Miscommunication, misunderstanding or different expectations can be frustrating for a student and professor. There may be a feeling that the grade a professor gives is permanent, especially when it comes to the final grade, but there are options available to students who believe an academic decision is unfair. Students can advocate for themselves through the academic grievance process.
What is an academic grievance
An academic grievance is a written appeal from a student claiming that a specific academic decision – including the assignment of a grade – is unfair or violates relevant policies and procedures, according to the academic grievance procedure outlined in the student handbook.
When deciding if an academic grievance is an appropriate step to take, the student can discuss their concerns with the dean of the school, said Lance Newman, dean of the school of arts and sciences.
Newman said it is important for students to know that the academic grievance process is available to them, and deans can give advice on the appropriate set of actions to take moving forward.
“Any student who is interested in filing an appeal or has a concern about a class they are taking in the school of arts and sciences should feel free to come see me at anytime,” Newman said. “I will give them my own assessment of the best way to resolve that concern. If I think that an appeal is the right next step, that’s what I’ll tell them. That should be the job of the dean in every school.”
Before an academic grievance
Although the academic grievance is the official appeal option, steps can be taken to remedy the situation before student file a written complaint.
Because of the labor intensive process that comes along with an appeal, Newman said students should see if there is a way to negotiate a resolution without moving to a formal process.
“In general, our goal is to resolve any kind of grievance or dispute at the most direct level possible,” Newman said. “Ideally, the student and the faculty member meet directly and resolve the dispute through conversation and negotiation.”
Newman said his role in the early stages is to help students think about what the conversation might look like with the faculty member and how the student may advocate for themselves.
He said he recognizes the power differential between student and professor, and understands that some students may not feel comfortable going to the professor directly involved.
Amy Fairchild, administrative assistant in the school of arts and sciences
“If they don’t feel that they have gotten the answers that they want, they go to the program chair […] then they go see the dean.”
Amy Fairchild, administrative assistant in the school of arts and sciences, said if students talk directly to the professor involved but feel the issue is still unresolved, the student will be advised on the next steps to take.
“They need to go talk with [the instructor and] see if they can get it straightened out,” Fairchild said. “If they don’t feel that they have gotten the answers that they want, they go to the program chair […] then they go see the dean. A lot of times it never reaches [the dean’s office] because the program chairs can lay it out and look at the evidence.”M
Making an academic grievance
Once it has been decided that an academic grievance is the next step to take, Newman said the student will be asked to write a formal appeal and explain their reasoning in writing. They will also be asked to provide any kind of documentation available to support their case.
The dean of the school will put together a panel consisting of three faculty members who are from different departments and who do not know the student, as well as two students usually from ASW. The panel will review the documentation provided including rubrics, initial assignment sheets and syllabi.
“Those five people read the students appeal, call the student in and interview them, meet with the faculty member and then they will make a decision and that decision is where things end,” Newman said.A
Advice for an academic grievance
It is advised that the student making the appeal be present at the time of the hearing when the panel assembles. The student will make their statement separate from the faculty member involved.
Michael Santarosa, the registrar at Westminster, said he would advise students to build a persuasive argument.
“I would say they would want to be referencing the policy and understand it well if they were entering into [the academic grievance process],” Santarosa said.
Michael Santarosa, registrar at Westminster College
“We want to have a community where students can challenge decisions, but at the same time we want to operate very fairly and that is why we have policies.”
Some appeals are more likely to be successful than others, said Newman.
“The grievances that stand a decent chance of being upheld are ones where a student can demonstrate that there was either a mathematical error in the way that the grade was calculated, that a rubric or a course policy was violated or applied unfairly or inequitably,” Newman said.
Santarosa said Westminster wants decisions made right the first time, but the academic grievance procedure is in place for the good of students when they need it.
“I think the tradition of higher education is pretty strong on flexibility, adaptation and fairness,” Santarosa said. “We want to have a community where students can challenge decisions, but at the same time we want to operate very fairly and that is why we have policies.”