(CNN) — Pushed to his limits, a college professor took the extreme measure of threatening to fail his entire class.
In an email to his students, Irwin Horwitz accused them of “backstabbing, game playing, cheating, lying, fighting.”
The professor at the Texas A&M University Galveston Campus expected his missive would create some conflict, but that it could then be resolved quickly — and quietly.
Those hopes were dashed when one report by local media mushroomed into a tornado of nationwide coverage. The story went viral.
Suddenly, his name was spreading on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, accompanied by the kind of strong, unvarnished opinions that you can make about people you’ve never met.
He was a hero who taught today’s entitled youth a much-needed lesson, or an egotistical nightmare of a teacher who threw a fit.
One thing was certain: He, and his employer, were now thrust into a spotlight that neither had asked for.
“I did what I did without any intention of seeing this in the news or seeing this on the Internet,” Horwitz said. “I will stand by what I did, but I’m not career suicidal.”
Texas A&M says Horwitz remains an employee and that no one has asked him to stop teaching.
But Horwitz, a nontenure-track professor in the maritime administration program, is afraid the notoriety will cost him this job and future jobs.
‘This class is an embarrassment’
Horwitz said his intent was not to be controversial, and the sharply worded email to students was not his first about the class.
The day before writing to his students, Horwitz wrote a similar email to the CEO of the Texas A&M Galveston Campus and to the school’s chief academic officer.
“I have never in my capacity as an academic ever encountered a class as completely disgraceful, dishonest and disrespectful” as his current strategic management class, he wrote to the administrators.
He accused the students of shirking responsibility, making excuses and complaining their way to better grades.
He would no longer teach the course and would fail the entire class, Horwitz wrote.
“The class of graduating seniors is nothing more than a circus that is anything but academic,” he wrote. “But they are your problem now.”
It was the next day that Horwitz wrote to the students, calling the class “an embarrassment in general,” and said that “I am frankly and completely disgusted.”
The story behind the story
Once his words echoed in traditional and social media, the narrative — angry prof flunks entire class — might as well have been set in stone.
The story was such a talker that even The Onion offered a parody.
“I’m not looking to fail students,” Horwitz said. “I don’t get a bonus for failing students.”
“The letter sounded a little bit more definite than I wanted it to,” he added.
He never actually changed anyone’s grade. There were some students he wasn’t going to fail, he said, and some who were on the border who could have pulled themselves out.
But Horwitz stands by his tough stance; there was an issue of competency and of professionalism that had to be addressed, he said.
The course in question is a capstone course for a maritime administration degree and is supposed to merge what the students learned in their other business courses.
“I had a large majority of people taking the capstone course who could not do a break-even analysis,” the professor said. “If you cannot do a break-even analysis, then you don’t deserve a bachelor’s degree in business.”
His other complaint was about professionalism. Horwitz said students would swear at him, cheat and spread rumors about him online.
This is related to their grades, he said, because dealing with people you don’t like is a business skill.
On online message boards, users claiming to be students in the class accused the professor of exaggerating the situation or fabricating parts of his story.
One purported student called Horwitz “a little obnoxious,” but said he is a good teacher and fair if you follow his rules.
Should the professor have been surprised that his email went viral?
The fiery language and strong allegations were likely to be news if the email went public, but maybe there is more to it.
The situation hits on a popular argument on the media and Internet: What do we think of millennials?
Reflecting on his most recent class, Horwitz said there is some truth to stereotypes of millennials as entitled and pampered.
He mentioned the overdependence of students on cell phones and other electronics, and the power those devices have to interrupt concentration.
The other factor is a failure of K-12 education, said Horwitz, who has met college students who don’t know how to convert fractions to decimals.
“What I’m trying to do is to give an honest assessment of their performance,” he said.
In a statement, Patrick Louchouarn, the vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer at Texas A&M Galveston Campus, said the entire class will not be failed.
“Each student will receive an individual grade based upon work completed during the semester,” Louchouarn said. “The university is listening to concerns about this issue from students and faculty and will address them according to our policies.”
The flurry of attention is unwelcome and Horwitz fears it will affect his career in academia.
But it’s likely his story will have a short shelf life. People probably will forget about it and turn their attention to the next grabby headline.
But he said he thinks this episode will follow him everywhere. He said he feels a public shaming of sorts. Online public shaming has become a research topic of its own. People who have been pilloried online for comments they made wonder if they will get a second chance.
“This is really destroying my life,” Horwitz said.