Student complaint system needs revision

When a student has a personal disagreement with a professor, the two should ideally sort it out themselves —however, that does not always happen. As reported March 31 by The Chronicle, such was the case when a student complained last semester about Humanities, History & Social Sciences professor Iymen Chehade’s “The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” class.

The student, who considered content of Chehade’s class biased, complained to Department Chair Steven Corey, according to the March 31 report. Instead of instructing the student to discuss his or her concerns with Chehade, Corey held a meeting with Chehade during which Chehade claims Corey told him to be more balanced. However, Corey maintains it was only a discussion and that he gave no such directive. Either way, the problem should have been handled first between Chehade and the student, shedding light on Columbia’s flawed complaint system.

The current system allows students to bypass their professors with complaints, and incoming Provost Stan Wearden should re-evaluate the process to avoid similar brouhahas in the future.

The college currently has a written policy detailing a procedure for students who have complaints that instructs them to make every possible effort to solve the disagreement directly with their professor before bringing the issue to the administrative level. The policy requires that every step of the complaint process be documented but pertains solely to academic grievances. Other complaints, such as sexual harassment and discrimination are covered by the college’s anti-discrimination and harassment policy, but that policy is not comprehensive enough to cover issues such as those of perceived bias, fairness or civility—common subjects of student complaints.

For example, when a student has a cultural background causing him or her to take personal offense at the content of a required class, the student should discuss any concerns about the material with the professor instead of going directly to the department chair. But because the system only mandates that a student attempt to solve grade and attendance disagreements with the professor, students can go straight to the department with other issues.

That being said, there are cases in which a professor is contentious and students feel uncomfortable approaching him or her with a concern. Because the system needs to move forward no matter who is at fault, the department chair should decide how to proceed with disciplinary action.

Columbia needs to revise its systems to prevent anonymous complaints that can stir up avoidable controversy. Other colleges, such as the City University of New York, assign a mediator, or “fact finder,” to study the particulars of a complaint and determine whether it is founded. This allows the university to evaluate complaints on an individual basis without overstretching resources or establishing a system that would needlessly limit professors and rob students of the opportunity to receive the best education possible.

Columbia also needs to more clearly define what constitutes a frivolous complaint so it does not have to grant the same priority to every report filed before an investigation is conducted. Some students are more likely to complain or project frustrations about poor grades onto professors who do not deserve it, and if the college does not carefully evaluate each instance as it occurs, unfair punishments or dismissals could be the result.

The new provost will take office July 1, as reported March 17 by The Chronicle. During the summer break, Wearden should review the college’s complaint system, focusing on ways to inform students of how to voice their concerns appropriately. The classroom is a forum for sharing competing and sometimes controversial ideas, but it should also be a safe and respectful atmosphere, not one of antagonism.