Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Following procedure

A recent conversation with the gf about student situations I am dealing with, and a story in the Chronicle about a false sexual harassment proceeding, raised questions for me about the role and importance of establishing and following procedures.

In discussing a student issue, I noted that I would likely skip a step in a process for student complaints and meet with the student myself as the administrator, instead of sending him first to his advisor, because I was sure the advisor would hand it off to me. I haven't heard the complaint myself yet, but I have heard about it through the grapevine and know that it is not one the advisor can handle. It will get kicked to me anyway, so I might as well intervene now and see if I can manage it before it becomes an official grievance.

What is ironic is that I created this process myself and put it in all the student handbooks. I did it to keep trouble off my desk as much as possible, and to teach students about the proper process for complaints. Yet, it just isn't always worth it to follow the process, when you know where it will lead. Perhaps it is because it is the end of the semester, but there isn't a lot of time for the process to move forward. Might as well skip a step before we all leave town for the holidays.

I contrast this decision with the story of pseudonymous author of a Chronicle First Person story who was charged with sexually harassing a student (who was also a university employee) via email. It turned out that the student had emailed the professor at a personal hotmail address, but she had the address wrong, and so some random stranger had fun by sexually taunting the student via numerous email messages and signing the professor's name. The author notes that he was assumed to be guilty, not only by the student but by his dean and the ombusperson.

The process, as the author laid it out, was that the student complained to her department chair, who encouraged her to make a formal complaint. The dean and ombudsperson then scheduled a meeting with the professor to go over his "behavior." The author complains that everyone assumed his guilt; the department chair should have talked to him, the ombudsperson should have sought out his side.

I have to say, so far, the process sounds about right to me. The chair should encourage a formal complaint, not (as the author wanted) handle it by personally calling the instructor to find out what was going on. The instructor was not in his department, and that kind of personal "reaching out to handle things" can seem like men taking care of each other. You don't play with this kind of sexual harassment, especially when you have an email trail. The ombudsperson should contact the dean and set up a meeting with the involved professor. This doesn't indicate assumption of guilt, it indicates a proper process and procedure to protect students' and faculty's rights.

However, in my opinion, the procedure breaks down right there. They have the meeting, but the administrators are loaded for bear. They do not offer the faculty member a chance to explain his side of the story. The dean voices her disgust at the beginning. The ombudsperson is not an unbiased mediator; instead, she whips out an agreement for the faculty member to sign agreeing that he would seek psychological treatment. That is the moment, in my mind, where the faculty member is right in his critique.

Had they followed the procedure, I bet they would have been fine. The faculty member should be informed of the complaint, be able to respond with his side of the story, and then a discussion would ensue. All of this should have been kept quiet throughout--a private personnel matter--and the error would have been identified and addressed. A little embarassment for everyone, but a feeling that the process honored everyone. Instead, the author has a story he can retell that will be adopted by every man who has ever complained about attending harassment training.

Procedures matter. We set them up to make sure everyone's rights are respected, everyone knows how the process will go, and everything is clear. When we make changes to procedure or ignore one of the steps, these decisions need to be mindful and purposive. My small change makes little difference to anyone, except (as my gf reminds me) students might learn that they can just come take up my time instead of talking to their advisor. But I can head that off.

And if my student complaint becomes an official grievance, it goes by the book.


Dean Dad said...

Be careful when skipping steps -- even patently innocent divergences from Official Procedure can become grist for grievances, lawsuits, etc.

For reasons I still don't entirely understand, the courts want to see a Process, whether the Process makes any sense or not. A little redundancy now can save you a lot of time later.

prof bw said...

I'd agree. This time it may seem ok but what about the next time?

On a different note - what you raise about procedure and bias are very important pieces that at least at my uni we have had to confront precisely b/c of a pattern of procedural bypass and assumed guilt with regards to certain marginalized faculty. We just barely dodged the bullet by addressing it at the upper level when we did . . . best to always follow procedure lest someone else's behavior gets you embroiled in something later that you had no part in.

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