MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Higher education officials are locked in an unusual battle of words and wills with several state legislators here - all over a dispute about failed nursing students.
The controversy at Shelby State Community College has become so pitched that the even the governor's staff has weighed in and normally reserved regents are calling the situation "absurd."
"I'm appalled," state Board of Regents Chancellor Charles Smith said last month. "I am disappointed. I've never seen anything like this since I've been in higher education."
The dispute first flared in December when Shelby State administrators dropped nineteen students from the college's nursing program because the students flunked two courses. The students, with at least one Memphis legislator firmly in their corner, contend they couldn't possibly have failed because they knew the material inside and out.
College officials say the students failed, plain and simple. But in an odd twist, they no longer have rock solid proof to back up that stance because the students' test booklets were shredded. The instructor says she destroyed the test booklets to thwart what nursing school instructors have characterized as a problem with rampant cheating.
Legislators Become Involved
Six area legislators have been involved in the dispute since March, in some cases advising the ousted students on strategies for dealing with Shelby State administrators. After a May meeting between the students, the legislators and members of Gov. Don Sundquist's staff, Shelby State President Dr. Floyd "Bud" Amann reluctantly agreed to let the students retake their tests.
The students almost immediately called a news conference to denounce the testing schedule - four weekly tests from July 8 through July 29, with a two-hour final set for Aug. 5 - saying it didn't give them enough time to study.
In late June, the Board of Regents met in Knoxville. Believing the dispute finally resolved, regents gave Amann a thumbs-up for his handling of the delicate situation. But on the second day of the board's two-day meeting, the situation boiled over again.
Smith, the regents chancellor, distributed copies of a letter from Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, that had landed on Amann's desk the previous afternoon. In the letter, Towns insisted not only that the students be readmitted to the nursing program but that they be allowed to start with a "clean slate" - in essence, that the bad grades be erased altogether.
He suggested that another student who had barely missed graduation by a fraction of a point should be allowed to graduate and that any student who wanted to transfer out of the program should be allowed to do so without a hitch.
Towns's letter closed by saying that the legislators had advised the nursing students not to take the college up on its offer to retake their tests.
"Meddling" Angers Regents
Outraged, most of the sixteen regents present for the meeting weighed in, denouncing Towns's involvement in the matter. The word "absurd" frequently peppered their statements. …