On a Proposed CUNY Student Complaint Procedure

Next Monday, the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York will consider a proposed new “Student Complaint Procedure.” I’ll be at the meeting, for I think this “innocent” little addition to CUNY rules is more subversive than at first it might seem.

Here’s the text of the proposal:

The City University of New York – Student Complaint Procedure:

RESOLVED, That the procedures for handling student complaints about faculty conduct in formal academic settings be adopted, effective December 1, 2006.

NOTE: See Appendix 1

EXPLANATION: Although the University and its Colleges have a variety of procedures for dealing with student-related issues, those procedures generally have not covered student complaints about faculty conduct in the classroom or other formal academic settings. The University respects the academic freedom of the faculty and does not intend to interfere with faculty members’ appropriate exercise of discretion concerning the content or style of their teaching. At the same time, however, the University recognizes its responsibility to establish procedures for addressing student complaints about faculty conduct that is not protected by academic freedom and not addressed in other procedures. The proposed procedures will accomplish this goal.



I. Introduction. The University and its Colleges have a variety of procedures for dealing with student-related issues, including grade appeals, academic integrity violations, student discipline, disclosure of student records, student elections, sexual harassment complaints, disability accommodations, and discrimination. One area not generally covered by other procedures concerns student complaints about faculty conduct in the classroom or other formal academic settings. The University respects the academic freedom of the faculty and will not interfere with the exercise of appropriate discretion concerning the content or style of teaching activities. Indeed, academic freedom is and should be of paramount importance. At the same time the University recognizes its responsibility to provide students with a procedure for addressing complaints about faculty treatment of students that are not protected by academic freedom and are not covered by other procedures.

II. Determination of Appropriate Procedure. If students have any question about the applicable procedure to follow for a particular complaint, they should consult with the chief student affairs officer. In particular, the chief student affairs officer should advise a student if some other procedure is applicable to the type of complaint the student has.

III. Informal Resolution. Students are encouraged to attempt to resolve complaints informally with the faculty member or to seek the assistance of the department chairperson or campus ombudsman to facilitate informal resolution.

IV. Formal Complaint. If the student does not pursue informal resolution, or if informal resolution is unsuccessful, the student may file a written complaint with the department chairperson or, if the chairperson is the subject of the complaint, with the academic dean or other person designated by the college president. (This person will be referred to below as the “Fact Finder.”)

A. The complaint shall be filed within 30 calendar days of the alleged conduct unless there is good cause shown for delay, including but not limited to delay caused by an attempt at informal resolution. The complaint shall be as specific as possible in describing the conduct complained of.

B. The Fact Finder shall promptly send a copy to the faculty member about whom the complaint is made, along with a letter stating that the filing of the complaint does not imply that any wrongdoing has occurred and that a faculty member must not retaliate in any way against a student for having made a complaint.

C. The Fact Finder shall meet with the complaining student and faculty member, either separately or together, to discuss the complaint and to try to resolve it. If resolution is not possible, and there are factual issues in dispute, an investigation shall be conducted. The Fact Finder shall separately interview the complaining student, the faculty member and other persons with relevant knowledge and information and shall also consult with the chief student affairs officer and, if appropriate, the college ombudsman. The Fact Finder shall not reveal the identity of the complaining student and the faculty member to others except to the extent necessary to conduct the investigation. If the Fact Finder believes it would be helpful, he or she may meet again with the student and faculty member after completing the investigation in an effort to resolve the matter. The complaining student and the faculty member shall have the right to have a representative (including a union representative, student government representative or attorney) present during the initial meeting, the interview and any post-investigation meeting.

D. At the end of the investigation, the Fact Finder shall issue a written report setting forth his or her findings and recommendations and send a copy to the complaining student, the faculty member, the chief academic officer and the chief student affairs officer. In ordinary cases, it is expected that the investigation and written report should be completed within 30 calendar days of the date the complaint was filed.

V. Appeals Procedure. If either the student or the faculty member is not satisfied with the report of the Fact Finder, the student or faculty member may file a written appeal to the chief academic officer within 10 calendar days of receiving the report. The chief academic officer shall convene and serve as the chairperson of a committee, which shall also include the chief student affairs officer, two faculty members elected annually by the faculty council or senate and one student elected annually by the student senate. The committee shall review the findings and recommendations of the report, with particular focus on whether the conduct in question is protected by academic freedom. The committee shall not conduct a new factual investigation or overturn any factual findings contained in the report unless they are clearly erroneous. The committee shall issue a written decision within 20 calendar days of receiving the appeal. A copy of the decision shall be sent to the student, the faculty member, the department chairperson and the president.

VI. Subsequent Action. Following the completion of these procedures, the appropriate college official shall decide the appropriate action, if any, to take. For example, the department chairperson may decide to place a report in the faculty member’s personnel file or the president may bring disciplinary charges against the faculty member. Disciplinary charges may also be brought in extremely serious cases even though the college has not completed the entire investigative process described above; in that case, the bringing of disciplinary charges shall automatically suspend that process. Any action taken by a college must comply with the bylaws of the University and the collective bargaining agreement between the University and the Professional Staff Congress.

