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I'm a law student acting as a teaching assistant/fellow for a tenured and notable law professor. Between last year when I took the course myself and now when I am a TA/TF, his mental acuity and health has declined significantly. He has essentially no short-term memory, tremors, and can't follow conversations. He rambles, mixes up classes and assignments, and even physically wanders off to look for things (not returning with anything...) in the middle of class.

The students know that something is wrong and often exchange looks when he loses the conversation or rambles. The faculty MUST know. His assistant attempted to see someone in the administration for help but they brushed her off, and once the professor found out, he never forgave his assistant and there is a rift between them.

My heart breaks for him. He's had an excellent career and I don't want him to face this kind of humiliation. But at the same time, his condition is so poor that I had to teach the two-hour class today. He must know that something is wrong, too, because he will often make awkward jokes to cover memory lapses.

What can I do? He won't see a doctor. I am afraid of burning bridges with him by confronting him, since that's what happened to his assistant. I don't want to go behind his back to the administration for the same reason. I need his recommendation/reference for my career aspirations. His family is absent. I also worry that any intervention at this stage, in the middle of the semester, will only hurt his students.

Who, if anyone, in a school administration could I speak to about this? Is there someone who handles this sort of thing? Should I? Is it inappropriate for me to insert myself in someone's personal affairs like that?

Any help/advice is appreciated.

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    @Moriarty I would assume the latter based on the tone used based on how the situation is described. – Compass Feb 18 '15 at 14:12
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    One minor but important point: according to Wikipedia, the definition of mental health is the "psychological state of someone who is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional and behavioral adjustment". From everything you've described, it sounds like the professor in question does not have a mental health issue; he has a brain health issue. Memory loss and loss of cognitive faculty is generally a sign of Alzheimer's or other neurodegenerative physical illness, and as such I think the title ought to be changed. In any case, the situation is serious, and needs to be handled carefully. – DumpsterDoofus Feb 18 '15 at 16:43
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    You should be able to speak confidentially with your HR representative, especially wrt what is the proper way for you to proceed in this matter. – RBarryYoung Feb 18 '15 at 19:26
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    HR should be available to all paid employees, even if you haven't been specifically assigned a representative. This is true for virtually all institutions. Just go over to HR and ask to speak to someone in confidence. – RBarryYoung Feb 19 '15 at 16:17
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    As a side note, it's slightly worrying that he found out when his assistant decided to tell someone. That information should be strictly confidential, even if the assistant didn't feel like it should be. It may be that the assistant spilled the beans, but if he found out some other way, that's not right. – Peter Feb 19 '15 at 17:35
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Let the department head know what you've observed. You can write an anonymous letter if you feel uncomfortable or are worried about burning bridges.

(I've been in this situation, as a student. We - the students in the class - wrote a collective letter to the department head. He was able to arrange extra TA support for the professor for the rest of that semester. He also arranged things so that this professor had other duties in the department going forward, but no more teaching.)

  • Thank you so much for this. One question, though: law doesn't have departments, only a dean of the entire law school, but that's who the assistant already tried to contact and was rebuffed. Should I do it again? – Anonymous Feb 18 '15 at 2:36
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    @Anonymous Sure, try again. Repeated complaints are harder to ignore. If it's in writing (i.e. a letter) it may be harder to brush off. You can also check what other relevant deans exist - a letter sent to three people is again, harder to dismiss, than an oral report to one person. – ff524 Feb 18 '15 at 2:39
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    Further to the answer by @ff524 , you could also write --anonymously -- to another high-up academic who has oversight over teaching and student welfare. I expect that there is a Dean of teaching, or student affairs or student experience etc., to whom you could write and mention the problem. – Nicholas Feb 18 '15 at 7:48
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    @Anonymous School, department, same thing. Talk/write to the head honcho, whatever their job title is. – David Richerby Feb 18 '15 at 9:52
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    Especially since it is a law school. They'll probably take repeated written complains very seriously – Taladris Feb 18 '15 at 15:35
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If nobody does anything about it, it will eventually blow up, but probably not in the nicest way.

I had a similar experience with a professor that had a more than a small problem with alcohol. We were students, so we didn't want to risk our mark/course by going "against" him/her, so what we did was (as @ff524 suggested) to write some anonymous letters to the department. This lead to him/her going to seek help and everything got fixed in the end.

