Alberta prof asked to resign over grades dispute

Legal action threatened after students’ marks lowered by admin


A University of Alberta math professor is threatening legal action to reinstate his students’ grades after his department lowered them without his support. When Mikhail Kovalyov informed his students what had happened, and encouraged them to appeal their grades, he was asked to resign.

Back in May, Kovalyov received an email from an associate chair in the Department of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences informing him that grades for his first year math course had been lowered, resulting in a change in class average from 2.16 to 1.79 on a 4.0 scale. Other sections of the same course had averages that ranged from 2.13 to 2.95, according to documentation obtained by Maclean’s. The math professor says that he had already failed over 20 per cent of the class before these changes were approved.

University guidelines suggest an approximate mean average of 2.62 for first-year courses, with only six per cent of the class failing.

When faculty services officer David McNeilly, who is also responsible for reviewing final grades, first proposed the changes to Kovalyov in April, he explained in an email that the department’s proposed grades for Kovalyov’s class were “more generous than the typical exam cutoffs.”  He also pointed out that in Fall 2009, the department failed 29 per cent of students in one section of the class. “In particular, we are being consistent,” McNeilly wrote.

Kovalyov responded to McNeilly that if so many extra students deserve to fail, then they should never have passed and received credit for math courses in the previous semester. “If we were consistent, all these students would have never made [it] through” the prerequisites, he wrote.

Related: Students speak out on UAlberta case

‘there doesn’t seem much point to professors handing out grades at all’

A 65 page document prepared by Kovalyov for the board of governors in August, outlining the events of the dispute, includes an expanded explanation from McNeilly why the grades were lowered. In particular, Kovalyov supposedly awarded too many B grades compared to C and D grades, even if the overall class average was not excessively high.

Kovalyov says he always outlines his marking policy to students at the beginning of the term. “By doing this, they made my words to students worthy of nothing,” he wrote in an email to Maclean’s.  “I am certainly one of those less respectable professors who can be told to lower their grades.”

Shortly after learning of the changes to his grades, Kovalyov emailed his students and encouraged them to appeal. “Should any one of you [choose] to complain, I will try to assist as much as I can within the law and regulations” he wrote. He also called the department’s actions “disgusting.”

Despite warnings from administrators that taking his case directly to students is “inappropriate,” Kovalyov sent two additional emails to students, in which he called the actions of the departmental administration “a crime of forgery.”

Those messages to students did not sit well with university brass and in July Kovalyov was informed by department chair Arturo Pianzola that he was being relieved of his teaching duties.

In a letter explaining the decision, Pianzola says that the “contents” of the emails Kovalyov sent to students “disparage administration” and contain “unfounded and inappropriate,” allegations.

A formal complaint was also filed against Kovalyov by the dean of science, Gregory Taylor, as well as  Pianzola, stating that Kovalyov’s actions were “unbecoming” of a senior professor. The letter accuses Kovalyov of “Undermining student confidence” in the grade appeal process and “Engaging in insubordination.” An email Kovalyov sent to an administrator where he referenced Joseph Stalin’s purges from the 1920s and 1930s was also cited in the complaint against him.

In late November, Kovalyov, who has taught at the university for more than 20 years, was offered a deal in exchange for his resignation. Under the proposed arrangement the university would continue to pay his full salary until March 2011, followed by a lump sum payout in April equivalent to 15 months pay. He turned down the offer.

Instead, Kovalyov wants phased pre-retirement where he would continue to provide partial duties until 2013 when he was originally suppose to retire. He has been consulting with the faculty association on how best to proceed.

Kovalyov said that while he finds the disciplinary actions of the university unfair, he no longer sees much of a future for himself at the U of A. “Even if this matter is settled, something else will come up,” he said.

Kovalyov’s battle with administrators over grades go back to at least 2009, when he says grade averages were lowered for two sections he taught of a first-year math course. He  has also been embroiled in a similar dispute regarding a third-year course.

The university has declined comment on the case, and attempts to contact other professors in the department, as well as several of Kovalyov’s students, were not responded to.

Vice-president provost (apologies, the editors) academic Colleen Skidmore did agree to address grading policy in general terms. She explained that the grades set by instructors are unofficial until approved by the chair of the professor’s respective department. “It is the chair, or the dean, that has the responsibility for ultimately deciding what the final grade is,” she said.

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Alberta prof asked to resign over grades dispute

  1. “It is the chair, or the dean, that has the responsibility for ultimately deciding what the final grade is,” she said.

    On what basis could anyone other than the course’s instructor “decide” what the final grade is? Do they really go over each quiz, lab, test or paper and re-grade it? Anything else seems arbitrary though.

  2. Exactly…what the hell does the administration think it is doing? Arbitrarily lowering student grades to fail more students. This simply adds to the mound of reasons not to go to the “University” of Alberta. Whoever tried to screw up the already low (2.16…seriously…a C is too high?) averages. Who in their right mind would go to U of A after seeing this?

