I am department head. An adjunct professor teaching two courses in my department left without notice. He did not deliver the grades to me.

We have no staff in that field to give the final exam again. Even so, I wouldn't know how to convince the students to take the exam again, and I do not know what to do with the class activity, which should be part of the final grade.

The registrar is forcing me to deliver the grades, but I have no idea what to do.

Does anyone have any experience to share? What do department heads normally do in this situation?

  • 33
    To be clear, are you saying the prof administered an exam, took all of the exams (meaning you do not have the completed exams), and then simply never returned to the school? Do you have anything on which to base the students' grades or literally nothing at all?
    – earthling
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 7:32
  • 12
    It is maybe good to ask for ideas here. But of course your superiors (dean, provost, whatever they are called) are the ones to discuss this with. They may have experience of something similar in the past. And they have overall responsibility now.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 14:16
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    What would you do if one of your instructors died at an inconvenient time?
    – emory
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 19:21
  • 18
    @emory: This may not be quite the same thing as someone dying unexpectedly. In that situation, you would probably obtain the materials such as gradebook and final exams from the next of kin.
    – user1482
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 20:58
  • 11
    @DavidRicherby - I agree that this should be taken up in the institution itself, but the situation is so strange there's no harm in seeing if someone has a good idea. It's also an instructive question, as it could prompt someone to implement a policy somewhere (for example, requiring instructors to enter grades into an LMS, so they can be recovered in the event of an incapacitating accident or sudden death.)
    – J.R.
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 10:29

7 Answers 7


I assume you've already tried to convince/pressure the instructor to provide enough information to assign grades. Assuming he's not dreadfully ill, it would be incredibly unprofessional for him to refuse, but sometimes people are unprofessional. If you don't know him well, is there someone else in the department who could try to talk some sense into him? Was anyone else involved in the course, such as a TA or grader?

Once you've convinced yourself that you just can't get the grades, you need to take this up with the administration. It's a really awkward situation, and you shouldn't be improvising a solution. Whatever you do should be discussed with and approved in advance by the dean (or whoever has a similar level of responsibility in your university). Presumably this issue has arisen before, and the previous decisions will serve as a precedent. If this is the very first time, then you'll be setting a precedent. Either way, you don't need to take sole responsibility for figuring out what to do, and you shouldn't.

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    +1. In addition, involve a lawyer. Depending on how this plays out, his students could sue the school. Explain to the fugitive that if that happens, he may well get sued in turn to recover any damages the school needs to pay to students, since he very likely has broken his employment contract. This may motivate him to cooperate. In addition, make sure your next steps are legally OK, so you keep the possibility of suing him open. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 8:04
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    Definitely agree with @StephanKolassa - this is not a standard resignation, this sounds like delinquency; that the professor left and took school property with him (completed examinations, test results, etc?). If this is true, then aside from whatever damage control measures need to be taken, this is very much a legal matter and needs to be pursued as such.
    – J...
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 9:37
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    @StephanKolassa I would think the school could sue the fugitive even if none of the students sue the school. The fugitive was presumably paid a salary under some employment contract and then violated the terms of that contract. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 14:54
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    Seriously do not make this your personal legal problem. It is a legal problem between the school, the prof, and the students. Do not start legal action, do not threaten legal action, do not retain your own attorney -- unless another party targets you. Then get your own. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 17:05
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    @emory Even "at will" employment contracts can include clauses that survive after the employment ends. An obvious example would be non-disclosure agreements in industry. In academia, it would be reasonable to require an instructor who quits to provide the relevant information about the students' performance to the university. Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 22:55

If the materials to base the grades on are missing or stolen, the dean should be dealing with this. In addition to the issue of the materials being missing, this brings into question the competency of the prof and whether this course was properly taught. Your school/department could lose accreditiation if this is handled incorrectly.

Personally, I think the fairest thing would be to administer an exam to determine the competency of the students. Credit for the course should be awarded on a pass/fail basis.
Any students who wish (i.e. those who think this was their strongest/most time consuming course and were counting on it for a grade point average boost) should be allowed to retake the course at no charge for a grade. I would suggest scheduling an additional evening session to help accommodate them.

  • 1
    The problem seems to be that there isn't currently anyone on staff who is sufficiently expert in the field to write such an exam. Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 1:18
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    @NateEldredge I bet you could get a PhD student/post doc from someplace else to review the syllabus and teaching materials and write and grade an exam for a couple of thousand dollars. There are generally tons of people willing to adjunct teach an entire course for $5000.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 10:50

Seems to me that how this is handled is beyond a department head's level of responsibility.

If you consider some of the solutions given, would it really be appropriate for your department to handle it differently from another department anywhere in the university? This situation has the potential to significantly impact the reputation of the institution.