If nobody would had done this, it would probably have ended in some very unpleasant situation where the school probably would have been forced to fire him/her. Informing the school about the problem was definitely the best option for students, the school and him/herself.

This is just a personal experience in a bit different scenario, but I thought I may be helpful.

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It is very wrong to assume that the other members of the department or the administration do not know about this faculty member's condition. It's very likely that they knew about it previously and they know about it now.

However, they are not at liberty to share the details about what they know about their colleague's health with you. This is both an issue of medical privacy as well as a human resources / personnel issue. They may be taking steps themselves to lessen his workload or to arrange a temporary medical leave -- but again, they may not or cannot share those details with you until they are officially public. And they may deeply care for their colleague and not want to publicly embarrass him by removing him from his post before they can arrange a phased retirement.

So when you speak to them, they may only be able to listen and not tell you what they know or what they are going to do. Which seems from the outside like they do not care, but it may be far from that in reality.

Now they might not be aware of some of the impact that his recent decline has had in the classroom. It might be useful to write a private letter or to talk to your chair/dean/provost about how to mitigate the impact on other grad students. But making a big public fuss and public embarrassment might be exactly what the administration may be trying to prevent.

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    I think you misread my post. I explicitly said that the other faculty certainly must know about the issue but clearly no action has been taken. It was the dean, whom the professor's assistant approached with concern, who brushed off her concerns and said everything was fine (they didn't tell her they couldn't speak about it or anything). – Anonymous Feb 18 '15 at 13:42
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    Just because you don't see any action being taken doesn't mean that there isn't anything happening in the background -- above even the level of the regular faculty. Furthermore, you should be cautious about reported speech from the professor's assistant. The administration may be reluctant or unable to speak to her about the faculty member's condition -- and she really shouldn't be sharing her conversations with the administration with students. – RoboKaren Feb 18 '15 at 14:37
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    p.s. If the assistant is known as this sort of gossip, this may also be why no information is shared with her. – RoboKaren Feb 18 '15 at 14:43
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    No need to make personal attacks on his poor assistant. She's been his secretary for many years and they have worked closely together. Six months ago, when this got worse, she started making his lunch every day and walking him to and from class. She is not a "gossip." The other TA and I approached her with our concerns and she explained that she had already tried to seek institutional help. – Anonymous Feb 18 '15 at 18:54
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    No attacks, it's just that the administration may be limited what they can say to whom. An assistant who talks freely with students may be seen as a liability in terms of information compartmentalization. – RoboKaren Feb 18 '15 at 23:22
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There is a possibility that he has (as my late father had 15 years before his death) a mere circulatory impairment, and that a simple (well, somewhat routine) "roto-rooter" treatment (balloon angioplasty) in hospital will restore his acuity. My dad got his marbles back. So can your prof, if it's the same difficulty.

Go to the Dean, and stress the importance of getting your dear professor to the doctor now, before it is too late.

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    We thought my grandmother had dementia, until she'd already been in a nursing home for some time, and they brought in a new doctor who changed up her diabetes treatment. She came back to her old self. All this to say that there is basically everything to be gained, and even possibly real benefit to your prof's health by pressing the issue. But it's a tough situation to be the one taking action, and I wish you the best of luck. – kmc Dec 18 '17 at 14:00
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It's been a year and I thought I should post a follow-up. I waited until the semester was over and then went to the administration, but was blown off. I even tried reaching out to his family, who didn't think there was a problem. Ultimately the issue came to a head without my involvement. He was so unable to teach that they took him off the teaching roster. Speaking engagements received very negative feedback, and ultimately there was no ignoring the issue anymore. He has since gotten medical attention and is no longer teaching, but the experience was as humiliating as I had feared it would be.

It's really a shame that it came to this, and ultimately none of my concern or help made a difference--it had to just blow up in his face. I am disappointed that the administration was too little and too late.

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    Thanks for following up. The university administration should be ashamed but I suspect many of then have no shame left. You are a good person and did your best. Take what comfort you can in that. In academia the best solution is often not applied, what is taken is the path of least resistance but you can hold your head high. – If you do not know- just GIS Jan 9 '16 at 20:03
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He could have early stage form of dementia such as alzheimer's. Addressing it earlier on is important as interventions can slow the progression of the illness. I think you should contact the department in some way to start forming some shared approach to assisting the professor. He will probably need to visit a neurologist.

