Stanford Math Professor Tells Student: ‘I Hope You Fail’; Student Passes Anyway

LETTER FROM CALIFORNIA*

Stanford University: home of tree mascots, Peter Thiel, and acres of adobe roofing. And, apparently, extremely vindictive math professors.

On June 6, a day before the school’s final exam week began, an unlucky Stanford undergrad realized two of his final exams were occurring simultaneously, so he emailed the professors for each class, hoping to score an alternate sitting for one of the tests. According to the student, one of the instructors was “sympathetic to [his] situation,” while the other professor made his displeasure known in no uncertain terms. Frustrated, the student posted the remarkable correspondence to a private Facebook group, after which it was forwarded to us. The exchange begins:

Dear Professor [Redacted],

Hello, I’m [Redacted], a student in Math XX. I’m also taking Math XY this quarter, and both finals are on Friday from 7-10. I’m sorry to inform you right at the last moment, but is there an alternate sitting for the Math XX final? Math XY’s exam policy indicates that all students must take it at that time. And if not, is there a way to salvage the situation? Thank you.

Sincerely, [Redacted]

Less than two hours later, the professor shot back [bolding ours]:

You were supposed to deal with this very early in the quarter. I have no sympathy. There is a math department policy, which is that students such as yourself take the lower number course at the regular scheduled time, and make arrangements with the instructor in the higher course early in the quarter. Since you have chosen to ignore your responsibility here, you will fail Math XX if you do not take the final Friday night. Period. If I was the Math XY instructor, I would say you fail Math XY if you do not take the final Friday night, because you have very irresponsibly not dealt with this situation many weeks ago. But I am not the Math XY instructor, so that is up to him.

But let me repeat: You will fail Math XX if you do not take the final Friday night.

I cannot believe sometimes the ridiculous sense of entitlement and self-importance Stanford undergraduates have. Do you think this sort of irresponsible behavior is going to cut it in the real world? I hope you fail one of the two courses, because of your cluelessness. I will recommend that to the Math XY instructor if he asks me, as the department policy about making arrangements well in advance is made very clear.

[Redacted]

Amazingly, the student managed to pass both math courses anyway. The student, who wished to remain anonymous, told IvyGate how he pulled it off [bolding ours]: 

Since it was the day before the finals, I didn’t expect much help from the professors. I emailed both of them anyway in desperation, thinking that it wouldn’t hurt to ask. They both refused. One was sympathetic to my situation, and the other you’ve seen. [...]

I do not blame him for his refusal, as it is the university policy. What I do object to is the vehemence and the generalization of Stanford undergraduates. He interpreted my request as a sign of entitlement, but I had very little expectation that he would do anything for me. It was only that as long as there was hope, I felt that I should try.

I was quite distraught from both the letter and the fear of failing my classes. In a moment of poor judgment, I posted the letter on my dorm Facebook page to ask for advice. It quickly spread beyond the boundaries of the dorm and reached the hands of your informant.

The next day, I went to one of the finals, finished it in half the time, turned it in, biked to the second final, and finished that one in half the time. While I could have done better if I had the full three hours, I passed both courses. I suppose that I did pay a price for my cluelessness, as the professor hoped that I would. But not as severe as he would have liked.
In short, yes, it was my fault that started the whole thing. But it was an honest mistake, and I feel that the level of anger I received was not justified.

In an email to IvyGate, the professor in question emphasized that he was just enforcing Stanford’s preexisting guidelines, which state that students should try to resolve anticipated exam conflicts before they even submit their schedules. In this sense, the math professor is totally right: this conflict needed to be resolved weeks earlier. But did the student’s email deserve this way harsh response? The professor defended his razor-edged words. In his estimation, the current generation of college students “expect to be bailed out” of their own bad decisions. He was just trying to help! The professor’s response, in full [bolding, again, is ours]:

Ms Medansky —

I will copy below the Stanford University policy about final exams.  For this student, the conflict in final exams was between two mathematics courses.  Both courses gave all students at the very beginning of the term the information that there was only one final exam time.  As you can see from the Stanford policy, it was the student’s duty to bring up the conflict at the beginning of the quarter.  If such conflicts cannot be resolved then, students are supposed to adjust their course registration.  But the Math Department encounters such internal final exam conflicts fairly frequently, and we have a department policy for dealing with them.  This student apparently ignored both University policy and Department policy.  A day or two before the finals, I believe, he approached the other instructor, who told him, no, there would be no last minute special arrangement made for him in his class.  Then the student approached me, and did not even seem to be aware that it had been announced in my class more than once, and printed on the course information web site at the beginning of the term, that my class would have no alternate final exam times.  I would be curious to learn if whoever copied you on my e-mail also copied you on this University policy that the student ignored.

