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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Fired professor sues Benedict president

A lawsuit accusing Benedict College president David Swinton of trying to force professors to change students’ grades to keep them eligible for state and federal tuition assistance is scheduled to be heard in court Monday.

Former professor Milwood Motley says in his lawsuit that he was fired when he refused to give students grades they had not earned.

Motley is seeking unspecified damages in the lawsuit against Benedict and Swinton, saying the actions and statements of Swinton amounted to defamation that has damaged his career and his family life.

Benedict has filed a motion for a summary judgment that the college has done nothing wrong and the lawsuit should be dismissed without a trial. Eleventh Circuit Judge William P. Keesley of Lexington is presiding over the case.

The judge said he was called in as the trial judge because every available judge in Richland County had a conflict of interest in the case.

In a hearing Friday afternoon on the motion, Keesley said he still had much reading to do before deciding.

“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” Keesley told attorneys for the two sides Friday. The hearing involved only the judge and the attorneys; neither Motley nor Swinton were present.

But despite his disclaimer, Keesley grilled Motley’s attorney, Victoria Eslinger, about the strength of their case.

Eslinger told the judge that Swinton had told the Benedict faculty repeatedly that the purpose of his new grading policy — the Success Equals Effort, or SEE, policy — was to ensure that poorly performing students remained eligible for state and federal student assistance.

“Where is the evidence he intended to defraud the federal or state government, to defraud the students?” Keesley asked. “What’s the difference between this and an institution that grades pass-fail?

“Your client never talked about the federal government (in his pretrial deposition),” Keesley said. “He talked about academic fraud. I can see that.”

Benedict was represented by attorney Steve Morrison, who is also a member of the Benedict Board of Trustees. Morrison argued that Motley had discretion to define student effort, just like every other professor.

“Dr. Motley refused to define it,” Morrison said.

Motley’s lawsuit, in a complaint filed in 5th Circuit Court in Columbia three years ago, states that “Defendant Swinton well knew that requiring Plaintiff Motley to enforce the SEE (Success Equals Effort) policy would affect Life Scholarship eligibility and told Plaintiff that it would be ‘good’ if students received all A’s and B’s.”

The Life Scholarship is provided to South Carolina residents pursuing undergraduate degrees at colleges in South Carolina. State law requires that a Life scholar maintain a B average to continue receiving the award.

Morrison argued Friday that colleges have broad latitude in designing grading policies. The judge seemed sympathetic to that argument, frequently noting that Benedict is a private college.

Motley states in his lawsuit that during his employment at Benedict, he received “excellent evaluations and raises.”

According to Benedict’s “Code of Academic Responsibility,” academic dishonesty is defined as “any conduct designed to gain unfair advantage in obtaining a grade through representing one’s academic performance as something other than what it is ...”

The lawsuit states that near the end of the fall semester in 2001, Swinton unveiled his new grading policy, Success Equals Effort. (It was initially referred to by its acronym SEE, but because it quickly became associated with a C grade, Swinton began referring to the program as SE-Squared.)

The SEE policy required professors to base 60 percent of their grade in freshman-level classes upon “effort” and 40 percent upon “knowledge.” For sophomores, the split would be 50-50 between effort and knowledge.

Numerous faculty took issue with the policy, but only a few actively resisted it.

Motley believed the SEE policy violated his rights of academic freedom and forced him to falsely report the achievement of his students under the guidelines of the Life Scholarship program.

““The SEE policy is academically dishonest in that it generates ‘grade inflation’ and does not reflect a student’s knowledge of the course content,” Motley states in his lawsuit. On Feb. 26, 2004, Motley states he was asked to change the grades of students with D’s and F’s and those classified as WA, a grade that indicates a student withdrew from the class.

He refused to change the grades on the basis of student effort, which he said he could not objectively measure.

Swinton fired Motley on July 13, 2004.

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