  3. Much of this (here, and at other Canadian universities) by following standard UK practice, which is that all grades are provisional until reviewed by a second marker, and then finally by an external reviewer from a different university. Yes — you read that right, it is still standard practice in the UK for all marks (essays, tests, and final exams) to be reviewed by THREE people, including an external examiner. Faculty in Canada don’t like it as it is very time consuming — but it does help keep problems like this from occurring, and at least in theory keeps marks between universities about the same.

  4. so a 2.6 is the recommended ave. he gave a 2.16 and the UofA was like no way we need to fail more people.. Makes sense the more people you fail the more have to retake a course the more tuition is brought in. This is just giving people more and more reason to go to Grant Macewan, at least for the first year.

  5. I’m thinking there is more to the story then just having given out too many B’s. Possibly they went over the exams and thought they were too easy or something of the sort.

    Anyways i’ll take grade deflation over grade inflation any day. This doesn’t seem like the proper way to go about it but there are some worrying trends at other universities with grades gradually increasing over the past couple decades.

  6. Vice-president academic Colleen Skidmore did agree to address grading policy in general terms. She explained that the grades set by instructors are unofficial until approved by the chair of the professor’s respective department. “It is the chair, or the dean, that has the responsibility for ultimately deciding what the final grade is,” she said.

    i only can feel sorry for the chairs/deans at the University of Alberta. on the top of their administrative duties they have to grade 24/7 ALL the tests in their departments/colleges. Vice-president academic Colleen Skidmore would do better in a circus.

  7. The article is inaccurate in at least one respect. That is that Colleen Skidmore is not Vice-President academic at the U of A. She is Vice-Provost (Academic). The (Provost and) Vice-President Academic of the U of A is Carl Amrhein. Dr Skidmore is perhaps the right person to speak to about this (she is generally responsible for this area, but did not start the role until July 2010 after the initial event), but small errors undermine confidence in the balance of the article.

  8. I believe an in depth investigation of the university will reveal many discrepancies in several areas.

  9. Absolute garbage! This renders effort and any sense of personal acccomplishment null and void. Sends wonderful messages.

  10. “An email Kovalyov sent to an administrator where he referenced Joseph Stalin’s purges from the 1920s and 1930s was also cited in the complaint against him.”

    The irony is rich. Admin purges Prof because Prof dared to say that . . . Admin purges prof.

  11. Ok, I’m confused. Its math, there is only 1 correct answer for any equation, either the answer is correct or wrong. How can marks be changed?

  12. I have taught in both university and community college environments. The problem at the university level is that examinations are competative(I have seen exams with the top make 89 and the low mark 78 with a class of 60 graded on a curve with a percentage of Ds) while at the community college level examinations are standardized teaching objective oriented using a vetted common question bank (the marks achieved are absolute based on a published table).

    Competative examinations have lead to the kinds of problems discussed in previous articles about “Asianization” of schools. The harder a group of students works the higher the overall average is in a class or section and the harder it is for average students to get passing grades. The same problem exists at border universities in post grad programs. American students hate being in sections were there is a high percentage of Canadian students. The Canadian students tend to drive the average marks higher.

    Universities should learn how to teach effectively to standardized objectives and celebrate the success if everyone demonstrates facility from standardized examinations. It amazes me that a mathmatics faculty cannot devlop and sort out the statistical validity of a set of common questions for a first year foundation course.

  13. Hey Glenn
    (or should I say Sheldon???)
    Good catch on the minutia of the issue. Lets see now … is it Colleen or Carl who is ultmately responsible for wrecking the students Academic year because of some arbitrary ‘bell curve’ theory. For instance was it Hitler or Geobels who is responsible for the Holocaust??? Getting those facts right will make all the difference to the victims.

  14. The students need to be tested to ensure they have learned what the course was supposed to teach them, and that’s it. Lowering grades based on a curve has always been ridiculous. The practice is completely unnecessary if the professor is competent and the course objectives are clear. It should be entirely possible that a class of motivated students can all pass. If students are not learning what they need to learn, then the responsibility lies with the faculty to fix the underlying problem, not to manipulate grades after the fact. The U of A is full of smart people. Surely they can figure this out.

  15. Another example of nonsense with statistics. A course well-taught by an excellent professor/instructor/teacher could feasibly produce a full class with high marks, bell curves be damned. Marking is not an administrative matter but what the professor/instructor believes the student is worth in terms of attentiveness, absorption of lesson material, skill with procedures taught, and worthiness for advancement.

    Education has gone to pot anyway. Remember when professors were scholars in their field? Not a degree in “education”, psychology or other nonsense.