In submitting official study lists, students commit to all course requirements including the examination procedures chosen and announced by the course instructor. In selecting courses, students should take cognizance of the official schedule of final examinations announced in the quarterly Time Schedule. Students anticipating conflicts in final examination schedules should seek to resolve these with the instructors involved before submitting study lists. If accommodation cannot be made at that time, the student should revise his or her study list by the study list deadline in order to be able to meet the required final examination.

If unforeseen circumstances prevent the student from sitting for the regularly scheduled examination, instructors should make alternative arrangements on an individual basis. Such unforeseen circumstances include illness, personal emergency, or the student’s required participation in special events (for example, athletic championships) approved as exceptions by the Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy (C-USP).

Note: Instructors may wish to be responsive to requests from students whose religious commitments conflict with scheduled examinations. Inquiries regarding provisions of the End-Quarter Period policy or the End-Quarter Examination policy should be directed to the University Registrar.

Students who believe that there are faculty who are violating End-Quarter period policy should contact the Registrar’s Office.

Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy Statement Concerning Early Examinations

Students are reminded that taking final examinations earlier than the scheduled time is a privilege, not a right. They should request this privilege only in the event of extraordinary circumstances.

Since the final examination schedule is published quarterly in the Time Schedule at the time of course selection and enrollment, students are expected to make their academic plans in light of known personal circumstances that may make certain examination times difficult for them.

In general, faculty members are discouraged from giving final examinations earlier than the published and announced times. If faculty nevertheless decide to administer early examinations, the questions should either be completely different from those on the regularly scheduled examination or the early examination should be administered in a highly controlled setting. An example of such a setting would be a campus seminar room where the examination questions would be collected along with students’ work and students would be reminded of their Honor Code obligations not to share information about the examination contents. Giving students easy opportunities to abuse the integrity of an examination is unfair to honest students and inconsistent with the spirit of the Honor Code.

Academic fields differ in the degree to which early examination requests present dilemmas for faculty. If, for example, an examination format consists of a small number of essay questions, where students would be greatly advantaged by knowing the question topics, faculty should be especially reluctant to allow early examinations unless they are willing to offer totally different examinations or a different kind of academic task—e.g., a final paper in lieu of an examination.

You have quoted, approximately, rather dramatic wording from my (private) response to the student.  Safer, I suppose, to just have said, sorry, no alternate time.  But, yes, I do feel today’s generation of students is not as much tuned in to their own responsibilities as previous generations.  Of course this applies only to an increased minority of students, not most students.  When they ignore such responsibilities, they expect to be bailed out later.  In this case, presumably the student wanted either the other instructor or myself to devote extra time, just for him.  There are also University guidelines about the nature of such special exams, as you can read above.  So we said no.  We would have been willing to accommodate him had he pursued the exam conflict in a timely manner early in the term, as University policy dictates.

As for hoping he paid a serious penalty, this was a dramatic way of trying to communicate to him that his own choices led to his situation just before the exams, and that I am of the old school that believes when people make bad choices they should expect to pay a price.  I did not think my colleague or anyone else should let him off the hook.  So that is what I was really hoping, that he recognize his original irresponsibility, that he deal with the consequences of his choices, and that he not get away with it.  And maybe remember something to take forward in life.  My language definitely seems to have gotten his attention.  As opposed to just a “no”,  which hardly would have been worth circulating and eventually reaching a journalist.  If we had given into him, what message or lesson would that have taught this student or other students who learned of it?  In the future, would this student have looked into possible final exam conflicts, or other such course requirements, in a timely manner?  Or thought about student responsibilities in general in a course?  My guess is now that he will not wait until the very last minute and then make an unreasonable request for special treatment.  Could I have chosen other, blander words to make the same points?  Sure.  At the end of the day, this resourceful student found a way to compete both courses. But he did not receive the special treatment he asked for.  I don’t know if he paid any price or not, other than having to figure out a way to deal with the situation at the last minute and getting scolded privately by a professor.  The words I used had no bearing on the final outcome, for example the student’s grades in the two courses.

