Selling Academic Indulgences

Just over 500 years ago, Martin Luther, professor at the University of Wittenberg, tacked up his 95 theses to announce a forthcoming debate. In dispute was the practice of selling indulgences by which the buyer received forgiveness for sins committed and the Catholic Church received money to complete St. Peter’s Cathedral. No need for actual repentance or character development.



Universities in the Utah System of Higher Education are issuing what amount to indulgences as they sell certificates of graduation without compelling students to complete meaningful courses of study.

Utah Valley University, Utah State University, Southern Utah University, and Dixie State University have recently developed General Studies degrees for the purpose of increasing “student success.” Student success means graduation. The General Studies degrees were designed “for students who cannot complete or pass final requirements.” Why would a university sell certificates of graduation to incapable students?

USU is now proposing a back-up degree for students who can’t finish their General Studies degree but who have “accumulated large numbers of credits” in various fields. Graduates will “enjoy the economic benefits associated” with “an undergraduate degree from an accredited university.” Don’t economic (and other) benefits follow from increased ability rather than from a degree meant to facilitate graduation?

Our state universities are obsessed with graduation rates. As an open-enrollment university, many of UVU’s beginning students are unprepared for college. We are reducing standards to raise the percentage of students who graduate, but shouldn’t we reserve graduation for students whose dedication and perseverance and ability lead them to the skills and knowledge that a college degree should certify?

UVU, defined in the state system as a “teaching university,” is in the process of raising class sizes and increasing teaching loads and discouraging research by its professors and denying sabbatical leaves and reducing requirements for introductory courses in order to increase the quality of teaching so students will graduate with more skills and knowledge. Wait, I got off track there somewhere. How could I forget that “student success” is achieved by paying tuition for a certificate?

Luther promises eternal condemnation for buyers and sellers of indulgences and predicts that the corrupt practice will destroy reputations:

#32 They will be condemned eternally, together with their teachers, who believe themselves sure of their salvation because they have letters of pardon.

#81 This unbridled preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope [and university administrators] from slander, or even from the shrewd question of the laity.

Scott Abbott

Professor of Integrated Studies, Philosophy and Humanities, Utah Valley University



About Scott Abbott

Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University, 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I'm Director of the Program in Integrated Studies and former Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade), and translations of a book by Austrian author Peter Handke and of a catalogue of an exhibit called "The German Army and Genocide." More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as a watershed scientist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a corrections officer, as university students, and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett and our yellow dog Blue. Some publications at
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s