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I am a tenure track assistant professor in a relatively small university (approx. 6000 students). Without giving too much identifiable details, I'll just way that a student was unhappy with some aspect of the course (e.g. grading scales) and filed a complaint directly to the department chair and the dean of the college without giving me any opportunity to respond.

I certainly believe I didn't do anything wrong. At least no other student had a problem with the course. But that's perhaps not important to my question. (Update: The department chair stated over phone conversations that (s)he does not believe I did anything wrong under the extraordinary situation that we and many other schools are facing. My tone, in email messages, is professional but cold. E.g., using "Mr." rather than first name, using "I can..." rather than "I'll be more than happy to...". The Chair said (s)he would not consider this to be an issue. So while it's less than perfect, the Chair cleared of wrongdoing in private)

Surprisingly, the dean of my college got involved directly. Sending detailed instruction through the chair telling me what to do. After several rounds of negotiation, I gave the student exactly what this student demanded. But still, the dean does not like my tone. My messages to this student now have to be reviewed to make sure I sounded friendly and helpful.

This whole thing strike as rather strange. My question is how common are these? Is it common for students to complain to a dean and get their support? Is it common for a dean to get directly involved like this?

A bonus question is, as a tenure track person, what should I do? (Shut up, do what they say, and update my resume, just in case?)

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    This whole things strikes me as rather strange too. However, the answer to this question rather depends on how exactly the "several rounds of negotiation" went. Did the dean initially ask for your version of events, and did the dean take this information into account? – Wetenschaap Mar 25 at 11:53
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    Frankly, I'm worried that "But still, the dean does not like my tone. My messages to this student now have to be reviewed to make sure I sounded friendly and helpful." implies that you aren't free from fault here. Perhaps you responded inappropriately to a student if the dean feels the need to monitor your communication. I'd recommend some self-analysis here. – Buffy Mar 25 at 14:31
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    Nobody ever believes that they did anything wrong. Maybe you're getting railroaded. Maybe you need to act like a professional. Part of your job is dealing with problem students and if you can't do it you need to find a new job. – user120011 Mar 25 at 14:36
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    No, I was never given the opportunity to present my side of the story. I was only given instructions from the Dean which were based on students complaints. There were complaints that are not reality-based. – ssquidd Mar 25 at 15:11
  • If you're at a small, well-regarded (expensive) liberal arts school then the student probably has mommy and daddy power. This is a common situation and you can't do anything about it. It doesn't reflect anything about you and is unlikely to hurt you during tenure review a few years down the line. – user120011 Mar 25 at 15:15
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Let me stick to answering your questions directly.

Yes it is common for (a few) students to complain. Usually the complaints will go to department heads but, especially in a small place, might go directly to the dean. This might also be the case if the dean has a fairly public presence, as my own dean did.

No, it is pretty uncommon that a dean would want to monitor an individual faculty member directly, especially at so fine a grain as the communication with a particular student. They have a lot of tasks that would normally seem to be much more important. The fact that the dean is intervening directly here seems to imply that they think the situation is especially (important, disturbing, disruptive, ...). The implication is that it is important for you as well.

This can affect your future both locally and more generally. Good relations with students is an important selling point of many institutions, especially smaller ones. Your relationship with students generally can be an important consideration when it comes time for a tenure decision.

I don't have any knowledge of how you acted or whether it was appropriate or not, but the fact of the dean's intervention suggests that you need to take it as an important message. Some interactions with students are entirely inappropriate, even when the student has erred in some way.

If you have a trusted colleague, preferably tenured, I suggest that you review everything with them and see what advice they have for you.

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As a tenure-track person who presumably has the goal of making tenure, you must fall in line with what your dean has prescribed as behavior commensurate with one of their department instructors. If you feel the student has violated some part of the institution's enrollment agreement or your syllabus, these violations should be enumerated for your dean. However, if the dean is talking about tone and messaging, then this is likely an issue of your dean feeling like one of their tenure-track folks are not falling in line with what is expected of a tenured professor at your institution.

This question--and any answer, frankly--is very specific to your institution and your dean's management style, unfortunately. At the end of the day, if you want to make tenure, you need to consider that your dean will be a powerful voice during tenure review. Even if you don't intend to speak to your students in the way that you feel runs counter to your personal understanding of best practices, I think anyone else would recommend that a tenure-track person ought to focus on behavior and strategies that would more likely result in a positive tenure review.

That means, unfortunately, that you must start sanding down parts of your puzzle pieces so that they're fit with the existing puzzle.

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