Friday, March 28, 2008

Submit Grades or Else at Florida State

Grdaplus From Inside Higher Ed today:

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 . . . .

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 . . . .

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.

First, I wonder if this applies at the law school (Lesley Wexler, Dan Markel or someone else, can you confirm or deny?).  Also, there may be some academic freedom issues here (I'll leave that to Paul Horwitz's of the world), but what I really wonder is if this practice a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) or similar state wage and hour law? 

Usually, an exempt, salaried employee may not be docked for pay for work rule violations without putting their exemption at risk.  In other words, docking pay may turn your salaried worker into an inadvertent hourly, non-exempt worker. Depending on how often FSU has been doing this, this might be an expensive mess that FSU doesn't even realize.

Here is an explanation of the salary basis test for exemption under the FLSA from the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor:

Deductions from pay are permissible when an exempt employee: is absent from work for one or more full days for personal reasons other than sickness or disability; for absences of one or more full days due to sickness or disability if the deduction is made in accordance with a bona fide plan, policy or practice of providing compensation for salary lost due to illness; to offset amounts employees receive as jury or witness fees, or for military pay; for penalties imposed in good faith for infractions of safety rules of major significance; or for unpaid disciplinary suspensions of one or more full days imposed in good faith for workplace conduct rule infractions. Also, an employer is not required to pay the full salary in the initial or terminal week of employment, or for weeks in which an exempt employee takes unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

I don't see where the grade penalty fits in, do you?


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The statement didn't say that professors' pay was docked. That might seem a fine distinction, but it seems to me that if the grade penalty is a fine, then it's not necessarily a deduction in pay. It would become a debt owed to the school (which the employee agreed to pay upon signing their employment contract), which the school might then collect through traditional debt collection procedures.

Chicago-Kent does something like this. They fine professors per day that the grades are late, but not per student (at least as far as I can remember). Although this never happened to me, I got the impression that the fine was paid out of the faculty member's expense budget. Faculty got a certain amount of money that could be spent on business-related things like conference travel or books. If that is true, then there wouldn't be an FLSA problem. And I would imagine that stipends or grants could be denied or something without running afoul of the FLSA.

Posted by: Marcia | Mar 28, 2008 1:10:50 PM

Marcia, thanks for the great comments. Here's what I wrote over at Concurring Opinions in comments:

"I don't believe that it matters where it is an actual pay check deduction or denominated an 'administrative fee.' It comes down to the way in which you treat the employee as far as the quality or quantity of their work in a given week. If you are exempt, the amount of time at work or amount of work you do should not impact what your salary is on a week to week basis. Grading is related of course to professor work, and whether it is an administrative fee or pay check deduction, the practice seems problematic to me.

Sorry, Bruce, forgot to mention reimbursements. Other types of deductions on your pay check (for phone calls, benefits, parking, fitness center membership, etc.) are only permitted because the employee generally has consented to such deductions. This is actually not a FLSA issue, but one that comes up under state wage payment and collection laws."

So I agree with you that it is a fine and not a docking of pay, but I think it can be characterized as a "deduction" of a "penalty" (the regulatory language) based that it is linked to the amount of work one does in a given week.

But you are right that if the fine is denominated a "debt," than state Wage Payment Laws apply, not FLSA, and the employer might have to sue for it in small claims court. In this circumstance, the debt could not be collected consistent with state law out of the employee's paycheck without her consent.

Finally, the way Chicago-Kent does or did it seems less objectionable for the reasons you mention.
Any FLSA scholars want to chime in on this?

Posted by: Paul | Mar 28, 2008 1:19:31 PM

I am an FSU professor in Economics, and I just stumbled on this blog while searching for something else.

As far as I know the version presented here is incorrect. I believe that departments (not individual faculty members) are penalized for late grade submissions. As I understand it, this means that administration reshuffles small amounts of internal money between units based on differences in % of grades late.

I should add that when I arrived at FSU in 1990 we had a ridiculously early deadline for final course grades. I think it was the Monday morning after finals week, when some exams were not over until 7pm on Friday. That deadline was extended at roughly at the same time that the penalty was added.

Posted by: Carl Schmertmann | Apr 9, 2009 12:05:30 PM

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