Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Hate Mail

A returning correspondent writes:

I received a communication from a student who failed my class. The communication was short and not so sweet: f*** you! I replied saying that I understood the student's frustration, but that he violated the student code of conduct and that I forwarded his email to the dean. Well, it seems the emails I sent the dean entered a black hole. The dean does not answer my emails and the student has not been disciplined. Is this the usual course of action that takes place when students violate the student code of conduct? Does this not create a hostile work environment?

My first thought is, I’ve seen worse. (In fact, that note is the title of a disarmingly catchy pop hit.) But maybe that’s me.

I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t give a definitive answer on the “hostile work environment” claim. My impression -- and it’s only an impression -- is that it takes more than one verbal incident to constitute an ‘environment.’ It’s also harder to get legal recognition of harassment from below than of harassment from above. Although contrapower harassment is real, it’s generally given less consideration than top-down harassment. People in authority positions -- which professors certainly are, relative to students -- are generally expected to tolerate a certain amount of abuse as a cost of doing business. A certain thickness of skin is expected. Whether that’s fair or not, it’s the way things currently are.

Leaving aside the merits of the case, though, the question seems to be about perceived administrative non-response to a complaint. Here, too, my first question would be whether this is a single incident or part of a larger pattern. Since you refer to “emails” (plural) I’ll assume that you’ve followed up and eliminated the possibility that it was just a matter of a message getting lost.

It may be the case that your Dean is ignoring you maliciously; there’s nothing in your note proving otherwise. It could be that s/he is trying to make you so miserable that you leave, for whatever reason. But it could also be something less sinister than that.

For example, depending on your college’s rules, you may or may not be privy to the outcome of the case. Just because you haven’t heard the outcome may not mean that there wasn’t one. Alternately, the hearing may be delayed until the Fall, when everyone is back. The student may have dropped out and/or transferred, rendering internal discipline moot. The student may be known to the college as having psychological issues, so the college may be addressing the situation on that basis, rather than a disciplinary one. (In that case, there could be very real limits to what it could disclose, even assuming it wanted to.) Or the Dean may be using prosecutorial discretion, deciding that the case is too trivial to be worth pursuing.

A few suggestions:

First, consult the student handbook. Look up the disciplinary procedures, and address your followup questions to the Dean’s office in those terms. (“I see that there is supposed to be a hearing within thirty days. Do you need any more evidence from me?”) Although you’re experiencing this as an employment issue, the college is more likely looking at it (if at all) as a student conduct issue. Knowing the procedures there can tell you what to expect, especially in terms of timeframes. The answer may be something as simple and pedestrian as “the wheels turn more slowly than that.”

Second, talk to a trusted mentor on campus. This could be a union rep, if you have one, or it could be a department chair or senior professor whose judgment you take seriously. (For that matter, if you have a good rapport with another administrator, you could even try that.) Since local culture matters a great deal with something like this, it would be helpful to know the patterns over time. Is the Dean of Students (I assume that’s who is handling this) usually slow to respond, or is this out of character?

Finally, you could always approach the Dean personally and just ask. I wouldn’t advise doing that until you’ve done your homework on processes and deadlines, though. If you can make this about process, rather than about you, you stand a better chance of getting an outcome you want.

Or you may be told to suck it up. Again, local culture matters.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you advise? Is this a ‘hostile environment’ claim, a student conduct issue, or a nuisance of modern life? And is there a better way to handle it?

Good luck. Whatever happens, I hope you don’t let it rattle you.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.