist-dominated institutions. But there are occasional exceptions.
One of those is a course taught by University of Virginia assistant professor Laura Goldblatt this spring, “The Marketplace of Ideas? Following the Money at the University of Virginia.” Her course description starts with an excellent question: “Why does student tuition for four-year, US colleges keep rising (at rates above inflation)? And where do all those tuition dollars go?” Continue reading →
Pre-COVID, the UVa Kaffeestunde met every week. German speakers of all levels hung out to sprechen deutsch.
by James A. Bacon
Last month the University of Virginia Board of Visitors approved a recommendation to eliminate the M.A. and PhD programs in the Department of Germanic Languages & Literatures. While UVa students retained a healthy appetite for learning to read and speak in German, only a few showed an interest in plumbing the depths of German literature.
The scaling back of the German department, which offered advanced courses in such authors as Freud and Kafka last semester, was part of a larger restructuring of UVa’s graduate foreign-language program. The board also voted to eliminate the M.A. program in Italian and the B.A. in Comparative Literature. Continue reading →