Office for Faculty Development

Handling Complaints and Problems Concerning Faculty

A chair's contact with department students is apt to include complaints about faculty. The range of problems that can occur is wide. Here are some typical scenarios:

Student Complaints about a Faculty Member

The most common sort of complaint students come to you about is related to a course. It may be a complaint of unfairness in grading, or that a course is seriously disorganized, or that faculty absences have been excessive, or that the workload in a course is extraordinary in comparison to other courses.  In these cases, here are some things you can do:

  • Give the student a hearing and listen to the story. Assess the level of severity of the problem. For example, is this a relatively circumscribed problem of personality conflict, or is a student's education being seriously compromised?  Determine whether or not you need further information.
  • Ask if the student has already tried to resolve the problem by talking with the professor directly. If the student has not approached the faculty member, you could direct the student to do so as a good first step.
  • Present some possible options for action, and ask them what they would consider most helpful. (This doesn't mean you necessarily will follow their preferences, but it's good to know what the students think.)
  • If they would like you to talk to the professor about the issue, and you think this is appropriate, determine what level of confidentiality they would like you to maintain regarding their conversation with you.
  • If you talk to the professor about the issue, maintain good communication with the student regarding the process.
  • If there is a complaint about a grade, you can ask the student to explain the problem in writing with reference to the syllabus, assignment or grading criteria. A written complaint that requires a reasoned, evidence-based analysis can help to keep emotions in check and expedite a resolution.
  • Counsel the students, when appropriate, to make the best of the situation: to balance whatever strengths the course may have with its problems, and to get from the course whatever they can. If appropriate, encourage students to consider the situation as a learning experience in how to work with people.
  • If you decide to talk to the faculty member about issues raised by students, be sure to present your comments as "student perceptions."  (If you have heard the same complaint from multiple sources, you definitely should talk to the faculty member.) The faculty member may have a very different perspective of the same situation, and you'll want to hear that view as well. If the faculty member thinks the student perceptions are flawed (e.g., the course really is well-organized), you can open a discussion about what might be changed to bring perceptions in line with reality. Keep in mind the difference in vulnerability between untenured and tenured faculty.
  • If the situation is particularly troubling, and you're not sure what to do, seek counsel from others, perhaps another senior colleague in the department, your academic Dean (for academic issues), or the Dean of Students (for non-academic issues).
  • Your role as department chair is focused primarily on academic issues, such as student complaints about the clarity of a faculty member’s syllabus, excessively tardy return of graded assignments, frequent late arrivals to class or absences by the faculty member, and lack of office hours. Acquaint yourself with the minimum requirements that a faculty member must meet (typically sent out as a broadcast message by the Provost’s office at the beginning of each semester), and ensure that all faculty in your department are aware of these expectations.  The appeal process for academic issues proceeds from faculty member to Chair to academic Dean to Provost.
  • The Dean of Students most typically gets involved when there are student behavioral issues within the classroom (such as unacceptable language or actions, displays of rage, medical complications that affect classroom demeanor, and emotional breakdowns).
  • Student and academic issues can frequently overlap. It is important that you know that both the academic Deans and the Dean of Students are always available to help and advise you.
  • Certain student complaints are dealt with through a different channel. Most notably, sexual harassment is covered by the University Policy on Sexual Harassment.

Faculty Member’s Complaint about Faculty Colleague

  • Review the advice for dealing with complaints from students; some of the same advice will hold in this situation.
  • Assess the level of severity of the complaint, and take into account factors that may be contributing to conflict and/or misunderstanding (such as gender, seniority, cultural differences, personality differences). Unfortunately these situations can lead to ongoing discomfort in the workplace and therefore need to be handled with appropriate care.
  • It is probably best to seek advice from the Dean sooner rather than later.

Illness or Personal Situation as Impediment to Faculty Member’s Performance

  • If work is being affected by illness or some other personal difficulty, consult with the Dean for anything that goes beyond a few days of difficulty.
  • If a faculty member will be gone more than three days, s/he should consult the Sick Leave Bank Policy & Guidelines and fill out the appropriate forms, available at the Human Resources website.
  • Chairs are responsible for ensuring that faculty and staff absences are duly reported every pay period.