I am an instructor, and the head of my department is a professor that refuses to fail students.

I found out about this situation through multiple semesters where students would complain about this professor treating them unfairly, both to other students within my classroom, and to me directly; my ultimate question is: Should I talk to this professor, who is also the head of my department?

For context:

The professor assigns a group project with 6-8 students in each group. The projects take most of the semester and each group does 2 projects at the same time. Each student has a very heavy work load for these projects and teamwork is essential.

The issue is when a student refuses to do the project. I've heard reasoning from, the student didn't agree with what everyone else in the group agreed to, or the student just didn't bother showing up to any group meetings.

When students mentioned how one of their team members would not participate, which was only increasing the work load for other students who also had to worry about their other courses, the professor seemed to take the right action at first by talking to the non-participating student about the project and how important it is for them to contribute.

If the student continued to argue with group decisions (sometimes they do the project their own way) then the professor would just tell the group "find something for [the student] to do." And if the student never did anything, they would still pass the course, despite never participating on the 2 biggest assignments, which equated to 60% of the grade (including participation).

Back to my original question -

Should I speak with the professor - head of my department - or let it go?

  • 3
    As it stands, this question depends a lot on your professor’s attitude and thus can be only answered by people who know him very well. However I think there is an answerable and interesting underlying question here, namely, something along the lines of: When should an instructor/professor switch from moderating to escalating when a student refuses to participate in a group project?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Aug 29, 2015 at 5:53
  • 1
    Would you clarify "to me directly"? Were you his student before?
    – Nobody
    Commented Aug 29, 2015 at 6:19
  • @scaaahu I was not his student but my students often feel very personable with me so I hear a lot about how they feel about other instructors and their academic questions.
    – Memj
    Commented Aug 29, 2015 at 7:03
  • 3
    What do you hope to achieve by "talking to him"? If he's senior enough to be department head, whatever you plan to tell him, he's probably heard it before.
    – fkraiem
    Commented Aug 29, 2015 at 7:07

3 Answers 3


Personally I'd consider it worth talking to him, where 'talk to him' is defined not at 'tell him he's wrong' but as 'for your own peace of mind try to find out why he believes his choice is a good one'.


This is a dodgy topic in some way and it will (!!) vary significantly from country to country and institution to institution. My comments are from the UK perspective (specifically England) - however this approach is slowly permeating into the rest of Europe.

In some places (e.g. the UK) we have reached a kind of toxic education system in which rating are more important than actual teaching. Pass rates are key (primarily true to tertiary education) - while grade distributions are important in secondary education.

This means that "education institutions" (schools, colleges, universities) have little interest in failing a person and instead prefer to pass them - even if it is with very low marks. This isn't too much of an issue if there are grade boundaries, however if the choice is between a pass or a fail this will seem and is extremely unfair towards those who do put in work.

Pass rates or grade distributions will be used to allocate funding - and can also be a factor for chosing a specific institution. Higher pass rates will mean more funding and more students.

This is an old article from the Guardian, but you can research a lot more on the topic if you so desire: http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2011/oct/03/targets-league-tables

So my advice would be the following:

First find out what policy exists in your institution - please keep in mind that you will be unlikely to find written instructions that say "pass all students". (Possibly inquire from colleagues how they would suggest you handle a weak student - a reasonable query if you are new.)

Once you have established what the policy is, you have a number of option:

1) If all are to be passed, you should not complain, but:

  • You can try to achieve higher standards in your group.

  • You can try to get involved in the politics of education - but that would take years, be warned.

2) If you find that there is no unofficial requirement to be lenient you may want to talk about it with the Professor himself - he may have reasons for his choice. Also look at how other staff grade - maybe there is a culture of being lenient.

3) If you find that there is an expectation to be strict I would think you would be right to talk to the head of the department, BUT again you may want to discuss this with the Professor first.


You are a sympathetic listener, and since you are on staff with the department, students may feel some hope that you would be an effective advocate for them.

I have my doubts about that, however. Nothing personal -- it's just that it sounds like you are low man on the totem pole there.

There is something positive you can do, however. You can encourage the students to take their issue to an administrator. I suppose an administrator will ask them whether they've taken the matter to the department chair, and if they say no, will tell them that's the first step. Therefore, they should go ahead and meet with the department chair, even though it will most likely be a waste of time.

College students are at an age when it is very appropriate for them to advocate for themselves. Encourage them to do so. Explain to them that their voices will make the most impact.

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