Reflections on Columbia College Chicago, Student Complaints in General and Academic Freedom

This is not primarily a critique of Columbia College Chicago which has merited high praise throughout academia for those who value academic freedom, a post-secondary institution’s capacity to listen to independent judgments and analysis and administrators who exhibit a flexibility that is rare across the increasingly corporatised, consumer-oriented academy. Their reputation as an institution of high standards and positive outcomes has been enhanced in their handling of the Iymen Chehade case. I thought, however, I would at least discuss generally the issue of student complaints that needs greater scrutiny on many campuses, including my own.

I have witnessed on many other campuses a failure to construct a clear policy in handling student complaints of an instructor. The lack of such a policy, or the failure to adhere to legitimate established guidelines that may already exist in an academic catalogue, student handbook, and faculty bylaws (handbook), is a prima facie threat to academic freedom, academic excellence and to critical thinking in the classroom.

If a student complaint focuses on pedagogy: the faculty member’s style of teaching, her use of materials from reading lists to in-class visuals or audios, the articulation of ideas from a certain perspective and the overall presentation of the course, the complaint should not be adjudicated or considered above the instructor level. The student should be advised to discuss the complaint with the instructor. Professors must be secure in their teaching and immune to student sabotage to undermine them and compel them to satisfy a student’s preference for how a class should be taught. Student course evaluations are usually the preferred venue for students to express their judgments on the pedagogical style and substance of an instructor. Many allow open commentary in addition to the stupid multiple choice ranges from strongly disagree to strongly agree. While students always have the right to complain, after all they are paying for their education, pedagogical complaints have no business being elevated to a discussion between the instructor and a higher-unit level on ANY campus.

Conservative students may resent a progressive professor and vice versa. If a student feels constrained or uncomfortable in a professor’s class, they usually can choose not to take another course with the same instructor! If they are required to matriculate in another course with an instructor due to programmatic requirements, which is usually not the case, they can of course transfer to another institution if they choose to avoid additional exposure to a professor. Even an independent study might be contemplated as a substitute but that should be the exception in allowing a student bypass from critical thinking or a different ideological approach than the one they prefer. Education has value and exposure to different viewpoints has value. Students on ANY campus, however, should not have the right to secretly and without accountability complain about the putative ideological predilections of a professor. They should be directed, once again, to speak directly to the instructor.

When there is a grade grievance, a student should be ordered to first take up the grievance with the instructor. There is no justification initially for an administrator or department chair to intervene in such matters. Academic freedom includes the right of an instructor to evaluate her or his students. It is not the purview of others to do so. If the instructor and the student cannot reach an agreement on the disputed grade, then of course the student can pursue the grievance at the next available unit level above the instructor.

The American Association of University Professors Redbook contains The Assignment of Course Grades and Student Appeals. Many universities have adopted this policy or have established variants that are consistent with the institutional culture of a college or university:

1. A student who wishes to complain about a grade would be expected to discuss the matter first with the course instructor, doing so as soon as possible after receiving the grade. [Emphasis added]

2. The instructor should be willing to listen, to provide explanation, and to be receptive to changing the grade if the student provides convincing argument for doing so.

3. If after the discussion with the instructor, the student’s concerns remain unresolved, the student might then approach the instructor’s chair…That person, if he or she believes that the complaint may have merit, would be expected to discuss it with the instructor. If the matter still remains unresolved, it should be referred to an ad hoc faculty committee.

If a student complaint concerns misconduct, that is a different matter. Obviously, a student has the right to protection and perhaps anonymity but all considerations to due process must be afforded the instructor. The vast majority of student complaints in the United States are usually over grades. A lesser but disturbing amount deal with pedagogy. This post of course focuses on pedagogical and grade-grievance complaints and not on issues of harassment, discrimination, or other alleged forms of possible abuse.

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