So, you could "manage upwards"; in the corporate world this is easy, but depending on your university this line may be unclear:

Identify a set of possible approaches and their corresponding pros and cons. Take these to your supervising authority and have a decision made and signed off. This may require consultation with the legal department.


There is probably a university wide policy for this, or at least for similar cases.

In my university the policy was that if exams got lost etc. a student would get the 90% mark (few students could have achieved this realistically) and to accomodate the top students a free chance was given to do a resit.

If you don't have anyone that can facilitate a resit, you may need to reach out to other universities, but in practice most students will celebrate their mark.

  • I think this makes the most sense. It might be a little unfair to the students who really earned the grade, but its a whole lot more fair than not giving anybody credit for the time and money they spent to take that class.
    – nick
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 22:46
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    This gives almost all students a strong incentive to hijack the exam script delivery...
    – smci
    Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 0:23

Assuming the following

  • the old prof is gone for good;
  • there are no available grades in the system;
  • the exams went with the prof, and have possibly been destroyed;
  • we are talking about last fall’s term, so the course has finished and the students have moved on.

If the class isn’t absolutely vital, assigning all students who weren’t failing going into the class “Credit” might be acceptable. You can get that information from students’ copies of previous assignments returned. If the former professor isn’t answering, the wheels of justice turn so slowly that you won’t get them back in time.

  • Why is the beginning of this answer exactly the same as another answer which came a day before yours?
    – kleineg
    Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 16:48
  • 2
    I credited it and gave a different result from the same assumptions. The editor removed the credit.
    – Joshua
    Commented Feb 25, 2015 at 17:27
  • Ah, got it, just wondering. I think you have the right idea here by the way.
    – kleineg
    Commented Feb 26, 2015 at 18:29
  • 2
    In case you're wondering about if the class is in fact absolutely vital: in that case you need a new professor pronto, and this last half semester is the least of your worries.
    – Joshua
    Commented May 4, 2015 at 3:30


You can give the students full refunds for this class, and let them take it again for free whenever you can offer the class again.

Does your school offer some sort of no credit option, like 'auditing' a class, that doesn't give a grade, but basically says hey I've taken this class. This could be given at least as a temporary grade until everything is decided about what to do.

You can let the students resubmit whatever work they've done for a new class, if what they have isn't enough to get a 'good' grade in the current class.

If it's a class required for graduation, and can't offer it anymore you could ignore rather or not it's required for graduation for these students.


Assuming the following:

  • the old prof is gone for good
  • there are no available grades in the system
  • the exams went with the prof, and possibly destroyed
  • we are talking about last fall's term, so the course has finished and the students have moved on

It looks like a possibly unrecoverable situation. The students did their part, not their problem the tests didn't get marked and they are entitled to the credit and the grade.

To phrase it in a contractual issue, the students contracted with the university for the education and agreed to prove their competence within a specified time period. The university in turn agreed to provide academic credit and a grade. The students did their part, the university cannot demand extra work from the students due to a failing on it's part. That the professor absconded with the final exams is not the student's problem.

I would say that unless it is a critically important course, like "Infectious Diseases 320" or "Nuclear Physics 440" where an incorrect grade could be disastrous, assign a grade near the student's average in other courses. Some students may rightly feel they are entitled to a higher grade, those same students will likely understand the situation and agree to rewrite the final.

Remember that "fair" in many cases is what everyone agrees with. If I think I deserve a B+, and you offer me one based on my semester average (along with a crystal-clear, full disclosure explanation of what happened) I will be ok with it. If I think I deserve an A I may consider wether that grade will actually make a difference and take the B+ rather than rewrite the final.

(and it looks like someone borrowed my assumptions)

  • 36
    You can't fairly assign a grade that a student didn't earn other than the maximum (A, 100%, etc.) or, perhaps, "credit" (which wouldn't count towards their GPA). No student I know of would be understanding of the situation and accept the assignment of a random grade near their current average.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 14:26
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    @BillBarth And, further, you can't fairly assign the maximum as a grade either—that's completely unfair to those students who put in more effort and time to get a better understanding, and defeats the certification process.
    – wchargin
    Commented Feb 23, 2015 at 15:20
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    "Some students may rightly feel they are entitled to a higher grade, those same students will likely understand the situation." is the final sentence that I see on my screen. I don't see anything in your answer about retaking the exam.
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 0:39
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    This is a good example of what can happen if you take matters into your own hands: in a situation like this, many people are going to be unhappy seemingly no matter what happens. So you need to kick the decision of what to do high enough up the administrative ladder that you are not involved in any blame or appeals process that may take place. This is not a time to shoot from the hip, and though I think this solution is especially bad, just about any solution that the department head comes up with on his own (e.g. give everyone A's) will cause complaints and receive scrutiny from above. Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 5:01
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    @Pete - Exactly; this is why deans get paid the big bucks.
    – J.R.
    Commented Feb 24, 2015 at 10:33

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