Friday, January 08, 2010
Ask the Administrator: How to Talk to a Dean?
My husband and I have to go talk to the dean at our local college regarding our son who is going into his final semester there(our son of course will be joining us as well). He has been accused of "Academic Dishonesty" because he used a template for a resume and cover letter(I told him to do this so I now feel terrible)....the assignment was supposed to mimic a "real" job situation complete with interview, so our son thought that to mean "what he would do in a real life situation" and didn't see it in the same light as an academic paper. Our son also has a Learning Disability and has received little help at the college level(that's another story).
My question for you is "How do you talk to a dean?" I was a social worker for many years and have never spoke with a dean at any time in my life or my children's lives. I'm very anxious, kind of like going to the principals office , and am worried that he will "circle the wagons" so to speak and will not allow our son to complete his education. We are all very upset about this issue and my son now feels that he has been branded a "cheat" without being able to explain himself. It is important to note that in Canada, college level professors do not need a university degree necessarily or have any experience teaching. My son describes this teacher as a "train wreck" in terms of her teaching style and never knows(and he's not alone) what she is really talking about.
Thanks for your note, even though your situation sounds awful.
In the US, there's a law called FERPA that prevents administrators from discussing anything about students with their parents or anybody else without the student's written consent. I don't know if there's a Canadian equivalent, but if there is, I wouldn't be shocked to see the dean invoke it quickly. (I also don't know whether your point about degree requirements for professors in Canada is true or not. It's irrelevant to the case at hand, but I'm curious now. Readers who know are invited to comment.)
Normally when a student has an issue with a professor, my first direction is to discuss it with the professor directly. In this case, though, the contact was initiated from the other side, so it's appropriate to go to the dean level.
Since your argument is based on the assignment being ambiguous, you might want to have as many supporting details at the ready as you can. Does your son still have the handout with the assignment on it? Does the syllabus mention anything about it? To the extent that you can show that a reasonable person, acting in good faith, could misinterpret the assignment, you may be able to shift the interpretation from 'cheating' to 'getting it wrong.' He may need to re-do it, but that strikes me as fair.
I wouldn't go in attacking the professor. In my experience, people lash out when they're cornered, so I assume that somebody who is lashing out is cornered somehow. Better to take the high road, leave the professor out of it, and simply focus on how easily a good student could misinterpret ambiguous or under-developed directions. (This may be the time to invoke the learning disability, if the university doesn't already know about it.) If the conversation becomes an exercise in problem-solving, rather than a point-counterpoint of blaming, you're likelier to find your way to a positive ending.
In terms of the learning disability, the way that's handled here is that students have to self-identify (usually with an Office for Students with Disabilities or something similarly named), and present some sort of documentation. The student works with the office to craft requests for reasonable accommodations, and it's the student's responsibility to present that documentation to the professor at the beginning of the semester and "self-advocate" for the accommodations s/he needs. If your son did that and the request for accommodations was ignored or dismissed, you'd have another argument on your side. Again, though, I don't know how Canadian law treats this issue; any readers who do know are invited to share in the comments.
I'd love to hear from my wise and worldly readers on this one. What advice would you give?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
In fact, FERPA explicitly allows colleges to share educational records with parents, as long as the student is a dependent of either parent for tax purposes.
At many colleges, the overwhelming majority of parents claim their children as dependents for tax purposes. At the college where I work, the student handbook informs students that the college will presume that full-time students under 24 are dependent on their parents for FERPA purposes unless the student takes the initiative to inform the college otherwise. (It's pretty hard to be a fulltime student under 24 at this college and NOT be a dependent of your parents!)
Now, obviously your college is different. Your college likely has many nontraditional students, and costs may be low enough that even a traditionally aged student might be able to attend without parental support.
As parents sending in $50K a year to a (different) private college, my husband and I are entitled to claim our child as our dependent, and we'd be rather annoyed if they tried to claim that FERPA precluded discussing our child's academic situation with us.
