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I am an adjunct professor. For some reason, I seem to draw out student complaints about full-time faculty from the students.

The complaints include:

  • Slapping a student’s hand out of the way when the student wasn’t performing a lab fast enough.
  • Calling a student “deaf and dumb” in front of the whole class.
  • Reducing student grades for being “disrespectful”.
  • Not grading any homework until the last week or so of semester, and then not being available because they have too much marking.

The students tell me that they have complained to the Chair, the Dean, and the President --- to no effect. I'm not privy to the contents of most of these complaints, but the ones that I have seen are quite thorough and professional.

The complaints I have seen:

  • Identify specific problematic faculty behaviors.
  • State specific times and places where the problematic behaviors occurred.
  • Suggest (partial) remedies for the behaviors.
  • Request action from the hierarchy.

Is there anything else that the students can do, given that the college management structure seems unable or unwilling to deal with the problems?

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    The problem here doesn't seem to be that the students aren't complaining properly - from what you've written, they have valid things to complain about (perhaps not including #4), and the complaints they're making are "thorough and professional". So the real problem seems to be that the university isn't doing anything about legitimate complaints. That's not a problem the students can solve by complaining in a different way; the solution is either going to be that the university starts addressing legitimate complaints properly, or the students take their complaints outside of the university.
    – kaya3
    Dec 21, 2021 at 11:58
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    By "outside of the university" I mean either getting the word out that this is how the university treats its students, or consulting a lawyer to see if there is anything actionable (perhaps on the basis that the university is not following its own published policies, which could be breach of contract, for example). This is assuming there is documentary evidence of what was complained about and what the university's response was.
    – kaya3
    Dec 21, 2021 at 12:02
  • Ah, yes. The good ol' "We don't want to take any rectifying actions because we don't think your complaints aren't good enough" approach.
    – DKNguyen
    Dec 22, 2021 at 18:16

3 Answers 3

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First, it isn't your place to get involved directly, especially if the administration isn't dealing effectively with the problems. It jeopardizes your own position.

But, you could mention to the students that joint action is more effective than individual complaints. If half a dozen students go to the dean as a group with a valid complaint, things are more likely to happen than if one does or, possibly, if they went individually.

Some complaints, of course, are nothing more than misunderstandings by students of the proper roles of faculty and students. I'm assuming that you handle those quite differently. Some students have a hard time adjusting to the college environment and its expectations.

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    Sadly, joint action is also more effective for invalid complaints. Dec 20, 2021 at 20:34
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    By collective action, do you mean involving a student union? Or something more informal? Student unions vary, but some certainly have good enough political nuance to get changes made.
    – Clumsy cat
    Dec 21, 2021 at 13:00
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    @Clumsycat, not necessarily unions or formal structures. Among other things they aren't universally available. But just five or six people with the same complaint acting in unison can have an effect.
    – Buffy
    Dec 21, 2021 at 13:03
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Sounds like the students have made very sensible attempts to make individual complaints. It's frustrating that has not worked.

Do you have a student union?

Student unions vary a lot. Most of them are run by students and recent graduates who really like advocating and activism. Some of them are well established and have good communication with the university faculty. Some of them are quite minimalist or very disorganised. Provided you have one that is not too disorganised you might recommend that the students raise their complaints with the union.

That they are normally staffed by students/graduates who enjoy advocating makes them likely to try to do something with the complaint (unfortunately enjoying advocating isn't always the same as being good at it). Unions stick around longer than individual students, so they may know of a history of complaints that should be raised. This longevity can also lead to better communication with the university, they might know who would be worth contacting in the central administration.

It's certainly not guaranteed success, but if there is a student union available, it should be tried.

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    Thanks! I used the phrase “student union” and apparently that came across as the building / facilities. Apparently the term here is “student government” for the same thing I’d call a “student union”.
    – Peter K.
    Dec 21, 2021 at 15:14
  • TIL. That is not a term I had heard before either.
    – Clumsy cat
    Dec 21, 2021 at 15:15
  • I suspect it's not very common in the US for students to have a union in this sense, i.e. an organization that exists exclusively to advocate on their behalf against the university "management" (faculty, staff, administration). "Union" would typically be reserved for an organization of employees in a workplace. A student government can fill that role to some extent, but it's probably not going to be as effective as an actual union would. From what I've heard, a university ombudsperson (or the office of the ombudsperson), though not a student, might be better placed to serve as an advocate.
    – David Z
    Dec 21, 2021 at 17:54
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    @DavidZ Wow, I had no idea. Who takes responsibility for running of student societies in the US?
    – Clumsy cat
    Dec 21, 2021 at 18:19
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    I'm not even sure if we understand the term "student societies" to mean the same thing! If you're talking about sports teams, performing arts groups, social clubs, and other groups organized around activities, it varies from case to case but they're typically run by elected representatives of the student members, overseen by a faculty advisor (i.e. a professor) and/or an office of the university leadership which might be headed by the "Dean of Campus Life" or "Dean of Student Activities" or some similar role. (If you want, we can discuss this further in chat)
    – David Z
    Dec 21, 2021 at 20:24
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Student complaints about faculty behavior are common. University leadership does not and usually should not address these complaints publicly.

Publicly addressing complaints

  • invites more complaints
  • encourages faculty to lower their standards to reduce complaints
  • is unprofessional

It's not your concern how complaints are addressed privately.

For tenured or unionized faculty, some complaints simply cannot be addressed.

You should use complaints as a learning opportunity. Students can learn how to use additional resources besides faculty. Students can learn how they can behave ethically during their careers. You can teach these things without directly addressing the other faculty member's behavior.

In rare cases of criminal conduct, you may be ethically and/or legally obligated to report the student complaint to an authority. Check your local "mandatory reporter" laws. In some cases, you might refer the student to an omsbudsperson or a union that represents student interests.

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    Where do "mandatory reporter" laws apply to complaints from students who are adults? Are you thinking of the occasional 16- or 17-year-old college student?
    – nanoman
    Dec 21, 2021 at 9:41
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    @nanoman: In the US, many employees of colleges & universities are "mandated reporters" for the purposes of the Clery Act. Here's an example policy. As far as I can tell, though, these policies don't usually include faculty as mandated reporters. Dec 21, 2021 at 13:04

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