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Late Grades? Pay Up, Professor

March 28, 2008

Many professors hate grading, and like most human beings, they often put off what they don’t like. So at many colleges, the end of a term results in some proportion of the faculty turning their grades in late, much to the dismay of the registrars whose job it is to process the grades and make them available to students. The outcome can be more than just annoying to the registrars; late grades can delay diplomas, disrupt the awarding of financial aid, or get students into academic trouble.

Various institutions have tried various measures to crack down on the problem – sending nasty notes, putting warnings in instructors’ personnel files, even delaying the paychecks of faculty members who turn in their grades late, as the University of Iowa’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences threatens to do.

Florida State University once had a major problem with late grades, Kimberly Barber, the interim registrar there, told a large group of interested registrars and deans Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. About a decade ago, instructors in an average of 10 to 15 percent of the 8,000 course sections Florida State offered each semester at the time missed the deadline for turning in student grades, driving registration officials there nuts. Processing grades after the end of the normal process (which formerly involved scanning, and is now entirely electronic) was costly, and forced administrators to spend significant time telling students (and parents) why they couldn’t have their transcripts or financial aid or, in extreme cases, diplomas.

Registration officials complained to senior administrators there, prompting a scolding memo to the entire faculty from the university’s provost. Like many a memo, that one was largely ignored, Barber said.

The next year, when Barber says the provost, Lawrence G. Abele, was frustrated about the faculty’s reaction to something else, Florida State’s registrar at the time told him that professors were still consistently turning their grades in late. Together the registrar and Abele came up with an idea that they thought might drive home the seriousness of the late grade syndrome.

As Barber explained to a somewhat incredulous audience Wednesday: Florida State is what she believes to be the only institution in the country that fines its professors when they turn grades in late at semester's end. The tab: $10 per grade.

"We charge for every grade for every student that is not turned in by our deadline," Barber said, adding, slowly for emphasis: "I'll say that again: Every grade for every student that is not turned in by our deadline."

With that, the crowd broke into a wave of spontaneous applause. (Perhaps not surprisingly, when Barber asked for a show of hands about who was in the audience, it was dominated by administrators. If there were any faculty members there, they didn’t dare raise their hands.)

It was clear from their reaction and from the questions they posed that a lot of audience members were intrigued by the prospect of a solution that, as Barber put it, many have told her “would never fly at my institution.”

It did not go over well at first at Florida State, Barber said. The first term, there was little change in the traditional behavior, and when the registrar’s office sent bills to the dean of each FSU college with some eye-popping dollar figures -- well into five figures in some cases, when you consider a survey course with 1,000 students, say – there was a “hue and cry on campus,” she said. “Even though we said we were going to do it, they didn’t believe it.” Strong support from senior administrators, including Abele, the provost, was essential, Barber said.

It took several years for the submission of late grades to “really taper off,” Barber said. But by the spring of 2007, instructors in just 59 of the more than 13,000 sections turned their grade rosters in late, and just 21 did so last fall. At this point, most of the laggards are graduate seminars or small courses with a new instructor or people who have forgotten to hit the “submit” button in Florida State’s now Web-based grading system; gone are the days of late rosters for 1,500 people, she said.

“Money’s not the important thing -- money’s the vehicle that forces grades to come in,” Barber said. She clearly relishes being able to call a dean, as she did recently, and ask him where the grade rosters were for a large humanities class with multiple course sections. “You better get ‘em in or you’re writing me a check for $17,000,” Barber recalled saying. “They were there, on my desk, in an hour and a half.”

The registrar sent its bills to the deans of Florida State’s various colleges and made them pay up; some deans have historically paid the tab out of the colleges’ budgets, while others have passed the costs on to departments or even to the faculty members themselves, which can take a particularly heavy toll on less-well-paid teaching assistants and beginning instructors.

Many of the questions after Barber’s presentation focused on the kinds of practical issues, such as the need for an appeals process (a must), how often faculty members cite technological problems (“the browser ate my grades”), etc.

But ultimately, what most of the officials in the audience were clearly wondering was: Could I possibly pull this audacious idea off on my campus?

Yes you can, Barber suggested, but only with the right kind of support and preparation. Support not only from senior administrators like the provost or the deans, but also from key faculty members who get it, and lots and lots of preparation that explicitly explains the rules and makes the deadlines unequivocal. “Go to every faculty meeting, publish it in every newsletter you can, write in the sky, whatever you need,” she said. “When that first bill comes out, you’re going to have to deal with the aftermath, so be very clear in defining your terms.”

Most professors want to do the right thing, Barber said, and in her experience, even those who have missed a deadline have “gotten it” when she put it in terms they understood: “Don’t give me an excuse that you would not accept from your own students.”

 

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