In my opinion, it's fine if colleges want to adopt a confidentiality policy that is stricter than FERPA, but they shouldn't hide behind FERPA and claim that they are not allowed to share information with the parents.
Certainly, in a situation such as the one described, if the parents have been paying the bills and he is their dependent, AND he has a diagnosed learning disability, it seems perfectly reasonable that the parents be allowed to accompany their child to meet with the dean to discuss the situation!
The attendance of the parents is all the more appropriate if it turns out that following his mom's advice to use a template is what got him into trouble in the first place!
As for how to talk to the dean, I think the advice about not attacking the qualifications of the instructor is spot on. The dean probably hired the instructor -- and has worked with that instructor much longer than the student has been in the class.. in a conflict between the two, the instructor generally wins.
The parents need to come up with a few documents before the meeting. They need a copy of the assignment sheet, or at minimum the students notes from the day the assignment was announced. They also need a copy of the academic honesty policies for the course and the school. Read them carefully -- and, if it seems that the student is wrong, be prepared to grovel.
One way or the other -- the parents and student need to come up with a proposal as to how they'd like to see it resolved. The student should be prepared to re-do the assignment, with a significant grade penalty -- or something similar.
I know that in the US, it takes a significant amount of evidence to make a charge of academic dishonesty stick -- so it's very likely that the instructor can prove that the student violated an academic honesty standard. The best approach is to plead to an honest mistake and ask for a re-do.
One other alternative might be to ask for a retroactive withdrawl -- so the student can re-take the course. Re-taking a course isn't the end of the world, and perhaps the student will learn to navigate the university without the help of mommy and daddy.
I'm a grad student in the social sciences and that's not true for Canadian universities. While there are, of course, courses taught by adjuncts with MA's or grad students, the majority of courses are taught by PhD-wielding folks (adjunct or permanent). Of course, before starting these people may not have had experience teaching; they had experience doing research. But this is no different than the United States.
The only clue I have is that she used the word "college". In Canada, what you would call a four-year college we call a university. The word "college" is limited to 2-year community colleges and for-profit trade colleges, who sometimes hire based on, say, industry experience. For example, I have friends who attended a broadcasting college that hired ex-broadcasters.
Regardless, I don't know what kind of school this person's son is attending, but if they're hiring uneducated, unexperienced instructors, they are not representative of the Canadian university system as a whole. For the most part, it's the same as the U.S., but with lower tuition ;)
I don't at all know the college system in Ontario, but Quebec CEGEPs (which, I'll reiterate, are worth knowing about) generally require instructors to at least have an undergraduate degree, to my knowledge; most CEGEP instructors have masters or PhDs.
I've also noticed that more prestigious universities can ignore selected rules, e.g. hiring physicists in the computer science department, or even hiring professors with no degrees (UBC has one). There's always pushback, of course, but sometimes schools can ignore pushback.
Again, as noted above, the distinction between Canadian Colleges and Universities is roughly equivalent to the American distinction between Community Colleges or Trade Schools and 4-year Colleges.
I don't really understand why this parent is talking to the dean at all. Was he or she invited to a meeting? Did the student give permission for his parents to become involved? I've never heard of a similar situation in which parents were involved to any extent.
From the "have to" it sounds to me as if the college or your son has requested this meeting.
Also, remember that you may be getting a somewhat biased account from your son.
Take the assignment sheet and information about academic honesty policies and such. Be prepared to explain why you were helping your son do his assignment if that's likely to introduce a new aspect of academic dishonesty.
I'm not sure that bringing up the learning disability is relevant, but if it is, make sure you can explain what reasonable accomodation your son requested and the professor denied that would have helped your son complete this particular assignment appropriately.
From what the correspondent posted, it sounds like an apology and request to redo the assignment with a grade penalty are probably appropriate. Or a request to retake the course, if this is the culmination of a series of problems your son hasn't told you about (which you may find out when you get there).
These are formulaic documents, where originality is not rewarded. The writer highlights his strongest points and avoids egregious disqualifying mistakes--templates are a reasonable approach.
