13

(Breakdown of a larger issue - full story here)

Following the (delayed) approval of my thesis paperwork by my professor, the review staff of my small (~20 grad students?) department took weeks to give me each round of revisions. After the second revision, having already had my thesis for nearly the entire semester, the reviewer admitted to "forgetting" about my paperwork for over a month. She followed that up by telling me she was shelving my paperwork to "focus on other students who still have a chance of graduation this semester." Even though I should have graduated the semester previous, and had been waiting months for her to finish the review so I could get my thesis bound (required by the graduation process).

The reviewer was fired shortly after the end of that semester, the new reviewer and I got it finished up in just over a week, and the dean of the college wrote a letter to the graduate school requesting my graduation be back-dated. This was refused with only blanket statements about 'policy'. Obviously I should have escalated the issue much sooner, but I wasn't world-weary enough to realize that "the people in charge" were being so negligent and unprofessional, or to realize that I could do anything about it. I think students in general are often too intimidated by the people in the 'ivory tower' to speak out and ask for better treatment.

How can students know when they are being treated unfairly? How can they get their complaints taken seriously and appropriately escalate issues through their department/college without being ignored? Is there any recourse for them - a way to get the school to correct the issue?

  • 2
    Does your university have an ombudsman? – mkennedy Feb 28 '14 at 18:12
  • Can your supervisor help? Or perhaps a student representative? – SoB Feb 28 '14 at 19:23
  • Could you say a bit more about the reviewer that "got fired"? Was the reviewer a tenured faculty member? If so, getting fired is very serious and unusual, and I can imagine the "blame buck" stopping at that faculty member. On the other hand, if that faculty member got fired for issues having anything to do with your case, that certainly strengthens the position that there is some real grievance on your part to be redressed. – Pete L. Clark Feb 28 '14 at 21:02
  • @PeteL.Clark The reviewer was department office staff, not a faculty member. So far as I know, her only duties were to assist with student records and paperwork. – brichins Mar 3 '14 at 22:01
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    @mkennedy: Yes, maybe. Still, holding up a thesis for up to a semester for these reasons is terrible...maybe terrible enough for the employee to get fired. – Pete L. Clark Mar 4 '14 at 3:22
13
+100

You're not at the end of the line yet. Getting the date changed may be not be an option, but there are still steps you can take before going full Edmond Dantes. First, I'll try to answer the more general questions.

How can students know when they are being treated unfairly?

You usually know at a base level when you're being wronged. You clearly were on multiple occasions.

How can they get their complaints taken seriously and appropriately escalate issues through their department/college without being ignored?

Being respectful and professional is key. The second you "rage," you will no longer be taken seriously. Avoid personal attacks at all costs and always check yourself before you go forward. Assume that people are reasonable and willing to help, even when they seem otherwise. Communication is about the message that's received, not the one that's sent.

Carefully measured accusations of impropriety can sometimes help, but be cautious, they will also burn bridges. I had a strong disagreement with a professor where at one point he refused to discuss the topic further. In turn, I summarized our interaction and accused him of being unprofessional. When he defended himself, he included a restating of his understanding of my goal. At that point, it became clear he mistook my request for my objective. What seemed like arrogance and dismissiveness were really misunderstanding. We were able to resolve the matter and are now on good terms.

Judicious use of carbon-copying. CCing the wrong person at the wrong point will actively work against you on the points of both respect and professionalism. That said, there is a role for it when transitioning between administrative levels. When you CC someone in on an ongoing conversation, they can see the back and forth history.

If you are:

  • Clearly conducting yourself properly and respectfully
  • Being treated unfairly
  • Have a concrete goal they can do something about (simply complaining won't cut it)

then you can attempt to escalate the matter to the person's direct superior by CCing them instead of generating a new e-mail chain. You should be immediately switching the direction of your conversation to the new person at the same time, referencing the fact that your are doing this because you are out of options, and be in the right. You will be very, very heavily implying misconduct on behalf of the previous person in this case, but will want them to come to that conclusion on their own. One could make an exception on this in extreme cases regarding ethics, safety, etc.

I think you are past the point where you can begin to CC someone's superior before taking it to them directly, as that requires some degree of personal familiarity. That does remain a potential, if very risky, option in other situations.