VII. Campus Implementation. Each campus shall implement these procedures and shall distribute them widely to administrators, faculty members and students and post them on the college website.

VIII. Board Review. During the spring 2009 semester, the Chancellery will conduct a review of the experience of the colleges with these procedures and will report the results of that review to the Board of Trustees, along with any recommended changes.

According to an article at InsideHigherEd.com:

Frederick Schaffer, general counsel for CUNY, said that the new policy will not permit any intrusions on academic freedom. He said that the policy was for cases — and he estimated that there may be one or two a year — in which students feel a faculty member has been “abusive” in class, generally in a dispute over political views. That doesn’t mean professors can’t express political views, he said, just that they can’t go beyond a certain point of professionalism in interacting with students.
“Professors are entitled to have a point of view, to express a point of view, and to teach as they see fit as a teacher,” Schaffer said. “On the other hand, occassionally, professors’ conduct could spill over into something that could be thought of as abusive or discriminatory,” and the policy was designed for such cases.

Let me see if I’ve got that straight. The proposed policy says:

Indeed, academic freedom is and should be of paramount importance. At the same time the University recognizes its responsibility to provide students with a procedure for addressing complaints about faculty treatment of students that are not protected by academic freedom and are not covered by other procedures.

OK, but what might those things “not protected by academic freedom” be? Oh, politics! According to Schaffer’s take on the proposal, that is.

He must have forgotten: political expression is protected under academic freedom principles. So much so that some now tie academic freedom closely to First Amendment rights of expression.

Schaffer let slip the real reason for this new procedure: to keep politics out of the classroom, emasculating the discussions that we professors foster to get our students to really learn to think for themselves. (Yes, my conservative friends, that’s really what we do–certainly we don’t try to indoctrinate. If that’s what we were about, college students would not graduate slightly more conservative than they enter.)

“Oh, we can’t talk about that” does nothing but scare people and keep their minds within regulated channels.

Though this is a backdoor attempt, the procedure is a step towards constricting academic discussion, dumbing down our education, and insuring a population that accepts without challenge. Driving a wedge between academic freedom and politics in this slight way will set a precedent allowing future arguments that the two are not connected—and that academic freedom has nothing to do with rights of free speech.

Now, I do believe that we make a mistake when we tie academic freedom too closely to the First Amendment, for academic freedom is a compact between the institutions and their faculties—not something ensconced in law. Yes, academic freedom recognizes the importance of faculty utilizing their First Amendment rights as an aspect of academic responsibilities, but the concern is not a legal one.

At the heart of academic freedom is the idea that faculties, not administrations, police themselves—in terms of research, teaching, and participation in the public sphere. Faculty misbehavior (sexual harassment, etc.) not coming under these three is certainly not covered under academic freedom. Participation in politics, however, is—though there are many people who would like to change that.

In trying to cut politics out from the herd of academic freedoms, this procedure also attempts to strike at the core of faculty self-regulation by setting up a grievance procedure that steps beyond faculty oversight. Eventually, another procedure will be put in place, using this as a precedent, that further limits faculty self-governance. Eventually, faculty would be merely employees with little power. Academic freedom, one of the things that has made our universities the best in the world, would die.

The following is the testimony I will give Monday night:


Board of Trustees Hearing on Proposed Student Complaint Procedure

Monday, January 22nd, 2007

My name is Aaron Barlow. I am an Assistant Professor of English at New York City College of Technology.

One always needs to be cautious when presented with a solution where no problem is evident. Questions immediately arise, for the “solution” must have a cause of some sort, a genesis. If there is no problem, what is the reason for the new procedure? Why does someone feel that this “solution” must be implemented? And who is that “someone,” anyhow?

Unless the motivations behind this additional procedure for student complaints are well understood by the institutional governing body, it should not be considered, let alone put into place. Otherwise, you who set it up are acting to someone else’s agenda, not to CUNY’s. In other words, you are probably being manipulated.

That said, there are other reasons for rejecting this proposal. Instituting a process like this through the Board of Trustees rather than through the faculties is contrary to the principles of academic freedom as first expressed by the AAUP in 1915 and reiterated any number of times since. A grievance procedure concerning most classroom activities should be established by the faculty alone and on its own initiative. That is, if the question is one of pedagogy or material covered (even pertaining to politics), its resolution should be overseen by the faculty and not by a “Fact Finder” appointed by the president of the institution. This proposed procedure ignores that distinction.

What we have here is potentially a step towards administrative control over the classroom—a step that has never been found desirable or shown to be necessary. One of the reasons our university system in America remains the best in the world is that our faculties have retained their independence for over a century. When we start eroding the system of academic freedom that protects that independence, we start eroding our very institutions, undercutting the framework of their success.

Though simple and innocuous on its face, this proposal is pernicious; it is a move towards taking control of education away from those who actually provide it, the faculty. It is a move away from proven success and toward the straitjacketed classrooms that we have bested for so long.

For the sake of the education that CUNY so ably provides, I ask you to reject this proposed procedure.

Thank you.

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