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One of my professors is bullying me, so I filed a complaint with the Dean of the graduate school. He said, "While the investigation is in progress, you are not to attend class." He said that I was still responsible for passing the class and completing all assignments and taking all exams, but to not attend the class. I have a midterm in a week and this week, the study guide is being handed out. How I am suppose to pass this class? If I fail, I will lose all of my financial aid and will not be able to continue my education. I do not know what to do. The Dean also told me not to discuss my situation with anyone except him and he meant that I cannot even discuss this situation with family and friends and not to have any contact with the professor, including email contact. So, how do I turn in my papers?

Update: I had a friend go to class to pick up the study guide and the professor had absolutely no idea why I was not attending class. In other words, the Dean never spoke with him.

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    I don't necessarily recommend this, but you may want to review what your options are for withdrawing for the course (at my university, it still shows up on your transcript as a "withdrawal", but it does not impact your GPA or, generally, your financial aid). Beyond that, does your university have an ombudsperson you can go to seek advice? – tonysdg Oct 28 '17 at 21:46
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    As a temporary measure, can you ask a classmate to share notes with you? – Nate Eldredge Oct 29 '17 at 0:44
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    Check the complaints procedure policy, and talk to your student union. It seems to me highly unlikely that you would be forced into complete confidentiality on spoken basis alone, and be barred from classes, given you are in the US. A complaints procedure should not treat the one complaining as the problem, at least until it is shown to be a malicious complaint (and to some extent not even then). – Jessica B Oct 29 '17 at 7:56
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    Sure sounds like the Dean is not acting in your best interest. For sure he cannot order you not to talk about this. He is setting you up to fail the class. If he had been proactive about getting you notes and study guide and hand the test into the Dean then maybe I could go along. He is trowing you under the bus. – paparazzo Oct 29 '17 at 13:54
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    No matter what else you do, document everything. At a minimum, get the Dean's directive in writing/email, and write up notes of all your interactions that you can remember. – 1006a Oct 29 '17 at 22:02
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The answer to the title question is, unfortunately, that the Dean of your graduate school is in a much better position to know whether he can prevent you from attending class than we are: we don't know what the school is, and we don't know any of the details of what sounds like an ugly situation. This is not the sort of question that you can rely on the internet to answer.

Having said that, given only what you've said, the Dean's directive sounds outrageous. A student's right to attend class should only be forfeited by serious negative behavior on the part of the student. Reporting negative behavior of the instructor should not remotely qualify. Moreover, a student who may not attend class should be withdrawn from the course...because the alternative does not make much sense. In this case, if your withdrawal is necessary then you should be excused of any negative consequences of it.

I am at a loss to make any specific recommendations to you. Frankly, as you depict it the Dean's behavior is so outrageous that I have to wonder about the further details of your story, including the nature of the bullying, but a sufficiently full accounting of your story would involve divulging too much personal information on the internet, so I am not fishing for more information here. On the off chance that the Dean is simply behaving very strangely, it could not hurt to follow up with other university officials: e.g. your own academic advisor, an ombudsperson, the human resources department and/or the registrar.

Finally, 99% of the time, using the American legal system to resolve academic disputes is the wrong thing to do. But (depending in part on the nature of the bullying) your case might be in the 1%. Your issue -- namely that your institution is handling your allegations of interpersonal workplace misconduct in a way that seems inappropriately punitive to you -- is not an inherently academic one. So you might look into exploring that further.

Good luck.

Added: @tonysdg's comment of looking into withdrawal is a good one. I wouldn't only do this, but if withdrawing from the course saves you from failing and losing your financial aid, then it would give you some breathing room at least.

  • I agree if the student cannot attend class then they should be withdrawn from the class. But an harassment compliant should not trigger that. Good answer. – paparazzo Oct 29 '17 at 13:31
  • If the student's course load were to go below 12 credits, the financial aid is in jeopardy. (I don't know if that would be the case here.) – aparente001 Nov 30 '17 at 21:59
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First, I think it would be helpful to get to the bottom of why the dean is behaving this way.

One theory I can think of is that the dean may be intentionally putting obstacles in your path, perhaps hoping that you will drop the complaint and save him the headache of dealing with it. Perhaps he doesn’t believe your complaint, or is friends with the professor and wants to believe your complaint is false or exaggerated, or simply thinks protecting his institution’s interests requires him to automatically defend any faculty member and make life difficult for any student complaining against them.

