Suppose a certain undergraduate course in computer science is given at a university which has a mandatory project part, requiring teams to be formed of two people. Student A forms a team with another student, B, but the cooperation is very difficult. Student B never shows up to work on the first assignment, contrary to a made appointment, citing illness as the reason. After that student A never hears from student B again, nor sees her in class anymore. Student A has to do all work now, which is meant for a two-man team, and therefore misses deadlines (she has other courses too which require attention). Student A leaves no stone unturned to get a new partner to form a team, but to no avail. The penalty on handing in work past the deadline is severe, so this causes the student a lot of stress. The quality of the work is not an issue, and she has done "her best" on the work like she normally would.

Is it unethical for the professor to continue to enforce the deadline and associated penalty (significantly reducing student A's grade and grade average) under these circumstances?

An additional difficulty is that student A really likes the professor and has for that reason some difficulties talking to him about these issues.

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    The student A should have solved this by contacting the professor the moment student B did not show up. Once you (I assume student A is you) are near the deadline the options open to the professor to solve this problem are a lot more limited. This probably does not help you now, but it may help you in the future. Mar 16, 2017 at 15:41
  • @MaartenBuis The issue for student A has been running for a few weeks. The teaching assistants gave some options, they were tried but to no avail (no one was available at that moment, since pairs has already been formed). Student A maybe should have communicated more with the professor, but was afraid to look like a nagging individual. But she would not really know what could have been communicated anyhow.
    – user70837
    Mar 16, 2017 at 15:48
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    You have to take responsibility for your own learning. If you are in a team and a team member isn't living up to their side of the deal then you need to contact the professor as soon as possible to indicate there is an issue and asking for guidance. The deadlines are clearly posted and abiding by those are not "unethical". Rather than waiting until past missed deadlines you should have asked to reduce the scope of your project due to team of 1 well before the due date. Take it as a lesson learned. Mar 16, 2017 at 15:55
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    In teams of two in Computer Science, most of the time only one person ends up doing most of the work anyway. Next time, expect this from the very beginning. In my opinion, your excuse is not an extenuating circumstance. An extenuating circumstance, in my opinion, is a close family member dying, not a partner flaking or quitting. But then again, professors differ in their styles, so you just ask, and see what he/she says. There is no harm in asking. Mar 16, 2017 at 16:47
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    Everybody handled this badly. B shouldn't have created the problem in the first place. A should have been more pro-active. The TAs should have treated A's problem more seriously. The professor shouldn't have set an assignment that allowed one student to screw another over so badly (for example, one flake in a group of five only increases the others' work-load by 25%, compared to 100% in groups of two). Mar 16, 2017 at 21:42

2 Answers 2


Is it unethical for the professor to continue to enforce the deadline and associated penalty (significantly reducing student A's grade and grade average) under these circumstances?

First, I think it's quite misguided to frame this as an ethics question. If the professor is creating course policies and enforcing them in good faith, with the goal of achieving certain educational outcomes, then, even in the event that the professor makes a mistake or does something that most reasonable people would disagree with, it would be hard to argue that the professor is behaving unethically. Thus, the correct thing to ask IMO is not "is it unethical" but rather "is it appropriate" or "is it the right thing to do".

With that said, I think the best thing that the student in your question can do is argue her case to the best of her abilities and allow the professor to make a decision to the best of his ability, and respect whatever that decision ends up being. Bringing ethics and accusations of unethical behavior into the debate is counterproductive in my opinion and may backfire by causing the professor to become defensive and entrench himself further into his punitive position. Personally I think that given the student's lack of timely action to communicate the nature of the problem to the professor, which resulted in missed deadlines, enforcing the course policy would be a reasonable decision. On the other hand, making an exception to take into account the allegedly extenuating circumstances would also be reasonable. To my mind it's simply not a black and white issue.

As for the student's supposed difficulty to communicate with the professor because she likes him... well, not sure what to say about that. People have all sorts of difficulties in life, but ultimately the question is, is the student willing to make an effort and take proactive measures to overcome her difficulties so as to achieve the outcome she wants to achieve? If so, there are any number of steps she can take. She can write a letter instead of speaking to the professor in person. Or she can recruit a friend to come with her to a meeting with the professor and help her overcome her shyness or even speak on her behalf. Etc etc. It's all a question of will. And if she lacks the will to confront the problem, she has all my sympathy, but nonetheless I don't see that as an "extenuating circumstance" and she should not be surprised if the outcome is not what she wished it to be. In any case, best of luck to her.

  • "I think it's quite misguided to frame this as an ethics question": well, you know that in many questions here the word ethics is used quite randomly, to say the least. Mar 16, 2017 at 21:02
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    @MassimoOrtolano precisely, so I'm calling it out in this instance.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 16, 2017 at 23:31
  • Yes, sorry, I recognize that my comment is unclear but I was really appreciating your starting statement. Mar 17, 2017 at 7:12

I also am not certain this is an ethics question, but more one of practicality. This situation happens often enough that professors probably already have a process for dealing with it; I for one don't want to change deadlines every semester.

Your best defense here is data. Keep a record of things like attempts to contact/schedule with your partner, deliverables completed by you/your partner, dates/times partner ditched you. If you show clear attempts and do the work you can, you'll make a strong case for leniency.

Though you seem to be unwilling to talk to prof about this, you need to. Coming to him at the very end with a plea isn't going to help as much as early warning.

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