You refer to  ‘student requests’ and the ‘attitude with which they should be approached’.   I don’t know if you mean should be approached by the student or by the faculty.  Certainly students should be aware that ignoring their responsibilities and ignoring announced policy and then asking for last minute reprieves, is not at all the same as legitimate requests to professors and is not a good way to behave.  If students in general could learn that lesson, great. You will have truly accomplished something if you can communicate to today’s American college students that ignoring policies and asking for last minute special treatment will not serve them well, in college or later in life.  It is my guess that this incident was not brought to your attention in that light, but it presents you with a great opportunity to really do some good, and awaken perhaps millions of students to a sense of responsibility, not blaming others, and accepting consequences of poor decisions.  Sometimes if students receive a polite ‘no’ to an unreasonable request, they don’t even realize the request was unreasonable.  And they don’t realize the very poor impression that sort of behavior makes, if they are not called out on it more openly. Just because someone is not inclined to stir up emotions with language like mine, doesn’t mean they don’t keep identical feelings to themselves. It will not do a student any good down the road in life, to not be called out, but to still leave a trail of people with similar bad impressions.  Personally, I think it could be argued that by being privately very dramatic in my reaction to his request, I did him more good than harm in the long run.  In fact, exactly where was any harm caused by a private scolding?  How would this student, or anyone else, have been better off if I had simply said no to his request, and kept my feelings about student responsibilities to myself?

It is hard to know if this particular student is burdened by a sense of entitlement and self importance, like some of his generation. I hear from people in different types of work places also that new hires in their twenties have a similar sense of entitlement and self importance that I notice in students. I have also read this in the press. But, I have to wonder about a student who ignores policy, makes a request for special treatment, is told no, and when chastised privately in dramatic language believes the issue merits some kind of national journalistic investigation.  If that doesn’t raise an entitlement and self-importance red flag, what does?  Possibly someone other than the student believed it merited such an investigation.  I’m happy to give the student the benefit of that doubt now, but it is something you might want to think about.

I do not know if you were sent my entire e-mail reply to the student or just parts of it.  I plan to send to the student your e-mail to me and my reply to you.  If the student had come to me and complained that I mistreated him, or had no business scolding him, fine, he and I could discuss that, at the same time we discussed announced University policies and student responsibilities. We could also have discussed these issues with a Department Chair or Dean if he wanted.  Certainly my comments to him were not public comments.  To involve a journalist far away, perhaps only revealing part of the story, seems odd to me.  Perhaps the student, or someone else anonymously, wants to try to embarrass me or have me punished.  If you publish anything about it, to be fair you should publish the full content of my replies here to your questions, including the Stanford policy about student responsibilities concerning final examinations.

By the way, I was advised to not reply to your e-mail, because of the nature of IvyGate, which doesn’t seem to include multiple viewpoints, or fuller discussions, in articles.  You asked for my overall philosophy, and what kinds of lessons can be learned.  I believe I have answered in some detail.  I would appreciate some further discussion with you, before you decide what to publish, if anything.

We can’t help but feel sorry for this professor, who seems to have based his judgments on inane trend stories and Girls instead of, you know, actual students. And whether you agree with his philosophy or not, we here at IvyGate — a blog with readership in the billions — would never absolve ourselves of our sacred responsibility to “awaken perhaps millions of students” to the bitter realities of our cruelly indifferent “Me-Me-Me Generation.

So, what do you think, dear readers? Is this exchange emblematic of a larger trend? Are today’s collegians lazy, selfish, even entitled? Or is wishing failure on one of your students perhaps an ineffective way of demonstrating the “sense of collaboration” and “genuine excitement” Stanford hopes its faculty embodies?
*Yes, we know Stanford’s technically not a member of the Ancient Eight, but this was too good to pass up.