Open Letter to Janet Napolitano: Please Help the UC System Escape the Culture of Mediocrity

07/16/2013 05:45 pm 17:45:43 | Updated Sep 15, 2013

Dear Secretary Napolitano,

I am writing to you in the hopes that when you assume the presidency of the University of California you will make it a priority to address what I see as the most important crisis facing not only the UC system, but also the state of California. I call this problem the "Culture of Mediocrity." Let me explain.

While a graduate student at the University of California Santa Barbara over the previous three years I've graded roughly 500 midterms, 500 finals, and about 750 undergraduate student papers. Generally, I was told the median grade should be a "B-", although several professors I worked for did not have a curve and encouraged an average grade of a "B" or higher. At the end of each quarter, professors have the obligation to review the teaching assistants grading decisions before finalizing the grade. Not once did a professor ask me to change a grade.

Out of a roughly 50 students I supervised each quarter, I generally had only one or two outstanding students. These rare students went well beyond what was asked of them by demonstrating a mastery of the material, the ability to effectively communicate in the written form, and a solid understanding of the rules of English composition. Right below the "outstanding student" I usually had about 15 students I would characterize as "academically lazy." These good students were capable of being an outstanding student but were either not willing to work to get there or just could not make the time commitment to meet their potential. They would normally be in the B+ to A- range. Below that I generally had 15 "interested" students, those who show up to class, occasionally do the readings, but rarely contribute. "Interested" students demonstrated a basic command of the writing process, though if you read one of their papers you would think English was either a second language for them or they just never learned basic rules of English composition.

Finally, every quarter I had about 20 weak students. My definition of a weak student is one who attends class but demonstrates very little learning on their exams and generally has what I call a limited ability to communicate in the written form. Of these "weak students," only one or two would not pass the course.

Based on these numbers, and they are representative of my grading over the previous three years, 30 percent of students at the most showed what I would call a minimum writing competency, although 95 percent of students passed the course. This is a big problem! If these numbers hold, and I would bet they do, this suggests that UC system is graduating roughly 70 percent of students with a limited ability to write. Worse than that statistic, by passing students along the UC system is promoting mediocrity.

What does this say about higher education? In a nutshell: A C grade is the new F. What does this mean? Professors are passing students who should not be passing, and the UC system is graduating students who have not earned a college level education. So what? Not only does doing so devalue a UC degree, it sets UC graduates up for failure. How are these graduates, for example, going to compete in the job market without being able to write a cover letter demonstrating basic rules of English grammar? How are they going to be able to pay back their tens of thousands of dollars of student loans, or save money to buy a car or house, or be a productive member of society, when they do not know how to write!

I wish I had a quick solution to this important problem. An easy solution, one may argue, would be to require students to pass a writing course demonstrating a college-level ability to write. But this will not solve the problem. For example, the history courses I worked for as a teaching assistant fulfilled a writing requirement students needed to graduate. To meet that requirement my students had to write about 1,800 words throughout the quarter. They did not have to write well to pass, all they had to do to pass was show a little engagement with the material and write 1,800 words. Most completed the assignment, they told me, the night before it was due.

Another way to look at the problem is to think about why professors are perpetuating a culture of mediocrity. There are many reasons, I'm sure, but the way I see it the biggest problem is that professors simply just have a big incentive to pass students along. First, doing so minimizes the likelihood that their students will give them negative reviews, especially important for professors who do not have tenure. More importantly, by passing students along professors protect their department from budget cuts as departmental funding, in many cases, is tied to the number of students enrolled in their department. Thus, the better the grade the student gets, the more likely they are to think favorably of that department and in turn recommend a course in that department to a friend.

In closing, welcome to the UC system! You will face formidable challenges, but none may be greater than stemming the current "Culture of Mediocrity." As governor of Arizona and Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, you will naturally bring leadership to the UC system, but more than leadership, you should show Sacramento that you expect results. You can start by pledging to UC alumni that every diploma you present to Governor Brown for signature represents a student who has earned a college-level education. Doing so would not only benefit the UC system by improving the value of a UC education, it would also benefit all of California as you would be adding more competent men and women to the workforce.


Jason Saltoun-Ebin
UCLA, Class of 2001