No stone left unturned: What actually happens when students complain

Bella Cook felt swept under the rug by Chapman officials after complaining about one of her professors. The junior television writing and production major didn’t like that the teacher would schedule classes outside of class time. Students would be marked absent if they didn’t show, and this didn’t sit well with Cook. So she decided to file a complaint.

“I really wish there would have been more action,” Cook said. “The department chair didn’t communicate to me what she was doing and I felt like I was shoved aside. I would’ve appreciated her taking more investigative measures instead of being totally negligent.”

But what Cook didn’t know, is that her case didn’t get overlooked.

Although Chapman students don’t always hear back from the administration about their complaints due to a lack of communication, professor misconduct always gets addressed. Dean Jerry Price assisted 574 students who came into his office last year wanting help.

“Unless the conflict is personal; for instance ‘he makes me uncomfortable because his comments are suggestive’, I encourage students to speak to their professors about their issue first,” Dean Price said. “If the complaint is related to the process of teaching, that would be an academic debate determined by department chairs and associate deans.”

Should a student want to file a complaint about a teacher, Chapman has a formal complaint form that only needs to be signed by a designated Equal Opportunity representative in Human Resources. Students can also talk to a department head or associate dean to voice a complaint. Either way, the professor, and the complaint always get attended to.

Should a student want to file a complaint about a teacher, Chapman has a formal complaint form that only needs to be signed by a designated Equal Opportunity representative in Human Resources. Photo illustration by Laura Claypool.

Student complaints, received by department heads and associate deans, typically get filed back to the relevant class’s department, said Kenneth Murphy, associate provost for academic administration. While Murphy doesn’t keep formal records of how many complaints he gets per year, he estimates that when he was an assistant dean of the business school of about 1,600 students, he received two to five complaints a semester.

“We don’t have a single, standardized process,” Murphy said. “But should a complaint come, we address it as fast as we can, and try to get both sides.”

In some cases, the administration makes strides to compensate students if a professor is negligent. While President Daniele Struppa was chancellor, he tutored junior business administration major Amanda Paulsen after she filed a complaint about a teacher’s misconduct.

“The issue was that the professor was not accessible for help outside of class,” Paulsen said. “He was just unwilling to help when questions were asked.”

In practice, students tend to not complain to associate deans unless the problem is a serious one. This means that each complaint is taken seriously. No matter the case, associate deans and department heads try to address the issue head-on with the faculty member that was complained about, as soon as possible.

The most difficult part of dealing with complaints is when they happen near the end of a semester, Murphy said. Students will have expectations of getting a B when all along they had a C, and get upset by the grade. In this, the issue primarily stems from a lack of communication, not professor misconduct.

Junior kinesiology major Austin Ferguson emailed Dean of Students Jerry Price after his professor didn’t show up to class for two consecutive weeks, notifying the class one time that he wouldn’t be there.

“We were assigned an interim professor until our professor returned,” Ferguson said. “They handled it in the best way they could, I just wish it was handled in a timelier manner. Then again, it was probably our fault because we didn’t send an email immediately, because of the whole ‘enjoying no class’ thing.”

Jackie Palacios, a junior screen acting and peace studies major, said she isn’t embarrassed about filing a complaint. She’ll combat obstacles to have her expectations met, no matter how uncomfortable the necessary steps may be. She said staying quiet would hinder her learning potential.

“I think my experience with this professor has been frustrating but eye-opening because, at the end of the day, college is for the students,” Palacios said. “And that means we have the power. So if we have a problem with a professor, we shouldn’t hesitate because we are in control of our education.”

Palacios, with a few other classmates, is filing a complaint against a professor who she says isn’t open to understanding issues pertaining to diversity.

“One thing about this business that I’ve learned over 10 years is that it’s a people business,” Murphy said. “And people have personalities. When personalities clash, things don’t go well all the time.”

Junior psychology major Sakura Kato complained her freshman year about a professor who didn’t have a textbook, wouldn’t respond timely to emails, didn’t follow the syllabus and responded positively to her midterm concerns, reassuring her that she had nothing to worry about, only to fail her at the end of the semester.

“Even though I filled out the formal complaint, I still don’t understand why it happened,” Kato said. “He’s still teaching here and I want to know if they asked him how he runs his class.”

Sometimes, students complain while failing to realize that their professor followed the syllabus, Murphy said. Complaining doesn’t do much when professors follow the rules. Nonetheless, student feedback always gets back to the professors.

The most serious complaint Murphy has heard was a part-time faculty member who never showed up to class, which is considered gross negligence. That professor was fired on the spot, Murphy said. In general, it is more difficult to reprimand tenured faculty members than part-time faculty members, Murphy said.

Jan Osborn, a professor in the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy, said she was relieved when she was approached about a complaint from a student because it meant that she could have supplementary assistance in helping the student complete her course. The student appeared to have issues that went beyond the scope of a class, Osborn said. The student said Osborn was disorganized, ignored her in class and didn’t care for her complaints, despite Osborn attempting to review assignments and providing extra attention to the student, Osborn said. Osborn claimed that resolving issues with the student was beyond her abilities.

“Nothing about my class changed after this complaint,” Osborn said. “What did change is the reminder that some problems are beyond my ability to resolve. When there are emotional challenges with a student, I should reach out to student services for help … There is a team of professionals on campus to help students who need help. I am not in this alone.”  

Chapman prides itself on giving professors academic freedom. Students are also held to high standards and are expected to bode well with this arrangement, but this disparity in what the rules are that students have to follow can lead to conflicts between students and professors, according to Murphy.

While some students believe that filing a complaint can be beneficial, others find that the opposite happens.

“I wouldn’t formally complain again,” Kato said. “It’s just not worth it, and writing it out made me so angry because I was reliving every step. And in the end, it still felt like the administration didn’t take me seriously.”

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