Changing of the Grade
Political Science Student Takes Concordia to Court
Midway through June, Concordia political science student William Groombridge decided it was time to take the university to court. Enough was enough.
In December 2011, Groombridge had completed an elective political science course in Energy Policy, receiving an initial final grade of 81 per cent after the exam. According to the department’s grading system, a numerical grade of 80 to 84 per cent constitutes a letter grade of an A-minus.
When Groombridge received his final grade it was a B-plus, which he alleges was a breach of contract between student and the university.
“A course was purchased from Concordia’s Political Science department for the Fall 2011 session, of which the course outline and published department policies form the basis of the purchase agreement,” wrote Groombridge in an official cause of action delivered to the Quebec small claims court.
He believes that this purchase agreement was broken when his grade was changed.
“I knew exactly what I’d been given numerically on all of my assignments,” said Groombridge. “So I was surprised to see it show up as a B-plus rather than an A-minus.”
According to an email between Groombridge and the chair of the political science department, Csaba Nikolenyi, the two met to discuss the grade change on Jan. 10.
“Basically, I wanted the department’s policy confirmed and to know how it was applied in this case,” said Groombridge. “I had a meeting with [Nikolenyi] and he did not give me an answer. He said that the grades are the grades, and that’s it.”
In an email to Groombridge, Nikolenyi says that he met with the professor of the course in question, and asserted that grades become final after approval from the department and the faculty.
That was not a satisfactory answer for Groombridge.
Over the next few months, he claims to have taken this question to several bodies at the university.
“I did my very best to convince the secretary of the dean [of the political science department] to allow me to see the dean, that this process was going nowhere and that I’d spent four months and had received no official answer, but he refused,” said Groombridge.
He then paid a bailiff to deliver a demand letter to the university.
On April 19, Groombridge wrote to Nikolenyi demanding a refund for the course to the sum of $349.09 for “non-performance and failure to respect terms of agreement.”
Groombridge was finally contacted by Concordia’s Office of the General Council and told that he would be receiving a response—but nothing ever came.
“They let that deadline expire, at which point I filed my case,” he said. “Then they filed a defence.”
Despite multiple attempts to contact Nikolenyi, The Link was unable to reach him for comment by press time.
According to Section 16.3.1 of Concordia’s Undergraduate Calendar, “the university reserves the right to make corrections [to a student’s grades] at any time in case of error.”
The university’s contestation to Groombridge’s case states that approximately 45 per cent of the grades for the course in question were in the A range, and deemed disproportionately high by the department.
“Accordingly and in keeping with common practice in such cases, students in the course, including [Groombridge], had their final grades in the course curved,” reads the contestation.
However, this practice does not seem to have been applied in the way that the university contends that it was.
“I originally earmarked him for an A-minus, but I was advised that I had a few too many, so I had to actually downgrade him,” said former Concordia part-time professor Felix von Geyer, who taught the course.
According to von Geyer, the head of the department couldn’t approve the class grades because there was too high a ratio of A-range grades; however, the curved grade seems to have only been applied to several students.
“I had to go back and take the students who were at the lowest end of that scale, of which there were not even a handful, and bring them down to a B-plus,” said von Geyer. “It was really only those around the 80 per cent grade that had to come down.”
After teaching four courses at Concordia, von Geyer was not asked to return to work at the university.
In an email to Groombridge dating back to late December of 2011, von Geyer suggested that there were only a few students who were affected, and expressed some frustration with the final grading process, saying that Groombridge was “downgraded through an arbitrary process and not at all by merit.”
“Overall, it was a very motivated class and so many of them really stepped up to the plate and did everything that I expected of them,” said von Geyer. “I think that to have an arbitrary kind of ceiling is perhaps a bit forced.”
He did, however, blame part of the problem on his grading style, which includes a five per cent discretionary margin that allowed von Geyer to allot a few additional marks to students who showed particular enthusiasm and participation in the course.
Political science professor and Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association President Maria Peluso also expressed a similar sentiment when it came to the grading of students.
“There are some classes that are just exceptional and there are others that aren’t, but it isn’t a hard and fast mathematical formula,” said Peluso.
“It does happen that you have a class that are so damn enthusiastic about what they’re doing and the grades tend to be a bit higher because of the commitment of the students. When that’s what you’re dealing with, grades are a reflection of what the students have accomplished.”
Back in June of 2011, Nikolenyi became chair of the political science department. Since then, he seems to have brought a few new rules along with him.
The policy of restricting the amount of A-range grades is something new in the political science department, and a policy that doesn’t seem to have any written form.
“It appears that it is a kind of random policy, and to my knowledge it was not approved as a formal policy,” said political science professor and Quebec lawyer Patrice Blais. “The Concordia University Part-Time Faculty Association requested a copy of the policy and was not provided one.”
According to Blais, von Geyer may not have been the only professor negatively affected by the new grading policy.
“It came as a surprise after the fact to many professors, and CUPFA received complaints about that,” he said.
Groombridge is currently waiting for a court date, but suspects that it will be another year or two before his case is presented.