I am an undergraduate at a US college. I wanted to take a course in a specific area of my major so that I could do better research during the summer. I do not have the prerequisite courses but I have extensive industry experience in this area so they are much less relevant. The course instructor (A) was ok with allowing me. I tried to respectfully ask permission from the department undergraduate advisor (B) but he refused permission right away and wasn't interested in what I had to say.

In a last-ditch attempt to be able to take the course, I emailed a higher-ranking professor (C) in the department explaining the issue and asking if she could help. This professor (C) forwarded my email to the original advisor B, who immediately sent me a nasty email saying that I don't dare ask someone else after I asked him.

While I can understand why the advisor reacted this way, why would a department member forward an email explaining a problem between a professor and student to the professor? I cannot wrap my head around it. Is this normal behavior for academic faculty?

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    – StrongBad
    Feb 1, 2018 at 16:48

6 Answers 6


While I can understand why the advisor reacted this way, why would a department member forward an email explaining a problem between a professor and student to the professor?

Is it the senior professor's formal task to handle complaints about or escalations from the advisor?

If yes, the senior professor indeed acted fairly unprofessionally, although it is a reality that in most cases the person that you complained about will learn about who complained about them as a matter of practicality (see some other answers for why this is).

If no, then, well, I am not sure what you thought would happen. Then you sent a random (presumably busy) senior person a mail about an issue that is in no way relevant to their tasks, and they did the only thing that makes sense from their perspective: glance the mail and forward to the person who is actually in charge for the request.

Look, I get that the first instinct when you get an unsatisfying decision is that you "would like to talk to the manager", but this is not how academia (or, really, any business) works. Department administrators delegate specific types of decisions to individual faculty members so that they don't have to deal with them one-by-one anymore. This is arguably not helped by the fact that faculty in academia tend to be very wary to step onto each other's toes. Hence, you will need to work with the undergrad advisor on these issues, even if you don't care for him much.

  • 6
    I've definitely heard stories about businesses that do work that way, where managers can and do override decisions by their employees to make a customer happy. So I don't know that "any business" is really accurate. But you're right that academia doesn't work like those businesses.
    – David Z
    Jan 28, 2018 at 23:53
  • 23
    To the student, academia is a business, particularly in the United States where undergrads are often paying tens of thousands of dollars a semester to be there. If a student doesn't think they're getting adequate "customer service," damn straight they're going to complain to anybody they think can help; they're making one of the most expensive purchases of their life. That you prefer academia not operate on such crass terms is irrelevant unless you're the one making the loan payments. That, of course, is different from whether such an approach is effective (in this case, it clearly was not). Jan 29, 2018 at 6:09
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    @DavidZ fwiw, I was thinking about the business analogue differently: if you are an employee and you go to your boss about a decision and don't like the outcome, you can't go to that person's manager for a re-ruling either (because OP said he was working in industry before). I understand that this isn't a great analogue, but neither is seeing studying at a university as a business transaction, no matter how much money you pay.
    – xLeitix
    Jan 29, 2018 at 13:17
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    @xLeitix What makes you say that studying at university isn't a business transaction? Failing to recognize it as such makes it difficult to identify with where the OP is coming from. Jan 29, 2018 at 18:17
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    @ZachLipton The view you present of academia makes some sense from an undergraduate perspective, but many or most graduate students are just as much "employees" (i.e., research assistants, GTAs, etc.) of the university as they are "customers" (i.e., students). Just because large amounts of money are involved, doesn't mean all the concepts that work in other businesses apply to academia. One easy way to understand this is that students are actually paying to be judged on their work and merits, and sometimes harshly. A normal customer service approach would have all students get straight As. Jan 29, 2018 at 20:26

If your complaint was framed as a request and didn't state that you already tried and failed to get a positive response from the responsible undergrad advisor, it is normal and efficient from the higher-up's perspective to send it to the person in charge.

If your complaint indeed stated that you are unsatisfied with the response from the undergrad advisor and are seeking redress, then it's normal to involve the undergrad advisor but unprofessional to forward your mail without at least masking your name. However, it would still be easy for the advisor to infer the author of the complaint, unless this is a huge department with many similar complaints coming in at the same time.

The reason why the higher-up forwarded your mail can only be guessed. Either they misunderstood your mail, thinking it wasn't a complaint but a request in line with the first paragraph, or they were unprofessional. It is within your rights, in any case, to seek redress to administrative decisions like the waiving of requisite courses, and therefore incorrect if the undergrad advisor tells you not to 'dare ask someone else'. If they don't leave it at an angry email (but I think they will), you still have the option to bring the matter to your university's ombudsperson.


The text of your question implies that you are supposed to take some requisite courses first to be able to take this specific course. I don't think it is the advisor who established this policy, probably this is a policy of your college, so he just enforced the policy. The fact that you asked the advisor "respectfully" does not mean that he owes you anything. You call your letter to the senior faculty a "complaint", but what exactly were you "complaining" of? That the advisor followed the policy and did not want to open this can of worms (I guess they get an awful lot of similar requests)? Neither the senior faculty was under any obligation to make exceptions to the policy for you. I suspect that (s)he concluded that the advisor had acted within his rights, so there was no formal basis for your complaint and thus no reason to overrule the advisor.

