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Deconstructing Controversy With Innovation, Information

Deconstructing Controversy With Innovation, Information    

Challenging longstanding practices or questioning conventional wisdom are actions that leaders seldom are willing to take. The rebels and mavericks who advocate for and create radical change often find themselves on the outs with their colleagues, institutions and constituencies long before their views are vindicated. With its accrediting association asking tough questions, Benedict College is having to answer for a college-wide grading policy that rewards students more for effort than mastery of academic subjects. And the architect of this grading policy is none other than Dr. David Holmes Swinton, the president of the Columbia, S.C.-based school, and an economist known for pragmatic leadership. In “Building a Culture of Effort,” writer Ernest Holsendolph provides a fascinating look at the controversy behind Swinton’s two-year-old measure, which mandated that effort account for 60 percent of freshman and sophomore course grades. The policy is called Success Equals Effort (SEE). 

“We have no control over what happened before. We must deal with the students as they come to us,” Swinton says. “One of the things we can do is try to do some things parents should have done, such as teaching them the connection between effort and result in the classroom. And that is one of the reasons why we started the SEE program, grading on effort, making students conscious of effort and hopefully help them learn the rewards of working hard,” is how Swinton explains the grading policy that has gained him and his institution unequal levels of praise and scorn in U.S. higher education. Though the policy is aimed at stemming the high attrition rates Benedict and other historically Black schools have experienced while educating first- and second-year students with poor academic backgrounds, it has provoked a storm of reaction from Benedict faculty members, higher education organizations and other critics who say the policy blatantly violates academic freedom.

Willing to take the heat, Swinton has neither allowed critics nor a longstanding censure by the American Association of University Professors to dissuade him from carrying out the grading policy, which is expected to yield conclusive results after the current academic year. Swinton says the results will be shared with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the organization charged with accrediting Benedict. The association has so far taken a wait-and-see approach to the Benedict grading policy. 

Among other actions said to be pushing boundaries, last year’s comments on low-income African Americans by entertainer Bill Cosby continues to send shockwaves. Black Issues assistant editor Kendra Hamilton reports on the Cosby controversy from a heretofore under-examined angle. It revolves around Cosby’s criticism of Black dialect, or “Ebonics,” spoken in many Black households.

Prominent sociolinguists say that Cosby indulged in dialect bashing, a widely practiced habit that is “as American as apple pie,” according to Hamilton. Dialects, whether Black, Appalachian or Ozark, are targets of what might be “one of the last remaining bastions of open
bigotry threaded through our culture.”

Thus, criticism of Black dialect, particularly by Cosby, amounts to a criticism of Black culture rather than of the language. Howard University’s Dr. Orlando Taylor, a sociolinguist and graduate school dean, says a more constructive discussion instead of dialect bashing is advocating that Black children learn Standard English without disparaging the dialect they’ve learned in their family and community lives. Developing the ability to switch between Black dialect and Standard English would empower young African Americans to negotiate more effectively as citizens. It’s not helpful to shame people for their dialects, the sociolinguists seem to say. 

I think these features, as well as Scott Dyer’s “Leadership and
Diversity in Louisiana: A Case Study,” make for some absorbing
reading and highlight some salient complexities of leadership in contemporary African-American life.

Lastly, Black Issues President William E. Cox, in a tribute piece,
remembers his friend and famed attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr.

Hilary Hurd Anyaso

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