Alternatively, he may be worried that the situation is so delicate that any interaction between you and the professor is risky and could lead to bad things happening to you, which would lead to more trouble for his institution, so such interaction must be avoided at all costs, and the only way to avoid it (other than removing the professor from teaching to class, which he may not feel comfortable/allowed to do while the accusations are still being investigated) is to instruct you not to attend class.

The first scenario, where the dean is actively opposing you out of spite or bad faith, is more problematic than the second, where his intentions may be decent but he has simply made a bad call. (Actually the decision to separate you from the professor may not be terrible given the situation, but he hasn’t thought out the implications of you not attending class - it is essential that he provide you with a way to mitigate the harm this would do to your studies.) But in any case I assume you have better insight into the dean’s motivations based on your interactions with him.

So what should you do? You need someone who knows the system and its rules and can advocate for you. Normally I would recommend going to someone from the administration, but here it’s the administration that is mistreating you. Fortunately, many institutions have third party groups and resources protecting students’ interests and/or offering impartial advice. Two I can think of are:

  • the university ombuds office/person

  • the student union

My suggestion is to go talk to one or both of those, tell them the details of the situation and ask for help.

The bottom line is that being told to successfully complete a class under a professor who is bullying you without being allowed to attend class does not sound to me like a reasonable or acceptable way to address a complaint by a student, so you are quite right to be concerned. Good luck!

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    An ombudsman shouldn't be protecting anyone's interests--they're supposed to be neutral. If the school has an ombudsman, they might be useful as intermediaries or to suggest ways to navigate the situation, but I don't think this student should discuss anything further with the school, directly or indirectly, without counsel. You can bet that the dean has consulted with the university's lawyers. – Elizabeth Henning Oct 29 '17 at 1:20
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    @Shoshana Preventing you from attending a required class you've paid for is arguably already retaliatory. Do you trust that they are acting in good faith or do you think they are planning to get rid of you as a problem? If it's the second, check your state's bar association website--there should be a directory there and many states have free or low-cost consultations. It takes time and effort to find a lawyer, so don't wait if you want to go that route. – Elizabeth Henning Oct 29 '17 at 1:50
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    @Elizabeth while getting legal representation is an option to consider and may be appropriate at some point, most conflicts students get into with their universities (including this one, in my opinion) don’t warrant doing that as a first resort. Can you explain why you think OP should hasten so much to get a lawyer before trying other options? – Dan Romik Oct 29 '17 at 1:54
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    "First, I think it would be helpful to get to the bottom of why the dean is behaving this way." Well, yes, it would be, but...as a tenured faculty member, rarely am I confident that I've "gotten to the bottom" of why the higher administration behaves as they do. To expect a student to be able to do this without substantial assistance seems rather unrealistic to me. – Pete L. Clark Oct 29 '17 at 3:09
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    @Shoshana While it certainly seems like the administration is not behaving in a way that is proper, you really do need to consider more carefully what is reasonable. Finding a new professor to teach a course based on a complaint that is still being investigated would not remotely be reasonable. And once a formal case has been initiated, it is quite common and reasonable to require the involved parties to not discuss the case with outsiders. – Tobias Kildetoft Oct 29 '17 at 9:07
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  1. Talk to your parents and to your friends immediately. At the very least, you'll need a witness on your side the next time you speak with the dean. Of course, if you're afraid your parents or your friends would trigger a confrontation with the professor or if you're afraid that they'll make things worse, then choose appropriately. That being said, if you trust your family and friends, tell all of them. If someone in your family refers you a good lawyer, that's even better. If the dean is upset when you bring a family member/friend, or your own lawyer. Don't worry about it. If he's upset about that, he's definitely going to be super upset when he finds out that you're not going to back down and not make things convenient for him.

  2. If you can't find a good lawyer through your family and friends network. Go to the nearest law library, do a Lexis-Nexus search on lawsuits against your University, against your particular school/department, and against you particular Professor or dean. If a law library with free Lexis-Nexus access is too far, just do a google search and look for news stories that reference lawsuits related to your school. Then, contact those lawyers that have sued your school. However, if this takes too long, or if you don't find a good lawyer that way, you can always go to the default step 3.

