UNC’s Roper: Can we fire teachers who turn in late grades to protest university policy?

Teachers at UNC schools who intentionally withhold grades — to protest university policies or actions, for example — can be fired, the UNC system’s Board of Governors was told Thursday.

The board’s committee on university governance had been asked to see whether additional policies are needed across the system to “prohibit and sanction specific types of misconduct by students and other members of University communities, including faculty and staff.”

The question was raised after some UNC graduate teaching assistants and faculty threatened to strike by withholding Fall 2018 grades in protest of a proposal to build a $5.3 million history center to house Silent Sam. The history center plan was rejected, and ultimately, grades were submitted on time. But members of the group said they might make good on the threat to withhold grades in Spring 2019 if UNC does anything with the embattled Confederate monument that would “place UNC students at risk.”

The Board of Governors is holding a meeting at Appalachian State University this week. Committees convened Thursday for updates on their work and to vote where needed to make recommendations for the full board to consider Friday.

Kimberly Van Noort, senior vice president for academic affairs for the UNC system, and Warwick Arden, executive vice chancellor and provost at N.C. State University, told the governance committee that while specific policies vary across UNC schools, instructors can face penalties for turning in late grades.

Arden said that for faculty, in fact, late grade-reporting is one of the most common infractions committed, but usually it’s because a student got sick and needed more time to complete assignments. Each case is closely scrutinized, he said.

Arden said that under existing policies, instructors can be disciplined — up to and including being fired — for intentionally reporting grades late, but that doesn’t appear to be a problem.

Interim UNC President Bill Roper asked Arden to say again whether professors could be fired for withholding grades. Yes, Arden said.

“It was threatened, I know that,” Roper said. He said it was frustrating to hear such a threat used because withholding grades “harms a lot of people.”

On hearing of the threat last fall, Roper said, it made him think of the adage, “There ought to be a law,” to prevent or punish such willful dereliction of duty.

UNC system attorney Tom Shanahan told the group that as new university Board of Trustees and Board of Governors members are brought on this fall and go through training, it might be a good time to offer instruction on conduct policies.

Silent Sam was torn from its pedestal by protesters in August. The base was ordered removed in January by outgoing Chancellor Carol Folt.

University officials say the bronze statue and the stone on which it rested are in storage while a committee comes up with a new plan for what to do with it.

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.