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Students must stand up to misguided drop limit proposal

By Brian Baran     4/24/14 2:36pm

The time has come once again for students to stand up to the University Committee on the Undergraduate Curriculum and its latest attempt to change the way dropping classes works at Rice University (“Proposed legislation limits number of class drops to four,” April 16). And it is also time to acknowledge what is really happening here. In focusing our attention on students’ selection of courses, the CUC is — whether intentionally or not — distracting our community from the more important issue: the number of courses and sections offered, which is closely tied to the number of faculty members Rice is willing to hire.

The CUC’s proposal to limit to four the number of courses students can drop between the week two add deadline and the week seven drop deadline without an indication of a withdrawal on their transcripts is not a solution. It is overly broad with regard to the purported problem and utterly useless as a response to the actual problem.

It is disconcerting that each time the CUC raises this issue, the claimed problem and justifications change, but effectively moving the drop deadline to week two is somehow still the solution. This should lead us to suspect that the CUC is just looking for a justification that resonates with the community.

Why would the CUC want to do this? Perhaps it is the usual reason: Rice should follow its peer institutions in order to maintain its reputation.

Prior to his campaign for Student Association president, in which he promised to stand up to the administration, Ravi Sheth served as  external vice president and worked with the CUC and the Office of Institutional Effectiveness to conduct the survey the CUC is using to justify its proposal. In an emailed response to my concerns about biased questions, Sheth defended the survey and claimed this is about more than just registration problems.

“The more egregious problem, however, is the fact that you can drop a class with no impact on the transcript,” Sheth said. “In comparison with our peer institutions, this is incredibly lax, to the point that other institutions demean the quality and meaningful nature of Rice transcripts.”

However, the Thresher quoted CUC Chair Susan McIntosh as saying some peer institutions’ drop deadlines are near week two, but others range from weeks five to nine.

Rice is not in poor company. Among those with  similar drop deadlines are Cornell, Harvard and Princeton. If this proposal is meant to improve Rice’s reputation, it is a solution in search of a problem.

This leaves us with two other purported problems the CUC claims its proposal will solve.

First, the Thresher quoted McIntosh as saying the current system encourages students to take on overly rigorous and stressful course loads, reducing their academic performance.

This cannot be inferred from 45 percent of respondents reporting that they register for more courses than they intend to complete, many of whom may have meant that they drop the extra courses during the shopping period. This is not a problem; it is the point of the shopping period. Furthermore, the CUC has not reported the overlap between those 45 percent of respondents and the 44 percent who said they dropped courses because they had too large of an academic load.

However, we should grant that even after the add deadline, some students keep more courses than they plan to finish, in part because it is often still unclear at week two what a course will be like.

This is a problem to the extent that it prevents other students from taking those courses. But the resulting stress and academic consequences do not warrant the CUC’s pseudo-parental response. Rice students are adults, and those who take more courses than they can handle are responsible for the consequences of their decisions. The entire student body should not be penalized for some students’ irresponsibility.

This brings us to the problem as presented in the survey’s most spectacularly biased question.

That question reads, “In order to enable more students to enroll in high-demand classes, a change is needed to the add/drop policy. Recognizing this, what should be the disincentive(s) to dropping after the first two weeks of classes? Select all that apply.”

There was no option to say that no change was needed.

According to the Thresher, 44 percent of respondents said they could not get into courses they wanted. The CUC seems to think this is caused by 45 percent of students registering for more courses than they plan to take. Rice faculty members should know better than to confuse correlation with causation.

Furthermore, it is unclear what is really meant by students not getting into courses they want. The data do not distinguish between freshmen unable to get into popular electives filled by seniors (that’s life), students unable to get into required courses because not enough sections are offered (a problem not solved by the CUC’s proposal), and students unable to get into courses because they are full and some of the students in them are registered for more courses than they intend to take.

I suspect the third type of experience is shared by far fewer than 44 percent of students. It is nevertheless a problem, but one that warrants a narrowly tailored solution.

For example, Rice could keep the drop deadline at week seven but impose a fine for students who, after week two, drop courses that were full at the add deadline, with exceptions for extenuating circumstances and where the fine would present an unreasonable financial burden.

Anything beyond a narrowly tailored solution will merely harm students for no additional benefit. If the CUC wants to fix the problem of students not getting into classes they need or want, it should recommend a real solution: Rice needs to account for its larger student body by offering more sections of popular and required courses and, where necessary, hiring more faculty.

Students should be offended that the CUC is essentially blaming them for registration woes stemming from inadequate availability of courses. We must stand up against the accusation that the problem is that we are registering for too many courses — by paying full-time tuition, we purchase the right to take anywhere from 12 to 20 credits each semester. We are not breaking the system by doing so. Our current registration problems will not be solved until Rice puts its money where its mouth is by offering enough courses and sections and hiring enough faculty to meet the needs of its expanded student body.

The Student Association exists to serve and advocate for the interests of students. We, the students, therefore need to encourage our representatives in the Student Senate to stand up to the CUC. The Senate should pass a resolution opposing the CUC’s misguided proposal and advocating for a real solution instead. We stalled this once; let’s now stop it for good.

Brian Baran is a Duncan College Junior and a UCourt Chair

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