Friday, January 08, 2010

Ask the Administrator: How to Talk to a Dean?

A Canadian correspondent writes:

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.

Good luck!

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.