Ex-SNHU professor fights grade changes, wrongful termination in Supreme Court

·4 min read

Sep. 20—A former associate dean has sued Southern New Hampshire University, saying she was "compelled to quit" in part for refusing to change the failing grades for two students in a math course she taught.

Melissa Donovan, who taught mathematics at SNHU, and her lawyer have taken the case to the state's Supreme Court after a Hillsborough Superior Court judge sided with SNHU.

Donovan, who resigned in November 2018, "raised good faith concerns that such modifications would be unethical and in violation of SNHU academic policy," according to court documents.

A Hillsborough County Superior Court judge found that "Dr. Donovan's actions were not supported by public policy as a matter of law." Facts concerning retaliation were not included in the judgment.

Public policy became much of the discussion during oral arguments in Supreme Court Tuesday morning, where Donovan seeks to have a superior court summary judgment overturned.

"A jury should decide if public policy supported Dr. Donovan raising an issue with a proposed grade change, internally, that she believed, in good faith, to be unethical and a violation of Southern New Hampshire University academic policy," said Sean List, Donovan's lawyer.

"Public policy includes a wide range of societal goals including safety and public welfare, protection of an at-will employee's promised compensation, and good faith reporting of reasonably perceived improper activity," List wrote in the court filing.

"A reasonable jury could find that Dr. Donovan's actions were protected by public policy, particularly when the very actions she took were consistent with SNHU's Whistleblower and Grade Change Policies," he wrote in a brief. "She was not simply disagreeing with her managers; she was attempting to preserve the integrity of the merit-based academic system while conforming to institutional policy that her managers did not have authority to bend."

Associate Justice James P. Bassett asked why this case is different from any other management decision.

List mentioned the meritocracy nature of academic institutions in upholding its policies. He also mentioned the college admission scandal which made national headlines as holding higher education institutions accountable.

He wants the summary judgment to be reversed and remanded back to superior court.

SNHU is asking the panel to affirm the superior court finding.

The university said the grading scheme was structured as an "all or nothing" system, which was not communicated in the course introduction or syllabus for the introduction to quantitative analysis class. The class was under review by the university because of the course design and grading.

"In late June of 2018, SNHU directed instructors for the MAT 136 course that they should not utilize the 'all or nothing' grading method, but some instructors did not follow this directive," the university's attorney Christopher Cole answered.

Two students failed under the "all or nothing" grading method, according to court documents. The university says the grading methods of the course were not consistent. The two students would have passed the course if they had received the "you get what you get" method.

"The grade changes were consistent with SNHU's decision — which SNHU had already made by the time (Associate Vice President Dr. Gwendolyn Britton) approved them — to eliminate the 'all or nothing' grading method from the MAT 136 course and to apply the 'you get what you get' grading method going forward," the response reads.

Cole told the justices that 18 sections — 447 students — were graded in four different ways. Two students appealed their failing grades.

"(An internal evaluation) determined that some people were really outliers and the best thing to do under the circumstances for these two students out of 447 was to reverse course and let them pass the course," Cole said. "There is nothing unethical about that. That is a thoughtful decision."

The court documents note that Donovan was placed on a performance improvement plan on Oct. 16, 2018, based on "employing an inappropriate and accusatory tone" toward another employee during a meeting, struggling with self management and unprofessional communication and behaviors. The university says the grade change was not the reason behind the plan.

However, List says the first draft of the plan included an email "admonishing Dr. Donovan regarding the grade change" issue.

"It seems reasonable for the public to expect university grades to be calculated based upon merit, and Dr. Donovan took action to protect that public interest in good faith, regardless of whether her interpretation was ultimately correct," the document reads.

Cole said a jury would be put in the position to "gainsay" or contradict an academic decision.

"(Donovan) basically takes an internal management directive and says, 'I disagree,'" he said. "That's all."