Does writing to a Department Chair always have to result in a grievance and/or official investigation, or does the Chair ever help the parties work things out? I had originally posed this question with student-faculty conflicts in mind, but I guess it could apply to faculty-faculty or student-student conflicts as well.

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    If your emotional state is a problem for you, speak to a mental health professional. Chairs are not mental health professionals, councillors, or mediators (unless they happen to have those skills because that's what they teach). Jun 8, 2020 at 7:12
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    I think that this could be a good question - what is the role of the department chair in relation to student-faculty member conflicts? What are the implications when a student takes a conflict to the chair?
    – Dawn
    Jun 8, 2020 at 14:11
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    Echoing @Dawn's comment: students in general have no idea how all these procedures work at their university (and, hopefully, never have to find out), and faculty often have no idea, either... so some facts, even if only local, would be illuminating to many. Showing the range of possibilities, and giving advice on how to find one's own local information would be very useful. Jun 8, 2020 at 20:21

2 Answers 2


I was a department chair, and your question doesn’t really make sense from my point of view. A department chair gets hundreds of emails every week, and on average approximately zero of them result in a grievance or an official investigation. Of course, most of them don’t involve a conflict between a student and a professor. But that’s certainly something that happens once in a while. Chairs get emails complaining about all sorts of things. Some of those complaints are trivial or petty, others are more serious. The chair will typically make at least a small effort to find the facts and reply to the email, or refer the complaint to someone else for more thorough handling.

I understand you’re trying to understand if your chair’s behavior was atypical. But your question as it currently stands is unanswerable, except in the trivial (and unhelpful) sense that the answer is “no, not all emails to a department chair result in a grievance”. Not all emails are created equal, and it’s possible that given the specific nature of your complaint and your institution’s policies, your chair’s response would have been completely normal and appropriate.

As for helping the parties resolve the conflict, yes, sometimes that might happen in a limited way, but a department chair is not a therapist or arbitrator, and usually is much too busy to spend an extended amount of time on helping people get along who aren’t getting along. If you want to succeed in academia or a similar professional environment, I recommend that you adopt the mindset that it’s your job to manage conflict with other people on your own, rather than expecting that a department chair or other figure of authority will come to your rescue when things go south. Because as a general rule, such an expectation would be highly unrealistic.


At my university, official grievances must be handled in a seriously cumbersome way. I think the same is true of most other universities. So a department chair is strongly motivated to try to mediate or otherwise solve such problems before they reach the level of official grievances.

I've never had the misfortune of chairing my department*, but I've served in several associate chair posts. (We have four associate chair positions, and I've held three of them.) In one, my duties included handling student complaints about faculty teaching. None of those complaints became formal grievances, and I think none resulted in any comments in the instructor's file, but I certainly did have serious discussions with some "culprits", and I believe this was sufficient to solve the problems.

  • To be precise, on two occasions, when the chair was away at a conference, I was appointed "acting chair" for a week or so, to deal with any issues that couldn't be handled by the staff and couldn't wait for the chair's return. Fortunately, there were no such issues.
  • In my case the chair made no effort to mediate or resolve the issue, and instead jumped right to an official grievance (i.e. meeting with the dean etc.). I've been struggling with the guilt for a year already and have relentlessly tried to have the complaint dismissed. I wasn't sure if all letters to the chair get handled in this matter or if his behavior was atypical (which it seems to be).
    – user124395
    Jun 9, 2020 at 2:54
  • @Gemini I have a feeling that the chair took immediate official notice of your letter because of how it was worded and/or because of past history or knowledge. That is, it was considered more serious like threatening to sue or stating there's harassment versus "I don't think my work was graded correctly."
    – mkennedy
    Jun 9, 2020 at 18:06

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