Student grievance terribly mishandled at N.C. State

Note: A timeline of the events described here can be viewed here.

RALEIGH — When the 2001 spring semester began at North Carolina State University, Robert Boren was just a student looking forward to beginning his pursuit of a masters in education counseling. Little did Boren know, however, that one interaction with a professor would lead his grades being altered on his transcript, his chances at graduate education crippled, his pleas for answers about those being ignored, and his being threatened with arrest for trespassing.

A nontraditional graduate student, Boren wanted to enter NCSU’s education counseling masters program. Boren was taking courses in preparation for this program, including ECD 540: Gender Issues in Counseling, taught by Dr. Tracy Robinson. She was also in charge of the education counseling program.

At the beginning of the semester, Robinson gave Boren and her other students in the Monday-evening course them the class syllabus. A writing assignment was due at the start of the next class, she informed the class. The assignment was a “personal narrative” to be worth 15 percent of each student’s final grade. It required students to answer personal questions relating to their gender and sexuality.

The assignment began:

“What is your gender? What is your sexual orientation? Who have you told about your sexual orientation?”

Follow-up questions asked students to discuss societal discourses as well as common values to their sexual orientation.

Boren found some of the questions to be too personal, inquiring about private information that he thought no professor, no matter the class, had any business asking. “This is the professor saying ‘let me get in your business,'” Boren said.

Robinson, who now operates Robinson Counseling Services, an online counseling service based in N.C., did not respond to requests for an interview.

The meeting and the aftermath

Boren met Robinson in her office a few days before the assignment was due to discuss it. Boren described the meeting as professional, but he said Robinson seemed inattentive to his concerns about the personal narrative. The meeting “couldn’t have lasted more than ten minutes,” Boren said.

“At our meeting, I began by calmly expressing my discomfort with Dr. Robinson’s assignment,” Boren wrote on his Web site, “I shared my view that it was inappropriate to require students to disclose their sexual identities in the context of a graded assignment. I cited the very personal, private nature of the information, and made the case that such matters were often discussed only within relationships of trust. I pointed out to Dr. Robinson that I did not really know her.”

Also during the meeting, Robinson and Boren discussed his academic future and the fact that he intended to apply to the education counseling program. Boren recognized that Robinson held an important role in whether he would be accepted into the program.

“I assured her that I was not trying to ruffle any feathers, that I wanted to do well in her class and that I felt I needed to do ‘A’ work,” Boren wrote. “I told her that I was aware she would play a role in whether or not I would be admitted into the program. She nodded that I was correct.”

Nevertheless, Boren stuck by his objection to her assignment, and “at some later point Dr. Robinson ran out of patience and told me that the present situation reminded her of a song by Kenny Rogers,” he said. “Looking me right in the eye and quoting, she cautioned me, ‘You got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em.’ She said it stern-faced, and I felt warned.”

Boren said he asked Robinson what would happen if he chose not to answer the inappropriate questions. Robinson told him he’d fail the assignment, which would negatively affect his overall grade. Boren said he left the meeting stunned and “feeling extremely ill-treated [and] even more convinced of the impropriety of” the assignment. On the advice of a friend, he phoned Dr. Amy Halberstadt, an NCSU psychology professor and a Sexual Harassment Resolution Officer.

Boren completed the assignment, which were graded as Robinson had told them, according to the nature of their answers and on her estimation of whether each student had given complete answers. Boren received one of the lowest grades in the class. One question asked, “”On a scale of 0-10 (0 being complete comfort; 10 being total discomfort), indicate your comfort level with this assignment. Please discuss your response.” In reply, Boren wrote a page and a half on his “misgivings surrounding this assignment.” He wrote that allowing students to maintain personal privacy “would in no way hinder the instructor from challenging her students to examine these issues in their lives.” He also wrote that he could “envision non-heterosexual students still struggling with their identity feeling especially threatened by this assignment, and anguishing between lying about their orientation and revealing it before they are ready.” He received no credit for this answer because he didn’t use the 0-10 scale.

“I made my feelings known and got hammered for it,” Boren wrote.

Throughout the semester, Boren said, he never missed a class, kept up with the reading, and saw his grades steadily improve. Nevertheless, he continued to receive hostility from Robinson. She made remarks in class that seemed aimed at him. She singled him out “as the subject for what I experienced as an exercise in humiliation.” Once, he said, “she gave me points and then took them back on the mid-term exam.” Later, she asked students to “think about a situation where you felt powerless,” adding, “How about applying to get into graduate school and not getting in?”

Robinson made that remark on April 16. By then Boren had been notified that his application to grad school had been turned down, and that Robinson had given a low evaluation on it. He also discovered that his overall grade-point average (GPA) had been changed on his form. Robinson knew of Boren’s failed application when she made the remark, because she had turned down a request from her department head, Dr. Stanley Baker, that she meet with him and Boren to discuss it.

Sabotaged application and ignored grievances

Boren’s application for grad school was rejected on March 23, 2001, for the given reason that he was “Not competitive with current applicant pool.” Boren requested to review his application packet. What he saw angered him and prompted a question that NCSU administrators still refuse to answer.

Boren had completed his last two years of undergraduate study at NCSU with a 3.069 GPA. For his major, his GPA was 2.761. Inexplicably, however, on his application, the GPAs listed for both were the same: an even 2.50. Who changed his GPA? No one at NCSU will tell him.

According to documentation given to The Pope Center, Boren received strong evaluations from those at NCSU who reviewed his application as well as recommendations from those who knew him. Boren also noticed that the sample work that he submitted along with his application had not been seen. His letters of recommendation included one from a vice president at another university, and the following from a professor within the program, who wrote: “I’ve had Robert now in two classes. He received an A in Career [Counseling] and an A+ in Theories [and Techniques of Counseling]. With his permission,” the professor continued, “I will use Robert’s Career case study paper as a model for future classes.”