  16. One expects universities to work on creating a positive learning environment in which students acquire, through courses and labs, assignments and examinations, the knowledge required of a particular subject. Mathematics is a practical, and extremely important, subject but the disarray within the field in the last fifty years has amazed me…it’s a wonder that anyone comes out of university able to think clearly, figure accurately, make connections logically, grasp new ideas and formulate imaginatively and intelligently. Instead, one sees a bunch of children in a playpen fighting for the toys of peer and public recognition. I took university mathematics only for one year, because as an Arts (English) student I felt I didn’t need higher math in my chosen field. When later, I read my children’s math textbooks, I discovered that each year more and more ‘re-writes’ of mathematical concepts, terms, and expressions were being published, which led to a very patchy comprehension of the subject, and greatly lessened its enjoyment. Textbooks were being written in jargon, which was replaced every two or three years by new terminology. Similarly in my field (English) the expressions ‘definite article’ and ‘indefinite article’ were replaced by a general term which did not distinguish between them. In mathematics, as another example, the concept of ‘lowest common denominator’ has been variously renamed over the last few decades so that an older person is unlikely to be able to assist a young person with math, as they now so often are written for the wrong purpose, to advance the recognition of the authors in a particular field, rather than to instruct the reader. (In fact, the term ‘communications’ is ironic, as it now does the exact opposite and ought to be renamed ‘obfuscations’.) Textbooks pour out of publishing houses, and universities adopt them without sensibly conducting a nationwide peer review of their contents…so some universities fail their students by this injudicious introduction of shallow, badly written material that degrades the educational process when used in the classroom. Mathematics never stops being relevant throughout one’s life; therefore, the basics ought to be taught in the early years so that they can be drawn on forever, and then the concepts ought to be continued in the expansion from arithmetic to mathematics by being taught in the clearest possible terms. My mother spent considerable time on exercises in mental arithmetic for my sister and me, simply as an exercise to reinforce our school lessons. I know so few young people now who can do simple arithmetic, because they rely on calculators. I am sure few university graduates since the 1970s can use a slide rule, understand logarithmic tables, and estimate an angle or a circumference by looking at something.
    Any professor who grades a student higher than the examination answers warrant deserves a failing grade from the students, who are paying for a good, sound education. Our problem is that nationwide, and worldwide, there are professors who ought not to be teaching, because they lack the basic skills in their particular discipline, having been taught by people who rely on too many new textbooks. Search committees are often composed of people who lack the ability to identify excellence, but who compete to serve on such committees to earn stars towards professional advancement and tenure. Appointees of such bodies will inevitably end up attacking each other because they are all insecure. In fact, good professors are like raisins in a steamed pudding…scattered here and there. Too bad.

  17. Why on earth, in a course with multiple sections, don’t all students write the same exam and get fraded on the same scale? If they did, then everyone gets graded relative to the class as a whole, and there could be no possible reason to even discuss adjusting the grades in any one section. As far as I’m aware, this is standard practice elsewhere, certainly in my own subject at my own institution, and the current mess at U of A clearly indicates exactly why having a single exam is such a good idea. It is simply invalid to assume that any given sub-group of students in a course should (or shouldn’t) have the same average as any other sub-group, unless you can proove that the distributions are completely random. The latter is almost never true; for example, the students in a Tuesday lab group are almost certainly NOT directly comparable to those in the Monday group; you can prove this experimentally by e.g. examining the programs that the students are in. There may be almost no-one from program X in Monday’s group (because those students are fulfilling a different program requirement that day), while Tuesday’s group will be devoid of students in program Y for the same reason.

  18. So much for academic freedom at the University of Alberta… Those who know the institution are not surprised. I worked in the Department of Mathematics in the early and mid 90th , and I know from personal experience that professors have been persecuted for the grades if these were wrong from the point of view of the Dean of Science.
    At that time, however, the grades were viewed as “wrong” if they were deemed to be too low from the Dean’s viewpoint. (It was a different dean at that time, but he treated the professors and instructors as his vassals, just the same as they are treated now). The tenured faculty would pay for “disobedience” with lowered merit increments, whereas sessional instructors would lose their contracts.
    However, the administration of the Department of Mathematics at that time followed certain rules and ethical principles when approving the grades, and would never change the grades without a consultation with the instructor. I can recall the case when the Associate Chair had asked me to show him the final exams before approving the grades, which seemed to be too high (it was a small group of strong students), and after looking at the final exams, approved them.
    It is outrageous that the current administration has changed the grades without consultations with the professor, and moreover, against his opinion. It is quite clear from the article that the purpose of the administration is to persecute Kovalyov, and “aligning the grades” is just a pretext.
    The article in MACLEANS mentioned that Kovalyov prepared a 65 page document for the board of governors. I wonder if the magazine can follow the case, and receive at least one page of form the university that would explain or justify the actions of the administrators. It is important for the public to know what is happening behind closed doors at the U of A.

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