Higher education officials are locked in an unusual
battle of words and wills with several state legislators here – all
over a dispute about failed nursing students.
The controversy at Shelby State Community College has become so
pitched that the even the governor’s staff has weighed in and normally
reserved regents are calling the situation “absurd.”
“I’m appalled,” state Board of Regents Chancellor Charles Smith said
last month. “I am disappointed. I’ve never seen anything like this
since I’ve been in higher education.”
The dispute first flared in December when Shelby State
administrators dropped nineteen students from the college’s nursing
program because the students flunked two courses. The students, with at
least one Memphis legislator firmly in their corner, contend they
couldn’t possibly have failed because they knew the material inside and
College officials say the students failed, plain and simple. But in
an odd twist, they no longer have rock solid proof to back up that
stance because the students’ test booklets were shredded. The
instructor says she destroyed the test booklets to thwart what nursing
school instructors have characterized as a problem with rampant
Legislators Become Involved
Six area legislators have been involved in the dispute since March,
in some cases advising the ousted students on strategies for dealing
with Shelby State administrators. After a May meeting between the
students, the legislators and members of Gov. Don Sundquist’s staff,
Shelby State President Dr. Floyd “Bud” Amann reluctantly agreed to let
the students retake their tests.
The students almost immediately called a news conference to denounce
the testing schedule – four weekly tests from July 8 through July 29,
with a two-hour final set for Aug. 5 – saying it didn’t give them
enough time to study.
In late June, the Board of Regents met in Knoxville. Believing the
dispute finally resolved, regents gave Amann a thumbs-up for his
handling of the delicate situation. But on the second day of the
board’s two-day meeting, the situation boiled over again.
Smith, the regents chancellor, distributed copies of a letter from
Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, that had landed on Amann’s desk the previous
afternoon. In the letter, Towns insisted not only that the students be
readmitted to the nursing program but that they be allowed to start
with a “clean slate” – in essence, that the bad grades be erased
He suggested that another student who had barely missed graduation
by a fraction of a point should be allowed to graduate and that any
student who wanted to transfer out of the program should be allowed to
do so without a hitch.
Towns’s letter closed by saying that the legislators had advised the
nursing students not to take the college up on its offer to retake
“Meddling” Angers Regents
Outraged, most of the sixteen regents present for the meeting
weighed in, denouncing Towns’s involvement in the matter. The word
“absurd” frequently peppered their statements.
Smith, who said he had never before publicly chastised a legislator,
did so. Other angry regents joined him, passing a unanimous resolution
condemning Towns’s letter and calling for an end to legislative
“meddling” in academic affairs. The resolution was sponsored by Maxine
Smith, a longtime regent and black activist from Memphis whose opinions
carry considerable weight with her legislative colleagues.
Towns, however, was not swayed by the regents’ criticism, saying, “They can feel like what they want to feel like.”
He argued it’s a legislator’s prerogative to get involved when
constituents ask for help. He said Shelby State officials simply
haven’t resolved the problem to his satisfaction, and until they do, he
will remain involved.
In a climate where the state is trying to reform its welfare system,
Towns said, he believes it is unfair for Shelby State to get rid of
students who are trying to better themselves with an education.
The test booklet question has been the most problematic for him,
Towns said. He argued that school officials need to delve further into
why the instructor felt it necessary to shred the test booklets and why
she wouldn’t produce her test keys.
The students have claimed they have a copy of the test, which they
contend the instructor shared with at least one favored student before
Amann said the students never have given him a copy of the test. And
even if they did, he said, it wouldn’t prove that the students had been
“I think this is one of those things we’re never going to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction,” he said.
The other legislators who have joined Towns in trying to mediate the
nursing dispute include state Reps. Larry Miller, Barbara Cooper, Lois
DeBerry, Kathryn Bowers and Ulysses Jones. All are Democrats from
Retaking the Test
Nine students have signed up to retake their tests. But college
officials, bound by student confidentiality rules, haven’t said if the
group includes any of the nine complaining students. Several of the
protesting students said before the sign-up deadline that they would
not agree to retake the tests.
What will happen next is anyone’s guess.
Shelby State officials – who never expected a complaint over test
grades to drag on for six months – say the nine students who signed up
to retake the tests will be allowed to do so. Several students have
hinted they will seek some kind of legal recourse. And some legislators
have said lawmakers may choose to look into whether the school should
continue to have a nursing program.
The nursing student dispute is not the first time that legislators
have turned their attention to Shelby State, a school that serves a
population of about 5,800, many of them students who juggle family
responsibilities and jobs.
“This is just one more example of the continuing pattern of blatant
outside interference we’ve had to deal with at Shelby State,” says
Steve Haley, the school’s faculty senate president.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com