Toward the end of her 2011 Race and Crime course in Texas Southern University's Administration of Justice Ph.D. program, Natalie Hinshaw raised her hand. She, and the rest of her classmates, had not yet received her mid-term paper back. The course's final project was coming up, and Hinshaw wanted to be sure not only to see where she stood in the course but to have the chance to refresh her memory on all that she'd studied over the course of the program.
"I stood up and asked Dr. [Anita Kaluta-]Crompton, who was teaching, I asked her if she was going to return the paper," Hinshaw tells Hair Balls. (This is not Hinshaw's real name -- both she and every other student interviewed for this story requested anonymity, citing the repressive politics of the program.) "She said, 'Do you expect me to read all those papers?' I'll never forget that -- 'Do you expect me to read all those papers?' And I said, 'Hell, yeah, I expect you to read them! Because you asked us to write them!'"
Hinshaw is gathered over a stack of papers -- reams of e-mails and communiqués, piles of documents supporting all that she's experienced over the past five years. She's sharing her story about her time at TSU, because, as she has recently written to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), "Students have no appeal or arbitration power."
"I'm $170,000 in debt," Hinshaw says. "I can't just back out and leave this. [They've] taken my money, but [they're] not doing anything about this." As she noted in an e-mail last November, "I feel as if the biggest mistake I have made in my life is deciding to attend TSU for my higher education."
To be sure, Hinshaw isn't some spoiled twentysomething unaccustomed to a bit of scholastic challenge. Rather, Hinshaw, somehow composed behind her anger, is in her late 50s. She's the mother of four sons -- a few of whom have seen and suffered from the lingering underside of racial profiling. "Some of the things my sons experienced -- that's why I'm here," Hinshaw says. "I'm not here just because I have nothing else to do. I'm here to work, because I know what my sons went through, and no one should have that happen."
Hinshaw won't delve into the specifics of her sons' experiences. Those aren't important. She doesn't even want to talk much about her successes since returning to school -- the near four-point grade averages she's attained, the multiple degrees she's gotten since turning back to academic pursuit. She shares her transcript with Hair Balls, and it's easy to see why she's managed to come this close to completing her doctorate. As one professor noted during a study group, "[Natalie], you deserve a huge round of applause (or standing ovation) for all the work you have put into running this group."
Indeed, Hinshaw, who began this Administration of Justice program in 2008, has but a few steps remaining before she can finally turn her talents to aiding those in straits similar to her sons'. There's the final dissertation, currently outlined and pitched. And there's one remaining comprehensive exam -- which Hinshaw cites as yet another reason she's reached beyond the plugged appeal avenues she's experienced at TSU.
Hinshaw admits that she put forth less than her best effort in her original comprehensive exam. But, much as in her Race and Crime course, when she asked to see her graded exam, she was rebuffed.
"The first time I failed, I asked for my exam back, and the professor said, 'No problem,'" Hinshaw remembers. "But I waited, and I stayed on there, and he never, never gave me the pages. The second time [I failed the test], I went up to Dr. [David] Baker and Dr. [Helen Taylor] Greene. And all they said was, 'You're not going to get your paper. You don't get your paper back.'"
In a later e-mail exchange with Baker, Hinshaw asked for specific clarification about his views on returning graded papers, writing, "If I understood correctly, when I asked you for a copy of my graded tests, including the qualifying exam along with both of my graded comprehensive exams, you informed me that to your knowledge no other university give[s] the exams back to their students..." Per the e-mails Hinshaw shared with Hair Balls, Baker never responded to her prompt. Of course, Hinshaw isn't the only one to have seen this side of the professors or the program. Others relayed similar stories to Hair Balls, from experiencing courses without any form of rubrics or grading scales to ones with failure rates approaching 95 percent.
"I learned from the program at the beginning, that once you open the mouth, you make trouble," said Sherry Wichmann, a third-year Ph.D. student who also requested anonymity. "I think we've been contaminated so far with what we have, and I think we have to regroup and start over -- get some pure, uncontaminated professors here. There are two or three that are just ruining the whole organization...Dr. Crompton is the same amount of evil as Dr. Greene."
Wichmann relayed a story in which she saw 17 of 18 students fail the same Race and Crime course, but with a majority afraid to appeal their grade for fear of being "blackballed."
"I'm not even seeing any plan in place to get people out, just to keep people spinning in circles," said Nick Holmes, who noted that he was the only student to have thus far transferred out of TSU's program. Even though he's now in another program, Holmes still requested anonymity.
As it is, Hinshaw began exploring the proper methods for appeals. She says she went so far as to meet with Robert Bullard, dean of the School of Public Affairs. In a April 2012 e=mail, Bullard admitted to Hinshaw there were "systemic problems that need to be addressed in the school -- not just [in the Administration of Justice program]." However, despite a few technical clarifications with Hinshaw, Bullard ceased communication with her shortly after.
"Dean Bullard's problem is no follow-up," Holmes said. "I've known Bullard for a long time -- he wants to be all things to all people, and in that position, that's not realistic."
Holmes noted that he was in the same Race and Crime course with Hinshaw, and had a chance to witness her back-and-forth with Kaluta-Crompton over whether or not the teacher would return, or even read, the assigned work. That interaction, as well as the overall "lack of feedback," convinced Holmes to take his energy and funds elsewhere.
"I agonized over it for quite a while, but after a certain point, you've got to do something," Holmes told Hair Balls. "[I spent] too much time and energy and, Lord knows, money...I was at a point where I had nothing left...I started getting a feeling of futility. You know the best thing about hitting your head against a wall? How good it feels when it stops."
For those students remaining in the program, the futility remains. Every day, says Wichmann, "It's 'Let me put on my combat suit -- let me get ready for war today.'"
While Bullard did initially note that he was open for an interview for this story, he stopped responding to e-mails from Hair Balls shortly thereafter. TSU spokeswoman Eva Pickens sent Hair Balls this statement:
Any students who believes that he or she are being graded unfairly, has a right pursuant to TSU policies/procedures to file an academic grievance challenging the grade received in a class [sic]. Further, University policy prohibits retaliation against students who file academic grade grievances or other types of grievances.
After the dean cut off communication with Hinshaw, and as she began noting how unwilling certain professors were to any form of improvement, Hinshaw decided to take her complaints elsewhere. This April, Hinshaw penned the aforementioned letter to the THECB, detailing her complaints. The litany of complaints includes notes that teachers "[told] a student they are too old, they should be at home rocking their grandchildren," as well as a claim that professors both "talk[ed]" and "[sent] negative emails to certain students about other students."
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THECB referred Hinshaw's complaints to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and she's currently waiting for a decision.
As it is, despite the frustrations, despite the transgressions, Hinshaw can't simply leave TSU. All those funds are for naught if she quits. All that time is wasted if that degree, just a few steps away, falls through.
But she can help those who will come after. She says she's currently exploring options about retaining a lawyer -- one, preferably, with a history of litigation with TSU. Because, as she notes, there's only one thing she wants.
"I want this damn program cleaned up."