Unintelligent design

Like many seniors, Kara Winston, Lindsay Pelletier and Jennifer Hardee were counting down the weeks to graduation.

Winston had already purchased graduation announcements. Four of Pelletier’s family members booked flights from New Hampshire to attend commencement. Hardee had started mailing out resumes.

Then came the e-mail.

For all three, the five-line message sent by biology department adviser Autumn Mueller in the days after drop-add week was a bombshell. The message stated that the Forensic Science and Criminal Justice class they were taking would not count toward their degree.

The problem: Although the College of Arts and Sciences at the USF St. Petersburg considers the course — BSC 4933 — an upper-level biology course; the biology department, which is located on the Tampa campus, does not.

It’s a difference of opinion that may cost the three seniors a further semester at USF.

“This is the college’s fault,” Winston said. “It’s just not fair.”

The forensics class, taught by adjunct professor Katy Savage, was given both a biology and criminology prefix by the St. Petersburg College of Arts and Sciences based on the course’s content, said the college’s dean, Mark Durand. The syllabus includes toxicology, entomology and odontology.

“I’m not sure why a department in another campus wouldn’t accept it,” Durand said. “Given her background in toxicology, (Savage) can teach in both criminology and biology.”

But it is not a view shared by the biology department. Chairman Sidney Pierce said upper-level specialized courses taken off campus or at other universities often do not transfer to degree programs. Pierce said his department had looked at the details of the course and determined it was unacceptable for the degree program.

“We don’t teach forensics,” he said. “We don’t know anything about the teacher who is teaching it.”

Pierce added that the decision of the College of Arts and Sciences at St. Petersburg to designate the course as a biology course is beyond the remit of his department.

“They can do whatever they want,” he said. “Our requirement is clearly stated in our curriculum. To a degree, they’re doing students a disservice by not advertising that.”

According to Savage, the course, which is held at the National Forensic Science Training Center in Largo, has been open to biology students for the past two years. Savage said the biology department had not asked her for information about the course.

The biology degree’s listing in the undergraduate catalog and the department’s advising handouts both state that students must meet the upper-level requirement for departmental courses. However, a number of inaccuracies and inconsistencies in course information led the three students to believe the course would enable them to graduate.

The forensics course is not marked “Credit for non-majors only” on OASIS. The label is used to signify that a course can only be taken as a free elective.

Further, the course description for BSC 4933 in the undergraduate catalog does not match that on the biology department’s Web site. Only the latter states that departmental discretion is needed for the class to count toward the major.

The same confusion was apparent during Winston’s advising session with biology professor Allison Cleveland in the fall. The biology department’s record of the session states that courses with biology prefixes, including BSC, would meet the degree’s upper-level classes requirement.

The notes concur with Winston’s recollection that she was advised that she could take any upper-level course with a biology prefix. Cleveland did not return repeated calls.

Even more confusingly, the course is being counted as a biology elective by the FACTS system, Florida’s official online student advising system.

After being told by the biology department that it will not recognize the class, the three students have taken the issue to the College of Arts and Sciences.

Katharine Cole, director of undergraduate studies for the college, said the university is working to resolve the issue. Vice provost Ralph Wilcox will meet with Hardee, Pelletier and Winston at 2 p.m. today.

“It’s not so much a biology, but more of a central administration issue between the St. Petersburg campus and the Tampa campus,” Cole said.

The uncertainty over graduation has created problems for the students. Winston has paid for a forensics seminar in late May, the same time that she may be taking an additional class to graduate.

Pelletier’s apartment lease expires in June. As an out-of-state student, she may have to pay $1,600 to take another class to graduate.

“My apartment, my lease, my job applications all have to be re-evaluated,” Pelletier said. “If I don’t have a class for summer, I’m in real trouble.”