Student Incivility, Intimidation, and Entitlement in Academia

By Barb Holdcroft

I recently finished a particularly disturbing semester of teaching that was filled with instances of student incivility, intimidation, and entitlement. In searching for information that could help me understand my students’ behavior, I found that other teachers have had similar experiences.

Several aspects of these behaviors can be quickly identified. All have a negative impact on education and can produce dire consequences in real life. As students repeat each behavior with “success,” the behaviors become more entrenched.

Let me start by clarifying some terms:

  • Incivility: According to Joy Peluchette, Katherine Karl, and Jerry Kopf in “Students Behaving Badly: Causes and Possible Strategies for Dealing with Classroom Incivility,” incivility includes disrespect for standards of classroom behavior as posted in the syllabus. Examples might be late arrival, sleeping, texting or other cell-phone use during class, or offensive language and comments.
  • Intimidation: Audrey Williams June, in her Chronicle of Higher Education article “When Students Become Class Bullies, Professors Are Among the Victims,” notes that intimidation includes student use of threatening language, bullying, physical posturing, and anger.
  • Bullying: Examples of bullying include student attempts to procure a grade change by embarrassing, attacking, or humiliating the teacher.
  • Entitlement: Students’ sense of entitlement is apparent in attempts to influence or reverse grades. When a student blames the instructor for a poor grade, the student’s perception of effort or ability is at odds with actual academic performance.

Examples of these behaviors abound. In her Chronicle article, June describes an incident in which a student insisted he be allowed to make up a missed quiz, despite rules in the syllabus clearly stating that make-up quizzes were not allowed. The student reacted by slamming his books on the desk and yelling at the instructor in anger. He would not leave the classroom until the instructor threatened to call security.

Egocentricity is also a problem. Mary McKinney, in her Inside Higher Ed article “Coping with ‘Oy Vey’ Students,” lists common student demands and complaints: “I have to miss class; tell me what you are covering.” “I was sick all last week; did you cover anything important?” “I have so many personal issues that I haven’t been able to study for your tests.” “I didn’t cheat!” “You’re not going to give me a zero, are you?” “Plagiarism? I didn’t even see the website!” In the 2010–11 academic year, my students complained that course material was too difficult and demanded that they be allowed to retake exams, that they be provided extra-credit opportunities to make up for poor test scores, and that all grades be curved.

Academic Entitlement

“Academic entitlement” is a pervasive term in recent literature on student behavior and can be applied to many of the situations described above. Research on academic entitlement has produced startling statistics. A 2008 study conducted by Ellen Greenberger and colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, found that

  • 66.2 percent of students believe that “trying hard” should result in a good grade;
  • 40.7 percent believe that completing most of the reading for a course should result in a B grade;
  • 23.5 percent believe that a professor should respond to an e-mail the same day it was sent; and
  • 16.5 percent believe that students should be allowed to take calls during class.

Given such results, it is not surprising students today are commonly known as “the entitlement generation.”

Bullying related to grades often targets younger faculty members and women and is mostly carried out by male students. This behavior results in intimidation, especially of female and adjunct faculty members seeking to uphold their values in the classroom; less productive teaching, because of time spent dealing with behavioral issues; faculty members being driven from college teaching, especially when they find they are not supported by administrators; rampant grade inflation that erodes the quality of our students’ learning and severely hampers their ability to deal with real life; student anxiety; the poor preparation of graduates for careers; and the reinforcement of bad behaviors as a way of life.  Perhaps the most serious are the last two points. Education professor Stuard Singer says, “Grades are meaningless if they are not a legitimate reflection of student learning.” Excellence—even competence—in any academic area is seriously jeopardized by bullying.

This situation, of course, raises ethical issues: those students whose work deserves higher grades are certain to be discouraged by the lack of fairness. Their work is devalued.

The concept of “institutionalized emphasis on self-esteem,” according to Generation Me author Jean Twenge, began in the 1970s and has had far-reaching effects on education. The perceived need to preserve self-esteem at the cost of true academic evaluation has become more and more prevalent throughout the years of my own teaching career, beginning in the elementary classroom. Teachers rarely fail students or hold them back out of concern that doing so would damage their self-esteem. Some institutions have even eliminated letter grades and percentage scores in favor of less “judgmental” grades like “S” and “U.”

“Feeling good about yourself is more important than good performance,” writes Twenge. Parents refuse to allow their children to fail at anything. According to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Classroom Incivility project, the “helicopter parent” who intervenes in every aspect of the child’s life has become the norm. Parenting skills have evaporated as parents have become either indulgent or have ceased to act as parents at all. They have largely abandoned discipline out of fear of damaging the self-esteem of their children.

Origins of the Problem

How did this generation of students, and their parents, come about? Changing views on grading and parenting are contributing factors, but there are others as well, including consumerism. The concept of the student as a consumer, which has become increasingly widespread in higher education, leads students to believe that their schools owe them something, allows students to blame someone else for their failures, and reinforces what students have learned through shopping: that the customer is always right.

The results are not surprising. A study by researchers Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks reveals that students in 1961 averaged forty hours a week engaged in study. By 2003, however, the average hours of study had declined to twenty-seven hours per week. Richard Vedder, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, has argued that students don’t perceive a value in actually learning something when they can search for answers to questions of the Internet and receive information nearly instantly.

Today’s students could be called the “Quitter Generation.” They have never learned or valued perseverance because it has been absent from all of their pursuits, except, perhaps, video games. Without a guarantee of success, students either give up or become intimidating.

Twenge holds that the importance of the individual, for today’s students, supersedes all other concerns. Because of changing social norms, rules observed in polite society no longer apply. Members of what Twenge calls “Generation Me” do not respect other people’s comfort and are less likely than those in other generations to recognize authority. They thus have less esteem for their professors. They believe that their own perspectives are just as valid as those of any expert.

Perhaps academia is partly at fault. The recent practice of addressing faculty members by first name, for example, perpetuates the idea that the student and the professor are equals. In this respect, faculty members might have assisted in the erosion of the dignity and authority of the professor. Faculty members also erode their own position as classroom “experts” when they dress as casually as—or more casually than—their students. Is it any wonder that students feel entitled to argue with and denigrate their professors when such a sense of equality has been established?

What can be done in response? I suggest the following:

  1. Do not compromise on teaching standards as outlined in the syllabus. Uphold all the requirements. One wavering faculty member makes it difficult for the entire institution.
  2. Treat yourself and your colleagues with the respect experts deserve. Perhaps even communication on a first-name basis among professors should be put aside until the semester has ended. It doesn’t hurt to refer to one other as “Dr. Smith” or “Professor Jones.”
  3. Document every incident involving student misbehavior and report incidents to the department chair, the academic dean, and the dean of students.

Academic entitlement and bullying have no place in the development of future doctors, lawyers, pilots, engineers, educators, and technicians. As professors, we are accountable to the future.

Barbara Holdcroft is an adjunct faculty member in theology at Lees-McRae College and in psychology at Mayland Community College. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in both education and theology, and her research on moral development, the subject of her doctorate, attempts to blend those two academic disciplines.