Feature

A Muslim student believes that the provocative dress she sees on her fellow female classmates invites sexual advances from men. Her instructor and classmates denounce her belief, and she receives a poor grade on a paper describing it. The student believes she has been treated unfairly. What does she do?

Many students in such cases aren't sure where to turn for help. But they would be if they did their homework on departmental protocol for handling students' problems with faculty, says Douglas Lamb, PhD, who has published extensively on student/faculty dilemmas and trainee impairment.

It's a good idea, he says, for students and faculty alike to know--and to sit down and review together--their departments' or colleges' grievance policies, which differ from campus to campus and which protect students by ensuring that they take their problems to the right people.

In fact, it's a good idea to know about a department's policy even when choosing a program, says Lamb, professor emeritus of psychology at Illinois State University. "The presence of grievance policies and programs' willingness to articulate them demonstrate concern for students, says Lamb. "Strong policies suggest respect for the power differentials that exist in student relationships with faculty and supervisors."

The usual route for undergraduates

In the case of the Muslim student, her first responsibility would be to raise the concern with the instructor. If that proved fruitless, she'd take it to her academic adviser. Next in line, typically, would be the undergraduate director, and, finally, the department chair. Departments usually aim to resolve the problem as informally as possible, among the smallest number of players, says Michael Stoloff, PhD, director of undergraduate studies in psychology at James Madison University (JMU).

Most commonly, he says, students complain about grades and faculty grading practices. If they come to him first with grade complaints, "I send them back to the professor to get a better understanding of the grade. If the professor is communicative, it usually gets resolved."

When a professor is unresponsive, Stoloff steps in. "I'll ask them to talk to the student," he says. "One of the biggest problems we get is that faculty have not explained grading practices adequately to students or have been slow in providing feedback."

Those problems disappear, he says, when faculty clarify grading, offer timely feedback and "demonstrate a more personal attitude toward students," he says.

But if a problem persists, the chair intervenes, often requiring the student to file a written complaint, interviewing the involved parties and ruling on the student's grievance. In some instances, students might take their concerns outside the department--to a student ombudsman or student judicial office, for example, or to some form of university personnel or affirmative action office.

Outside officials more often intervene at smaller institutions, where faculty are fewer and departments tend to lack their own grievance policies. At Randolph Macon Woman's College, for example, a student complaint goes from a faculty member to the department chair to the college dean. Even though complaints rarely reach that level, the college's psychology department chair, Beth Schwartz-Kenney, PhD, advises all involved to carefully document each step. This is because "the potential for litigation is a factor in so many decisions these days," Schwartz-Kenney notes. Common complaints about grades or class policies pose less of a litigation risk, according to grievance experts, while sexual harassment grievances--more likely to occur among graduate students than undergraduates--pose a considerably higher one.

The rules for graduate students

Though it's not unheard of for students to resolve sexual harassment concerns at the department level, many instead tap university-wide sexual harassment policies and procedures.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 requires universities to have such policies if they receive public funding. Either way, sexual harassment allegations typically stir up a hornet's nest of personal and professional risks for students--particularly graduate students, who rely on relationships with mentors and advisers for professional advancement, says Laurie Rudman, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology and gender researcher at Rutgers University.

Some fear that filing a complaint might spur reprisal from higher-ups. Most simply believe it would be futile, Rudman found in a study of 118 university students, faculty and staff who felt they had been sexually harassed. The results, published with co-authors Eugene Borgida, PhD, and Barbara Robertson, PhD, appeared in 1995 in Basic and Applied Social Psychology (Vol. 17, No. 4).

Those who are willing to report the harassment, however, should know what to expect if they go through a university's formal reporting channels, Rudman says. This is because once a university's equal opportunity office is informed of harassment, Title IX requires it to launch an intensive investigation involving witness testimony and a face-off with the accused, regardless of what the student wants (see What to know before reporting sexual harassment).

Meanwhile, many graduate departments have their own procedures for handling complaints about other problems. Given the potential for conflict in student supervision and evaluation, for example, many departments articulate and publicize their expectations of students, as well as due process procedures undertaken when students underperform. Otherwise, "they've got a time bomb waiting to go off," says Lamb.

Departments ought to keep students apprised of their progress, he says, as is done by faculty committees at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's psychology department. The committees oversee all probation and termination decisions, and spell out what students must do to advance. The Lincoln department has also formed its own grievance committee of faculty and students. Graduate and undergraduate students can bring any type of complaint, from grade appeals to authorship disputes, before the committee. And they can do so anonymously, naming neither themselves nor the involved faculty member.

While acknowledging that such committees are meeting an important need, says JMU's Stoloff, it's best to concentrate on preventing such grievances in the first place. "The more communication and sensitivity there is on the part of both faculty and students, the less likelihood of complaints," he says.

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