More on the University of Missouri

I suppose I've got old Mizzou on the brain this week. Part of it's probably my own feelings of nostalgia, triggered by my recent visit with Michael Piafsky-- the fiction writer anthologized in Bar Stories who also has a fantastic story in the latest Meridian-- and his family. But most of it's the fact that the school seems to have been in the news quite a bit in recent days.

When I was in grad school, I noticed a peculiar phenomenon among several of my friends and peers. Basically, we all did two or three years of course work, then spent a year or so reading on our own for our comprehensive exams, then another year (or two or three or...) on our dissertations. The peculiar phenomenon I speak of usually occured shortly after the student took his or her comps, and had begun dissertation work. Upon completion of comps, a few people suddenly became a little cold, kinda stand-offish, when dealing with those who had yet to take exams. Exams were very difficult, don't get me wrong-- people had every right to feel good about themselves for surviving them. But some of these people seemed to carry themselves with an attitude that suggested, "I've taken exams. I'm working on a dissertation. I'm so far beyond those of you who are still taking classes, it's hard to believe." Of course, in order to achieve this affectation, one must fool oneself into believing that the work was even harder than it was-- it's more than just reading hundreds of books; it's actual labor, like working in a coal mine, except the miner gets to go home at the end of the day, while the grad student has to take a test.

You laugh, but I'm being serious-- I actually knew people who tried to compare graduate study to the working conditions of child labor during the Industrial Revolution.

Anyway, as I said, grad school was hard, but it was also awesome, and I promised myself that I would never become one of those guys who mythologizes his own grad student career in order to convince himself (and others) that he suffered more than he did. So I was a little torn when I read this article yesterday, about a former graduate student at Mizzou who is trying to sue the university for dismissing him when he failed to complete his program's requirements. On the one hand, I don't want to become the type of person who says "graduate school was horrible, soul-crushing labor for me; if you can't handle it, then you don't belong." But at the same time... that's kinda how I feel.

"At this point, I want to have something to show for the 55 grand and the five years," Chris Bernuth, a former doctoral student in counseling psychology, said last week. You can read the article yourself, but the short version is that he was a decent student for the first few years of his graduate career. Then, something went awry-- the article's rather vague on this point-- and in 2004 he was notified that he would not be receiving a passing grade for his required internship. Again, the reasons for this failure are murky, but Bernuth does admit that at the time he seemed to be suffering from anxiety, that he did not meet with his clients as frequently as his supervisors had instructed him to, and-- on the Columbia Daily Tribune's message boards-- he admits that he once "lost [his] temper" with a supervisor. The crux of Bernuth's argument, if I understand it correctly, is that he was a good student going into the internship-- he's got letters of recommendation and performance evaluations to prove it-- so the school therefore owes him the degree he was working on when things went "awry," even though he did not complete his program to the university's satisfaction-- he paid good money for this degree, after all.

It's possible that I'm over-simplifying Bernuth's position; obviously, I find myself in disagreement with him. And the fact of the matter is, the reporter covering the story is quite clearly on Bernuth's side here. Consider the article's opening sentence:

"Judging from the stack of papers in his living room, Chris Bernuth might be one of the best students ever kicked out of the University of Missouri-Columbia."

This claim is, of course, preposterous and one-sided. We later find out that the guy had a 3.96 grade point average-- good, but not perfect, and pretty far from "one of the best." But stranger still is the supposition that a living room cluttered with positive letters of recommendation and above-average transcripts indicate that Bernuth's cause is just-- letters of recommendation are, by their nature, positive statements about a student's work. And his performance reviews going into the internship are obviously going to be positive as well-- his academic problems didn't start until he advanced to a certain level in his grad student career (a career that, by its very nature, gets more difficult as you go on); they wouldn't have allowed him to get to that level if his prior work hadn't been good.

If Chris Bernuth was claiming that he was unfairly dismissed from his program for health reasons (like a real anxiety disorder), then he'd have my sympathy. But that's not what he's saying-- his health is mentioned only in passing. Instead, he's arguing that the university should have either failed him earlier in the program (if they truly felt that he was incompetent), or they should have given him more opportunities to "make up" the failing internship. Or, better still, they should just give him the degree because he really needs it for his career.

These arguments don't persuade me, and I don't think they should persuade anyone else either.

Paying tution and attending classes do not guarantee that one is going to receive a degree-- particularly a Ph.D. I may not like it when academics exaggerate how hard and thankless their work is, but I'm also irritated by the notion that this guy seems to think that being accepted into a Ph.D. program should mean that he's going to receive the degree, regardless of the work he does (or doesn't do). Using his logic, every student who has ever flunked out of school is entitled to compensation for the time and money they spend on their education, and no school should ever have the right to fail a graduate student who's taken out student loans.

I'm sorry, but it doesn't work that way. If your internship's supervisors, or members of your dissertation committee, feel strongly that your work is not worthy of a Ph.D., they not only have the right to fail you, they have the obligation to fail you-- society needs to be protected from counselors who can't do their jobs, just as we need to be protected from pilots who don't know how to land planes or gynecologists who don't understand female anatomy.

"At this point, I want to have something to show for the 55 grand and the five years." I'm presenting this quote again because it really gets to the heart of the issue, and illustrates why Chris Bernuth may not be a good candidate for the Ph.D. He believe that "at this point" he does not have "something to show" for the time and money he invested in his program. He genuinely believe that his time and money was supposed to be exchanged for a degree. But he's wrong. Students invest their time and money in exchange for the opportunity to learn from experts in their field. If they take that opportunity, and are judged to have learned sufficiently, they are rewarded with a degree. Bernuth's attitude suggests that he doesn't feel an education is "something to show" for his time and money, which might be part of his problem.

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