Dealing with Complaints and Problems concerning Faculty

One or more students come to you to complain about a faculty member

One faculty member in the department complains about another

A faculty member has an illness or personal situation that is interfering with their work

The range of problems that can occur is wide. Here are some typical scenarios:

One or more students come to you to complain about a faculty member.

The most common sort of complaint students come with is related to a course. It may be a complaint of unfairness in grading, or that a course is seriously disorganized, or that the workload in a course is extraordinary in comparison to other courses, etc. Some things to do:

  • Give the students 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 they have already tried to resolve the problem by talking with the professor directly. If not, this is often a good first step to take.

  • 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 would be helpful.)

  • 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.

  • 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 out of the course whatever they can. If appropriate, encourage the students to consider this a learning experience in how to work with people one doesn't like.

  • If you decide to talk to the faculty member about issues raised by students, be sure to present your comments as "student perceptions."  (And if you have heard the same complaint from multiple sources, you probably should talk to the faculty member.) The faculty member may have a very different perception of the same situation, and you'll want to hear that perception 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.

  • Whether or not it's something the students suggest, you may want to visit the class involved to better understand the nature of the complaints. In the case of untenured faculty, chairs are supposed to visit from time to time in any case.

  • 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 and/or the Dean.

  • Certain student complaints are dealt with through a different channel. Most notably, sexual harassment is covered by the college's "Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault Policy," which is described in the Faculty Handbook.

One faculty member in the department complains about another.

Review the advice for dealing with complaints from students; some of the same advice will hold in this situation. But the situation is more serious, because the problem will not dissipate at the end of one term; long-term collegiality within the department is at stake. 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.

A faculty member has an illness or personal situation that is interfering with their work.

The custom at Cornell is to go a long way to help someone when their work is being affected by illness or some other personal difficulty. The illness might be of the faculty member themselves, or it might be of a family member-here in Mount Vernon or at a distance. Consult with the Dean for anything that goes beyond a couple of days of difficulty. Some possible accommodations include:

  • Dropping a course entirely and absorbing the students elsewhere.

  • Hiring a visitor to teach the course.

  • Having one or more colleagues cover classes. (If a faculty member acquires a significant overload by covering a colleague's course, additional compensation or a course release is not automatically granted, but advise that faculty member to consult with the Dean on that question.)

If a faculty member will be gone more than three days, they should fill out a Family and Medical Leave Request Form, available at the Human Resources website.