Professor wrestles with his college over learning outcomes

Department dean tells professor 'it's time to stop the silly, sanctimonious games'

The College of Charleston (COC) has come to blows with a controversial professor over his refusal to adhere to syllabus requirements, Steve Kolowich reports for Chronicle of Higher Education.

In the syllabus for his laboratory course in genetics, Robert Dillon, an associate professor of biology, used a quote by Woodrow Wilson in an 1896 speech for Princeton University's sesquicentennial celebration to define students' desired learning outcomes. Dillon included no information about learning outcomes other than the quote.

In January, biology department chair Willem Jacob Hillenius informed Dillon that the Wilson quote did not meet the guidelines of COC's accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). COC also has its own guidelines for syllabus content, noting that professors "are responsible for stating clearly and in writing the instructional objectives of each course they teach."

Hillenius wrote to Dillon, "Although the quote from Woodrow Wilson is lofty, it is not very specific," and asked that Dillon instead write "a brief list of student learning outcomes based on the content of your course."

Dillon, who describes himself as a "prickly guy," refused, even after Hillenius provided him with examples of appropriate student learning outcome statements from other genetics courses.

In February, Michael Auerbach, dean of the School of Sciences and Mathematics, gave Dillon an ultimatum: Update the syllabus to comply with SACSCOC standards or face disciplinary action.

"Rob," he wrote, "it's time to stop the silly, sanctimonious games, and do something for the common good."

Dillon once again refused.

SACSCOC President Belle Wheelan says that while she does not believe that Dillon's syllabus adequately explains student learning outcomes, one set of course outcomes alone will not necessarily have a negative effect on COC's accreditation. 

After threatening Dillon with punishment, Auerbach then wrote a memorandum to COC Provost Brian McGee, stating, "Given the flagrant nature of the refusal to comply with policy and requests from supervisors, and the harmful position this places the college in with respect to its accreditation body, I recommend that the sanction not be oral or written reprimand. Instead, I recommend something more severe."

Six days later, McGee stripped Dillon of his teaching duties, effective immediately. McGee also threatened to suspend Dillon's pay, remove him from his office, his laboratory, and his institutional email account for the fall semester, pending an investigation, if he did not immediately make a case for why he should be pardoned.

Dillon asked that all the charges against him be dropped, arguing, "I have not changed the way I teach my class, nor changed the learning outcomes I expect from my students, in 34 years."

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Following an investigation of Dillon's behavior, McGee, Auerbach, and Hillenius all agreed to suspend Dillon. Earlier this month, McGee informed Dillon that he would be suspended for the fall semester and face additional probationary action throughout much of next year.

COC spokesperson Mark Berry says the college has no comment on the consequences of letting Dillon keep the Wilson quote in his syllabus.

Dillon plans to appeal the decision (Kolowich, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/28). 

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