  3. Call your local state bar association and ask for a referral. They should be able to tell you what kind of lawyer you need (I assume you'll need a lawyer that specializes in religious discrimination, but I could be wrong. I'm just a layman myself, I am not a lawyer). The first 30 minutes of a consultation are free. Do not get a lawyer who has graduated from your current university. Some alumni have strong social ties with their school. I know this is silly, but it's probably best to avoid alumni from your University, or avoid lawyers that have too many potential ties with your professor or your dean, whether academic ties or religious. Of course, if they've graduated from the same university and also sued their alma mater repeatedly, then that should be fine.

That being said, once you find a good lawyer who's not afraid to sue the school. His first instinct should not be to sue. His first instinct should be to call the dean and to find an amicable resolution to your problems.

Also, you may need to offer the deal to the dean that you'll never again contradict or correct publicly (or even privately) that professor if you can come to an agreement that guarantees that you will be treated with cordial indifference during class and treated fairly during exams and assignments, or that guarantees at least that your financial aid doesn't get affected by not having enough letter-graded units for the current term.

And by treated fairly during exams and assignments, I mean that another professor should take over the responsibility for grading your own assignments and exams. And that the original professor shouldn't try to introduce religious translations into his assignments and exam questions as a final way of getting back at you.

And finally, you should look at review sites for lecturers and find out if this professor or the dean have done anything similar to other students. Plus, you should put out feelers to your school friends to see if they might know someone who knows someone who was also mistreated by those two people.

Just keep this off from social media. If a social media campaign is needed, let your legal counsel decide if/when it's necessary and let him supervise it himself.

  • Go to the nearest law library, do a Lexis-Nexus search on lawsuits against your University, against your particular school/department, and against you particular Professor or Dean. This is good advice, but most law libraries not at state schools are not open to the public. However, the state and federal courthouses should have publicly accessible databases of cases. – Elizabeth Henning Oct 29 '17 at 20:57
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My best guess given the very limited information that you've provided is that the dean is trying to CYA by preventing any contact between you and the professor to forestall any possibility that you might be able to file a retaliation lawsuit. You could go to the provost, but if this is the way things are done there it probably won't be much help.

Unless there's more information you've omittted, this sounds like a very hostile situation and they are on the defensive. Document absolutely every interaction with these people and get legal advice from someone who specializes in higher ed law before doing anything else. And do whatever you can to stay in good academic standing--that is the first thing hostile departments attack because it's very difficult for students to fight it.

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    CYA = cover your ass? cover his ass? something else? – einpoklum Oct 30 '17 at 14:26
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Strictly talking, yes, a school can (and must) forbid access to an student in some very concrete situations: the student has a contagious illness; the student is making violent and public actions that prevents the normal behavior of the class; ... .

However, you say the ban has been triggered by a bullying complain from you. This is far, very far, from previous scenarios. You are the possible victim of a bad behavior from teacher, you can not be punished in any way.

Moreover, the ban to talk with any one is absolutely illegal. You have the right to talk with anyone, the right to find the best advice, etc.

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What do your university's policy and procedures say? They should be available online. Unless they call for this, the dean's instructions smack of retaliation.

Retaliation is hard to prove. I suggest a follow-up email to the dean. Here is some starting point text (even if you choose to follow this suggested strategy, you'd of course need to edit and make it your own):

Thank you very much for meeting with me yesterday. I want to make sure I understood your instructions. I was a bit nervous during our appointment and I'm not sure I took everything in properly.

When you said I should stop going to class, were you giving me that as a suggestion? Or is that a required part of the grievance process? Can you send me a copy of the university's grievance policy and procedures, so I can understand the process better?

I feel confused about the attendance part. I want to do as well as I can in this class, and I feel that attending class is crucial for optimal learning.

If you're saying I must stop attending, then I'll need instructions on how to turn in homework and a delayed exam. Also, I'll need an Incomplete, because the end of the semester is only x days away, and I'll have to do extra work on my own to make up for the missed classes.

Question: do you feel that the bullying was discriminatory? In other words, do you think the professor singled you out because of something like race, sex, color, religion, age, disability, protected veteran status, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, etc.? And if your answer is yes, then comes a question that's at least as important: Do you have any convincing evidence? If so, the route you chose might not be the optimal route; you might want to follow the university's civil rights grievance procedure instead. (I strongly advise you to read your university's online documents about grievances of both types. Do ask questions here and on campus if there are parts you don't understand.)

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