Working with Complaining Students—and Their Parents
Frequently, academic administrators encounter students who appeal grades, lodge academic complaints, ask for exceptions to academic policies, or otherwise voice dissatisfaction with their academic experience. Frequently, their parents or other family members accompany them, advocate for them, or even request meetings. These encounters force administrators to balance student interests with institutional policies and for that reason often prove stressful and time-consuming. A handful of principles, if consistently applied, can reduce headaches while promoting student success and upholding institutional integrity.
Develop, publicize, and consult academic policies. Positive outcomes to these difficult situations actually begin with academic policies. The institution should develop policies to address issues ranging from grade appeals to general complaints about the classroom. Each policy should clearly identify, as appropriate, the circumstances under which a student may appeal, the administrator who hears the appeal, the deadline to make the appeal, the medium (e.g., email) through which to file an appeal, the possible outcomes of the appeal, the opportunities to appeal the decision, and so forth. Yet the institution cannot stop with putting policies on paper (or online). As institutional priorities and student characteristics evolve, the institution should periodically review and, as necessary, revise policies to address current opportunities and challenges. The institution should also publicize academic policies widely—in the college catalog, in the student handbook, in course syllabi, and at new-student orientations, for example. Many difficult situations can reach more decisive outcomes (and can often be eliminated altogether) if students know the policies that govern their academic lives. Consulting these publicized policies, administrators should confer with other administrators as necessary about precedent and application. Ignoring, misinterpreting, or misapplying policies can create additional problems down the line.
Respond in a timely fashion without referring the problem elsewhere. Students have the right to lodge complaints—and the right to receive timely responses. Delaying responses, dismissing them out of hand as unsubstantiated, or referring them inappropriately to other offices will only frustrate students, escalate tempers, and shortchange educational moments. In fact, many institutions have policies that govern professional behavior. Nonresponsiveness can activate those policies or, at the very least, confound administrators’ final decisions.
Identify the best communication strategy. Academic policies often indicate the expected medium of communication, and email is one of the most efficient and effective. Email reduces the need for uncomfortable meetings, allows administrators to explain and document their decisions, provides opportunities to append Web links and other documents, and gives students records of final decisions. However, some decisions may be best communicated in face-to-face meetings, and some students—and their parents—may request such meetings. For reasons that others have stated elsewhere, current traditional-aged students frequently receive their parents’ assertive advocacy, whether solicited or not. In working with students and their parents, academic administrators must strike the appropriate balance. On the one hand, successful students need appropriate support from many sources. On the other hand, their education includes learning how to communicate and solve problems for themselves. When deciding if, how, and when to include assertive parents in conversations, administrators should consider a variety of tactics, depending on specific circumstances:
- Since the situation concerns the student, the administrator should communicate directly with the student and encourage the student to share information and decisions with others as appropriate and desired.
- If the parent requests a meeting, the administrator should schedule the meeting with the student but indicate that the student may invite the parent.
- If, during the meeting, the parent asks questions, especially sensitive ones, the administrator should ask the student if she or he would like to receive the answers to those questions and cares whether the answers are divulged during the meeting.
- If the parent insists on a private meeting, and if the student has not filed a FERPA waiver, the administrator should provide only publicly available information that anyone with Internet access, for example, can locate about institutional policies and processes.
- If the parent insists on a private meeting, and if the student has filed a FERPA waiver, the administrator should consult with the registrar or another individual charged with institutional FERPA compliance to ensure that the administrator follows federal regulations while protecting the student’s confidential information.
Regardless of the communication strategy, inevitably some conversations may become unproductive. In such instances, administrators should politely—but firmly—bring email dialogue, telephone conversations, or in-person meetings to a close after rendering or repeating their final decisions.
Adopt the appropriate attitude. Students rarely complain without having already experienced frustration or disappointment with classes, processes, or employees; thus, administrators should engage with complaining students calmly. Reminding students that administrators want to partner in students’ success sets the stage for edifying rather than combative encounters. Indeed, academic administrators are strategically poised to serve as success partners. They often begin their careers as faculty and, based on that experience, can turn challenging moments into educational opportunities, ones that can help students learn different strategies for interacting with faculty and other students, understand institutional procedures, and make better choices. Administrators also work from the unique vantage point of knowing available academic resources and policies that can support and redirect students. In the event that administrators deny an appeal, they should always offer positive alternatives. Administrators may not be able to alter grades, for instance, but they may be able to direct students to academic resources, such as writing centers and academic advisors.
Know when to make exceptions. On occasion, administrators make exceptions to policy. Knowing the suitable grounds on which to make exceptions can lead to consistent decisions across time. If the institution—that is, an office or an employee—has misinformed the student, denied a service, or otherwise made a mistake, administrators usually have good grounds for making exceptions. In other situations, administrators can take potential exceptions through criteria—a litmus test of sorts—to determine the appropriateness of the exceptions:
- Has a student in the past requested, and been granted, the exception?
- If so, an exception could be made, but if exceptions become frequent, the soundness of the relevant policy comes into question (another reason to review policies frequently).
- If not, the administrator is potentially setting a precedent and should weigh that fact carefully.
- Does another hypothetical student in the present know that an exception can be made and how to request that exception?
- If so, perhaps the administrator should make the exception.
- If not, the institution may appear unfair and inconsistent.
- If a hypothetical student in the future makes the same request, would the administrator make the same exception?
- If so, the administrator may decide to make the exception, but the institution may want to examine its policies for potential revision.
- If not, the institution may appear unfair and inconsistent.
The point of this litmus test is that for every student for whom an exception is made, other students—past, present, and future—are implicated, precedents are established, and policies are called into question.
Bring every case to complete closure or to the next step in the process. Administrators who handle these cases can either create aggravation or breed goodwill—for both complaining students and next-in-line administrators. Students deserve, as mentioned above, clear, timely, decisive outcomes. If policy allows, they also bear the right to appeal those decisions. Directing students to the appropriate appeal officer can reinforce proper protocol, strengthen communication lines, and assist the next administrator. The next administrator may request case notes, correspondence, dates, and other information to assist in decision making. Dealing with poor records, inconclusive outcomes, and other procedural irregularities may confound otherwise clear-cut cases. If policy does not permit subsequent appeals, the administrator who initially handles the case does the next administrator in line a disservice by telling the student, “If you don’t like my decision, you can take your complaint to Administrator X.” Such a referral only frustrates the student, prolongs the case, causes procedural irregularities, and places the next administrator in an unproductive position.
Dealing with complaining students—and their parents—is never easy. Yet a few sound principles can facilitate decision making while reducing stress for all concerned. At the end of the day, administrators manage educational institutions. If they keep that mission always at the forefront, they will emerge from these encounters with satisfactory results.
Eric Daffron, Ph.D., serves as vice provost for curriculum and assessment at Ramapo College of New Jersey.