My answer may look rude to you, but maybe your life will become a bit easier if and when you understand that nobody owes you anything (unless they do owe you:-)).

  • 8
    I think one thing missing here is that the OP felt the undergraduate advisor "wasn't interested in what I had to say." Nobody is owed a policy exception, but it's not unreasonable to be upset when you don't feel you've been listened to before a denial is given, particularly given the professor's statement that the student is overqualified. Jan 29, 2018 at 6:49
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    @ZachLipton : It is not unreasonable to be upset about bad weather that ruined your plans for a picknic, but is it productive? So the advisor "wasn't interested", the senior faculty wasn't interested, still they acted within their rights. Maybe the advisor was not going to grant the exception to the policy under any circumstances, why would he be interested at all? And I am sure many other things are missing in my answer - it was not meant to be a treatise:-) I just wanted to say that maybe the OP should not be too thin skinned for their own good.
    – akhmeteli
    Jan 29, 2018 at 14:20
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    @akhmeteli The point is not that the student was denied something procedurally owed them. The point is policy exceptions exist because policies are not always in everyone's best interests. The policy exists because it makes sense the majority of the time. For the times when it only makes things worse, not better, policies can and should receive exemptions. The advisor does not owe the student an exemption on procedural or legal grounds, but one is owed on moral grounds unless there is a good reason to be denied, in which case reason should be explained. Otherwise we would not need advisors.
    – Aaron
    Jan 29, 2018 at 21:28
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    @Aaron The main purpose of an undergraduate advisor is not to grant or refuse exceptions.
    – cfr
    Jan 30, 2018 at 0:53
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    @akhmeteli "You are denied an exception to rule X because what you want violates rule X." That is false logic. In general, rules are made to improve society, but when abnormal circumstances cause the rules to degrade society instead, that is precisely what exceptions are for. "I am a Comp-Sci major with 5 years of work experience in electrical engineering; it's my last semester, and if I skip electronics-101 it will allow me to take a course which I will actually learn from instead" is a perfect example, and it is negligence to deny such a request that is in the student's best interest.
    – Aaron
    Jan 30, 2018 at 17:17

It doesn't strike me as normal, ethical, or sensible... but awkward things like this happen sometimes. Email etiquette isn't universally defined or followed.

When trying to persuade an administrator to take a certain action, it can be helpful to have a live conversation (phone or in-person).

A side benefit of this approach is that there is no potentially embarrassing email trail.

Moral of the story: you should never write anything in an email that would cause embarrassment if it were to fall into the wrong hands (e.g. through some thoughtless forwarding).

Right now I suggest your main message, to anyone you can get to talk with you, is to persuade them that you have enough of a background to be able to do well in this course. From your description, I would think any reasonable administrator would waive the prereq.

  • 1
    I think this is terrible advice, unless the OP wants to permanently alienate the undergraduate advisor, the senior faculty member and probably a bunch of others. The only person it might be worth going back to with this request would be the class instructor, who considered the OP rather overqualified. However, the OP should be prepared to be told that the instructor can't do anything.
    – cfr
    Jan 30, 2018 at 0:56

I think you were mistreated to have that email forwarded. Don't at all agree with the answers here saying you could not go to someone else. And you HAD already had the discussion with the given professor. It is your life, your time. That said, I also would have gone in person to have the discussion, not sent an email. Lesson for the future.

  • Don't at all agree with the answers here saying you could not go to someone else. - There is no such answer here. Jan 29, 2018 at 9:45
  • I don't quite get the point you're trying to get across, you don't think the email should have been forwarded but you do believe that the higher ranking member should have contacted the professor ?
    – everyone
    Jan 29, 2018 at 9:50
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    @henning Actually, the currently top rated answer does say essentially that. "When you're upset you want to speak to the manager. That's not how academia works. You need to work with your advisor."
    – Aaron
    Jan 29, 2018 at 21:32

It's normal to send complaints to people complained about, and if anything you should complain again to someone else about the first incident + the new nasty email incident.

If you could complain anything about anyone and they would never find out what the complaint was or from who and somehow be punished for it, that would fail universally.

When you complain about someone, you should expect it to be read by everyone at the university. Eventually, if your complain is not dealt with appropriately, you can post your complaints + any relevant responses to some campus facebook page or something and see what everyone else thinks about it.

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    I would rather stick to the formal procedure than to vent on a public facebook page. It's more professional, means less escalation, and more likely to be successful. Jan 29, 2018 at 9:42
  • Cool, me too. Where's the "rather" tho? I agree that it's more professional, I don't understand how escalation relates to either choice, and I think that the likelihood of success of either medium depends more on individual case factors than on which medium is chosen.
    – user86633
    Jan 29, 2018 at 11:46

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