Thanks for the clarification. In the two provinces I've lived, they both called it "FIPPA", so I just assumed it was the same (federal) legislation.
I have taken courses at Canadian-style community colleges and the instructors have always had degrees, although not always PhDs. Not sure about the more trade-focused courses though.
I think Dean Dad's advice is really good. I also think this is a good point at which to stop telling your son how to do his homework; it gives you a graceful out because it's clear that it has hindered him in this case.
I think it is really important to focus on "this was a misunderstanding of the assignment; what can our son do to correct it." I would also, as much as possible, let your son do the talking with you there for support.
Any feedback about the teaching, accommodation for LDs, etc., should be given by your son either during the term or at course evaluation time. It is really not your role as parents (unless it's a CEGEP in which case I'm fuzzy about it) to hold the college accountable; that's between your son and them.
I also think listening will be really important, because as a PP says, it seems like there probably is more to the story here.
Parental involvement is something like a lawyer's involvement: everyone is on notice that stakes are high, that wariness is called for, and that the pressure is on.
So, bringing them in is a reasonable ploy on the student's part, while demands that he fight his own battles sound like White's demands that Black unilaterally disarm before battle.
You don't. You let your son grow a pair and handle this himself.
Firstly, how could one even tell if a template was being used for a resume? It's a highly systematized document. The whole situation is very very strange. Certainly, nothing resembling academic dishonesty could exist, since a resume template is not a scholarly document that one would expect to see appropriately cited.
Secondly, how old is the person we're talking about here? And what disability are we discussing?
There seems to be a lot of vagueness that feels like a cover for a history of weirdness.
Fundamentally, the best approach is to write a letter saying, "I am very sorry, but I actually gave my son terrible advice that turned out to be wrong on this set of standards. I know that he is responsible, but I would ask that you work with him on the issue, since he trusts me on these issues and I ended up misleading him."
But still, this letter feels crazy to me. Was there a lot left out?
2) Don't go in saying anything that implies you think you know the whole story. Even if you do, asking for more information allows them to present their side, which is a good place to start.
3) Let your son do as much of the talking as possible.
4) The *only* important thing to mention about the teacher is that your son had difficulty understanding her. Do not imply she isn't a good teacher or isn't qualified- that's opening up a battle that is A) irrelevant and B) doomed, from your side. Do not imply that she is difficult to understand in general- just emphasize that there was a miscommunication in this case.
5) Ask, explicitly, what your son can do to A) demonstrate knowledge of the relevant material (e.g. redo the assignment, or the class) and B) make it clear that he respects the teacher/class/university/subject/whatever (for probably very good reasons, academics live in a culture which views academic dishonesty as hanging offense. Teachers frequently take it as a personal insult, or a sign of blatant disrespect. Which is stupid, but there it is.)
The best role that parents can play here IMHO is to help the student prepare for the meeting in advance.Review the policy that the instructor's complaint is being made under, and make sure that he goes to the meeting with the documentation that was suggested that might help his case (e.g. class notes, course outline).
A letter to the dean explaining that the parent suggested the student use the template for the assignment might also be useful.
But as most of the previous posters have suggested, the student is the one taking the course, and the one about to graduate into the real world where his parents won't always be there to solve his problems - so he is the one who needs to have the discussion with the dean, by himself.
The bit about the under-supported learning disability raises a red flag in my reading as a long-time university educator and parent of a special needs student. The college should have an office of student services and special needs accommodations are the norm. If this is not being provided, that's one more area from which you can make a little bit of a push-back to the administration (i.e., if there had been proper accommodation, some of this would have been avoided as the student would have had someone on campus with whom to consult when assignments are ambiguous, although the instructor should be first on that list if they're at all available).
That said, unless it's strictly forbidden, a lot of students would open up Word and start from a template. Especially if they've never held a job, and have never had to prepare a resume.
The writer doesn't mention how much instruction re: resume writing the students were given in class prior to this assignment. I can't imagine it would be much, else a good professor would caution against using most ready-made templates...
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