I'm currently working on a project researching those with Dementia, and its quite common for those with it to deny any problems. I have spoken with families who have and elder with dementia, and some of them haven't told the elder about the problem, as they thought it would be too much for them to bear. However, there are known treatment methods for dementia and it's important to get started sooner rather than later since in the case of dementia it's a progressive degenerative disease of the brain.

Now I know there is no formal diagnosis, but there are groups like https://www.dementiafriends.org.uk which are a collective of people who share information on how to best deal with those suffering with dementia. If you reach out to them they may be of assistance also.

Best of luck.

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First, a point of principle: It is your ethical responsibility as an academic and as a teacher to make sure the students do not experience a mis-taught course (or worse) due to this situation. So, you must do something and it's a matter of choosing tactics.

Second, a warning. Your Professor might get very angry at you if he does not agree he has a problem, but finds out you've gone round accusing him of being a nutty professor, so to speak :-( Do things to mitigate this risk.

Some ideas (some complementary, some contradictory):

  • You wrote the other faculty "MUST know". Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't and you're just jumping to conclusions. Find out. Does he have friends among the faculty? Talk to his friends, tell them you're worried but you're embarrassed/afraid to talk to him directly since you don't want it interpreted the wrong way. They should at least be understanding and may well provide valuable insight/information. Hey, maybe they intend to do something themselves...
  • You wrote the family is "absent". Make them non-absent. Determine phone numbers (phone! not email!) and call them by order of proximity of relation. If you can't get a phone number, only email to say you have a delicate personal matter that worries you regarding Prof. Somebody, and that you very much ask that they agree to a phone conversation.
  • Try not to act alone. Are there other TAs? Try to coordinate actions with them. Do you have a faculty union? Coordinate with your union rep before going to management with this.
  • What about the students? If they've noticed, try having a discreet word with the relevant Student Union rep. Make him promise not to attribute any claims to you, but tell him you're concerned and if the students initiate some sort of a complaint, they will get non-confrontational backup from you (or others as well, if you're coordinated with others).
  • Try to ask/manipulate someone authoritative to be in the room when your Professor is having one of his spells.
  • I'm neither an academic nor a teacher. I'm just a student who took the class last year and was asked to TA it this year. So I do not believe I have any such responsibility, and I don't feel comfortable approaching other members of the faculty or contacting his family. – Anonymous Feb 22 '15 at 19:44
  • Assuming you've accepted the position - you are now an academic. A teacher in Academia. Your paramount obligation in this capacity is not passing the syllabus material on to the students, but safeguarding the well-being of Academia around you, ensuring - as much as it is relevant and appropriate - that it serves its purposes and meets its internal values. Having said that - it's perfectly understandable that you feel uncomfortable, so I would first try to talk with other TAs and not go it alone. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Feb 22 '15 at 19:56
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If you think you can handle the extra work, you could speak privately to the professor yourself, and -- cautiously -- offer to take over the lectures for the rest of the term. He might be glad of a way to get out of this situation without losing face.

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    I'd want the dean's approval before going ahead with a de facto change in course instructor. – Nate Eldredge Feb 19 '15 at 18:42
  • Yeah, as I said above, I'm not a teacher or academic. I'm just a student who took the course last year and was asked to TA this year. – Anonymous Feb 22 '15 at 19:45
  • @Anonymous Who asked you to TA? The ailing professor, or the administration? – CGCampbell Jun 5 '15 at 17:21
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On my opinion, simply left it alone. I explain, why.

I am sure, the administration of the university knows the situation much better as you would think. They also know, when and how to intervene. It is surely not the first similar situation which they need to handle, and don't forget: you only want to say him, what they already know. They have to solve the situation

  • Without humiliating,
  • finding a new successor,
  • and capable to make the switch with the smallest possible overhead.

And, what if your Professor only needs to find a doctor who prescribes some pills for him. You simply can't do this to a people so much older as you.

Going to pension is seldom a funny thing for the profs, actually, not a funny thing for everybody.

Incompetent professors are not a rare thing in the academic sphere, and most of them are not good-standing, but as you write, he is.

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