Is there any recourse for them - a way to get the school to correct the issue?

There are three further levels you can take this.

  1. The President of the College. The individual College Deans still have to report to someone. You do not want to telegraph your moves anymore at this stage. I don't have a good suggestion for the best way to frame your request for an appointment, but you can't afford them asking the Graduate College Dean for details prior to the meeting if they've already been compromised. Here are some more important tips for this:

    • You will also have some serious convincing to do that you're an adult. Be wearing a suit/dress and be immaculately groomed.
    • Have your greeting and synopsis rehearsed.
    • Lead with the impact this has had on you, not the history; your career and licensing is also their primary method of exposure to the working world.
    • Have every single piece of documentation you can scan or print, and have it ordered chronologically and separable by party at fault, if possible. Chronology is more important, as it shows your body of support and could reveal any collusion against you.
    • The copy of documentation you bring with you needs to be something they can keep then and there.
  2. The Accrediting Agency. This is no longer about degrees at this point, and it will do nothing for you directly. I'm not even sure the issues at hand are relevant to them. But they do vouch for the integrity of the school. You will really just be filing an official report against the college at best, but if your degree dates remain changeable by College policy and they refuse to do so, it could be considered a form of academic misconduct.

  3. Legal Recourse. (Disclaimer: I Am Not A Lawyer) You could go the legal route, as suggested. They are damaging your ability to earn income in an easily quantifiable way. Legal fees, lost wages, and maybe some psychiatric care may be able to be recouped, but you will certainly be paying up front for this. This will probably cost you more money overall, not to mention the time and stress dealing with the court proceedings.

As you take this matter to increasing levels of aggressiveness, you will find your support waning. People don't like to get involved with other people's problems, especially when it ceases to benefit them. I personally recommend stopping after the President regardless of the outcome. Your health and happiness are the most important things you have, and this is already taking a sizeable toll. You really have to ask yourself, in twenty years, will you be happier that justice was exacted or that the whole thing is a distant memory?

Finally, find a good therapist. If nothing else, it's a place you can vent where the negativity won't linger. Your home should be where your soul can heal and rest, not where you dump the wastewater from washing the wound. I hope something in here is helpful, and wish you the best of luck.

  • 1
    +1, but steps #2 and #3 do constitute "going full Edmond Dantes" and John is right to caution against them. Whatever income you may have lost from a two-semester (three-semester?) delay in your thesis approval pales in comparison to the harm these would do to your professional reputation even if you are right. Regrettably, the terms "graduate student," "university staff" (up to and probably including your reviewer), and "treated unfairly" are all near-synonyms. – Christopher Harwood Mar 15 '14 at 16:32
  • @ChristopherHarwood fully agree - ultimately I chose years ago not to pursue this to the full extent. Even though the delay (3 semesters) easily could have cost me a full year's wages (plus 10-20% wage difference of another full year by delaying licensure), the effects did not reach that extent. Mostly because I moved to another field for a few years to avoid the fallout. The main reason I decided to post the questions on my situation now is that the prevalent injustice you refer to still appalls me, and I thought having some concrete insights might help other students in similar situations. – brichins Mar 24 '14 at 17:22
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    As noted on academia.stackexchange.com/questions/17555, @John Neuhaus' answer is the best response to both that question and this one. My answer there was, at best, an annotation to his answer here. Further discussion with the OP on that question also revealed that my answer there, while useful in many cases, was a bit off the mark in that particular case. I was going to place a bounty on another interesting question, but I see that John still has "beginner's" rep and his answer deserves the bounty for both questions. So he gets the bounty from both questions. – Christopher Harwood Mar 25 '14 at 16:26
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    @brichins I'm glad you didn't, and glad you asked this for others. You seem to have a strong drive for justice, concern for others, and a nice dash of humility given the situation. That's an excellent character combination; the world will most likely be a better place for you having saved your energy for another fight. – John Neuhaus Apr 1 '14 at 3:47
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    @ChristopherHarwood That was a great answer and added a lot to the topic that wasn't elsewhere, fully deserving of the bounty IMO. I think between the three of us, we gave the standard Q&A format a pretty good workout! – John Neuhaus Apr 1 '14 at 3:51

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