CUNY Adopts Student Complaint Policy

January 31, 2007

The City University of New York has adopted a new procedure for handling student complaints about professors that are not related to either academic freedom or are not covered by other policies.

Faculty groups opposed the policy, which they criticized as infringing on academic freedom and compared to the "Academic Bill of Rights," David Horowitz's plan that is wildly unpopular with most professors.

Before CUNY's board adopted the policy, officials announced several clarifications that faculty union leaders said improved the procedure, although not enough to eliminate their fears. But CUNY leaders have defended the overall purpose of the policy, which is backed by the student government.

The new policy sets up investigative responsibilities and creates panels to adjudicate those student complaints about professors in which a mutual conclusion can’t be reached, that don't relate to academic freedom, and that aren't covered by other rules (such as anti-discrimination policies).

The new rules state that if a student files a complaint, the department chair (or academic dean, if the chair is the subject of the complaint) would conduct a fact-finding investigation within 30 days, try to work out an agreement with everyone involved, and issue a formal finding and recommendation.

If either party appeals, the chief academic officer would then serve as chair of an appeals committee, which would have as additional members the chief student affairs officer, two elected faculty members, and one elected student. In considering appeals, the panel would have a “particular focus on whether the conduct in question is protected by academic freedom.” Any disciplinary action against a professor would be covered by the terms of the faculty union's contract.

Faculty groups have been highly critical of the proposal. And some of the changes made by CUNY leaders before adopting the policy this week respond to those criticisms. For example, the draft policy did not indicate in what kinds of situations the new policy would be relevant.

This led many professors to fear that it would be used when they said something controversial in class, or gave a tough exam. CUNY added examples of cases for the new policy to be applied, using language from its contract with the faculty. "Examples might include incompetent or inefficient service, neglect of duty, physical or
mental incapacity and conduct unbecoming a member of the staff," has now been added to the policy.

Other professors were afraid that the most minor student complaint might set off a time-consuming bureaucratic mess. CUNY added to the policy language indicating circumstances in which a fact finder can dismiss a complaint without a full review.

Dorothee Benz, a spokeswoman for the Professional Staff Congress, the American Federation of Teachers unit that represents CUNY faculty members, said she wasn't surprised that the administration made changes, given the opposition expressed by many professors. She said that "some of the changes made are welcome improvements," but she added that this was only "a partial victory for us" and that the policy "remains too flawed and too dangerous."

Giving students a new way to file complaints against professors, when there is no evidence of a problem of students having complaints that they can't already file, will have "a chilling impact," especially on non-tenured or adjunct faculty members, she said. Benz added that because this creates new procedures that could leave professors involved in fact-finding processes over their classroom decisions, it amounted to "sidestepping" the union's contract and "taking away the
due process of rights of faculty long established through a negotiated, mutually agreed upon and contractually binding disciplinary procedure."

Despite the faculty concerns, student leaders have backed the administration's view that the new policy is needed and appropriate. Robert Ramos, chair of the University Student Senate and a graduate student at Brooklyn College, said that he and others in student government discussed concerns with senior university officials and urged the creation of these new rules.

"I'm very happy that they adopted it. This was a long time in coming," said Ramos. "A lot of students have had issues with faculty in the classroom, and they didn't feel like they had a fair chance of having their issues addressed."

Ramos said that he did not view the new policy as in any way restricting academic freedom. "I think the document protects faculty in that it has a lot of language about academic freedom," he said. "In almost every section, there is a reference to academic freedom."

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