Nevertheless, Boren’s evaluation scores were 76, 69, and 60.5. The noticeably lowest score was from Robinson, and as Boren noted, it was “low enough to single-handedly take me out of the running, especially given that it was her track of the program.” Furthermore, Robinson had written in her evaluation that Boren “evidences some interpersonal and academic irregularities that are a source of concern.” But when Robinson had written that, she had had only the one, ten-minute interpersonal exchange with Boren.

Boren suspected his application had been sabotaged because of his disagreement over the personal narrative assignment. He alerted NCSU officials about the discrepancy in his grades, but rather than investigate, they simply told Boren that he would not have been admitted into the program.

“Actually, they are agreeing with me,” Boren said. “I wasn’t going to get in anyways because I was sabotaged.”

Boren decided to seek relief through the school’s grievance process. He studied the policies and discussed the procedure with school officials. He wrote to Dr. Kathryn Moore, dean of the NCSU School of Education, about his grievances against Robinson. He cited the personal narrative assignment, her attitude towards him in class, and the apparent sabotaging of his graduate school application.

Anona P. Smith, assistant director for student services, scheduled a meeting between Boren, Moore, Robert Sowell, dean of the Graduate School, and Jack Wheatley, associate dean of the College of Education. Robinson was not scheduled to attend. At that point, Boren was seeking an informal resolution to the situation.

The meeting took place with no action from school, so Boren sought a formal resolution. Smith, Wheatley, Moore, and Vice Provost for Equal Opportunity and Equity Joanne Woodward all told Boren that the process would not be timely, because Robinson would not be at NCSU during the summer and therefore not be available to meet for a grievance hearing.

Boren later learned that Robinson had been teaching on campus that summer. He wrote Woodward and Smith that NCSU’s summer session course listing showed Robinson teaching “Cross-Cultural Counseling” in Poe Hall. He also wrote that, “I have more than lost confidence in the handling of this matter by the College of Education.” Smith wrote back. “Dr. Robinson is teaching summer school this session; however she is not working for the College of Education but is employed by the McKimmon Center,” which is part of NCSU.

In July 2001, Boren filed a separate grievance against Moore, Wheatley, and Smith for deliberately obstructing his rights under the Grievance Procedure for Students. Following NCSU policy, he sent it to Chancellor Marye Anne Fox.

Fox and Boren exchanged letters, but Fox seems unconcerned by and unwilling to look into Boren’s allegation of obstruction by the administrators. She proposes that the “only meaningful remedy” would be to instruct the College of Education “to give you a hearing as promptly as possible,” a decision that would mean “there is no need to proceed with a grievance hearing against” Moore, Wheatley, and Smith.

Boren objected. This remedy, he wrote, “was to exempt the three deans from having to defend their actions, and send me back to rely on them for fair treatment.” He wrote Fox that he considered her remedy was inadequate. Fox responded by withdrawing Boren’s grievance, saying he is unwilling to participate in “activities designed to address student grievances.”

The Pope Center sought comment from NCSU Legal Council David Drooz on specific aspects of Boren’s grievance case against Robinson and NCSU officials, but Drooz refused to comment.

Trespassing Charge

With no administrator willing to look into the alteration of his grades, Boren decided to seek answers on his own from the Education Dept. “It’s illegal and I have a right to know who did it,” Boren said.

NCSU, however, disagreed. On Jan. 31, 2002, NCSU Chief of Police Thomas Younce told Boren that his presence in Poe was “disrupting the workplace” and “creat[ing] an atmosphere of concern among the employees.” He said that if Boren returned to campus, he would be arrest for trespassing. The only way to avoid arrest, Younce told Boren, was for him first to report to the NCSU police and present proof that he had an appointment on campus approved by the dean.

Boren asked Younce who complained and what they had said, and said he intended to appeal the trespassing order. “I can share with you that they consider your visits intimidating; your continued requests for the same informed raise a concern in their minds; and that they were beginning to feel harassed,” Younce wrote to Boren Feb. 18, 2002. “Whether you intended your actions to be intimidating or harassing or not, it was perceived to be by the staff.” Younce responded that Boren’s request for an appeal had been denied — even though Boren had not yet made the request.

In March 2002, even though Younce’s reply gave the outcome the appearance of a fait accompli, Boren did appeal the trespassing order with David Rainer, associate vice chancellor for environmental health and public safety. Rainer upheld the trespassing order.

In May 2002, Boren learned from Associate General Counsel Eileen S. Goldgier that the complaining witness leading to Younce’s trespassing order had been Younce himself. Boren hired a lawyer and appealed the NCSU decision in Wake County Superior Court.

In April of last year, Judge Stafford Bullock ruled that NCSU’s decision to ban Boren from Poe Hall was wrong and revered the decision. Bullock wrote that NCSU “acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner” in issuing the trespassing order.

Case continues

Since the trespassing charge was dismissed, Boren has still been unable to find out exactly what happened to his grades. He has continued his efforts through letters with the NCSU Board of Trustees, who informed him that it was not an issue for the trustees to consider. He even approached UNC President Molly Broad and others within the UNC system to no avail. Boren is no longer in school and works in the Raleigh area. He has started a Web site, www.abuseofpoweratncstate, to address some of the issues that occurred because of his struggles with NCSU.

Boren said he is not for sure what legal route he may take against NCSU. “I want them to be held accountable for their actions,” he said.