There's an interesting question over at Law.SE on the possibility of suing a university over what the OP saw as unfair disciplinary practices. I have often wondered...

Is there a type of professional or professional practice related to advising or representing students and/or faculty within the context of internal disciplinary procedures?

As a concrete example, let us assume that Mary was expelled for allegedly falsifying data for her thesis. Mary contests this.

  • If she sues in civil court, she should consult an appropriately-qualified, local attorney.
  • But if she instead takes her argument directly to the university's disciplinary committee, she will need someone with an in-depth knowledge of the policies, procedures, rules of evidence, witness disqualification criteria, time limits, etc. that are internal to the university. This person could scrutinize the investigation in-depth and "beat them at their own game" by pointing out how the evidence, according to university policy, should be seen in her favor or does not meet the internal requirements for expulsion.

Another example might be a purely advisory context: perhaps one is considering a romantic liaison with a student, and is wondering whether this could affect their employment.

Does such a professional or service exist? Is this a domain of highly specialized "regular" lawyers? Is there a separate professional practice for academic advisors?


  • This is a general question; I'm not currently facing a situation on which I need advice.
  • If necessary, we can limit the scope of the question to academic misconduct (plagiarism, falsifying data, cheating on exams, etc.) rather than personal misconduct.
  • I will tag this as US to further limit the scope, but I'm certainly interested in any answers, regardless of the location.
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    It's becoming common for students to bring attorneys in to help them in defending themselves in internal disciplinary cases of this sort. – Brian Borchers Oct 19 at 15:12
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    I think you win the prize for longest text length of tags I've ever seen. nice – Azor Ahai -him- Oct 19 at 15:53
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    This is also one of the longest text lengths I have seen -- 718 words! I have made some edits that reduce this by 60%. Feel free to make further changes if I botched anything, but I recommend keeping the length as short as possible. – cag51 Oct 20 at 2:36
  • In the US, disciplinary procedures are different at every university. The answers below are just examples. At some universities, disciplinary procedure is run by the dean of students, who might assign an associate dean of students the responsibility for representing a student. At a few universities, disciplinary procedure is run by a student honor court. In this case a student would be assigned to represent the accused student. – Anonymous Physicist Oct 20 at 2:51

I’m not aware of what you are asking about existing as a type of professional that one can retain (as per your question) — I suspect that would be a rather poor way to make a living — but at my university there are people who are available to consult on matters such as Mary’s expulsion case.

Since Mary sounds like a graduate student, the relevant place to go would be the university ombuds office. In some cases the student union or an employee union of some sort may offer some help.

If Mary were a faculty member, she would go to a committee of our academic senate where advisers would be able to advise her if the thing she wants to complain about is a violation of her rights as a faculty member, and about the procedure for challenging the administration’s decisions.

These advisers are themselves regular faculty members like me and only do this as a “side gig” for a few hours a month, but they will have received specialized training that gives them the knowledge to offer this sort of advice (in fact I am currently on a sister subcommittee of this committee so I received a lot of the same training myself), and will also have auxiliary staff they can turn to who specialize in the relevant policy matters and can offer further information if the need arises.

These advisers won’t be available for an unlimited time. Likely they will be able to meet with Mary 2-3 times and discuss her questions, but it’s not quite the same as having your own lawyer or other professional that you retain on an hourly basis.

Since through my involvement in the sister subcommittee I am privy to faculty grievances a bit like Mary’s, I can tell you that faculty members who really need professional help with their grievance process will often hire a lawyer (I have also seen cases of students hiring lawyers for help with a disciplinary matter), and this can make a big difference - it’s far from easy for someone without experience in these administrative processes to navigate the system. A lawyer may not be intimately familiar with the specific institution’s policies, but broadly speaking they have the right training and skill set to help in such challenging situations. They don’t come cheap, however...

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    It's worth noting that the ombuds office is generally a resource available to faculty as well if for whatever reason they are not immediately comfortable going to the academic senate. – Michael Mior Oct 20 at 1:21
  • Worth also noting that the union is (at many instutitions) an important support source for faculty, not just for students as you mention. – PLL Oct 20 at 10:07
  • @PLL faculty don’t have a union where I am (not allowed, they are regarded as managers). – Dan Romik Oct 20 at 14:14

In the United States, there is a lot of variation from institution to institution. If such an office exists, your best bet is to ask the ombuds. An ombuds is generally an impartial third party who mediates disputes within an institution. Ombuds typically cannot make binding decisions, and merely serves as an advisor between parties. Many institutions in the US have an "Office of the Ombuds", or something similar. For a couple of descriptions of what an ombuds' office may do, see:

Many institutions also often maintain separate offices for addressing specific kinds of complaints. For example, most American institutions of higher learning have a Title IX office, which is meant to focus on issues of sex and gender discrimination. The Title IX office will often be tasked with investigating accusations of misconduct, and may employ one or more attorneys who specialize in Title IX cases. Such an office may also employ or authorize various semi-professional investigators or coordinators to help deal with their caseload—the ATIXA website may give some insight. The Title IX office might work in parallel with a civil authorities (police and the courts), and may issue academic penalties (suspension or expulsion, for example) independent of a criminal case. There are attorneys who specialize in these issues, both in terms of prosecution and defense.

Most institutions also have some kind of "Academic Integrity Office" or "Offce of Student Conduct" (often housed under the umbrella of a Dean of Students). These offices are generally tasked with adjudicating accusations of cheating, plagiarism, and (if applicable) honor code violations; and may hear cases of discrimination, harassment, or sexual misconduct. Typically, this office is empowered to make decisions regarding student conduct, and can issue penalties (such as failing grades in classes, suspension, etc.). Most institutions have some kind of formal process, and the decisions are often made by a committee consisting of faculty, administrators, and/or students. Appeals generally go to a provost, president, or chancellor of an institution, and can eventually involve attorneys who specialize in academic misconduct (there are property rights associated to education, hence these kinds of issues cannot always be resolved internally). Examples include

Depending on the nature of your question, any one of these offices (or its equivalent) might be of service. Within an institution, you might also consult with HR, the chair of your department, your dean (assuming that you are faculty), your union (assuming that you are represented by a union, either as a graduate student or as faculty or staff), an appropriate vice president's office (e.g. VP of Student Services), or an outside attorney who specializes in the appropriate field.

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    Not sure HR and HR-like structures are a good suggestion for someone who is at least in a potential conflict with their employer. You wouldn't go to the other side's lawyers either, would you? – darij grinberg Oct 19 at 15:53
  • @darijgrinberg I did consider that, but if the question is hypothetical, then there aren't really "sides" yet, and the folk in HR can be expected to know the rules. – Xander Henderson Oct 19 at 19:15

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