In July, a student approached the Editorial Board with a story about a professor behaving inappropriately. For the purposes of anonymity, we’ll call her Emma.
From the first day of class, Emma’s professor acted strange. He “stood closer to the woman standing next to me, who was sitting down while he was standing up. He repeated, ‘Are you uncomfortable yet?’ each time he got closer — until everyone in the room seemed to be pretty uncomfortable.”
He implied he didn’t fear oversight from the other professors in the program or from the administration. He was confident he could do whatever he wanted. According to Emma, he bragged about breaking “12 rules a day” and said he’d never read the UT handbook.
In one class, he began with a warning about the content he was going to present. According to Emma, the professor said “you are all adults, so I’m sure you can handle it.” He then played an audio recording that included a graphic description of a sexual assault.
According to the sexual misconduct provisions outlined in UT’s handbook, sexual misconduct includes “gratuitous use of sexually oriented materials not directly related to the subject matter of a class, course, or meeting.” Emma felt her professor had crossed a line.
She visited her academic adviser and reported the incident to the Campus Climate Response Team. She complained about her professor’s presentation, saying it was inappropriate and unnecessary for the subject matter of the course.
In order to avoid further incident, Emma chose to transfer into the only other section of the class. But the other section was considerably further ahead, and she was already behind. To avoid suffering academically, Emma rejoined his class.
She believes transferring out of and then back into the class — which coincided with the timing of the complaint — made her identity obvious to the professor.
The situation with her professor escalated. She described a series of incidents that settled somewhere in the gray area between appropriate behavior and sexual harassment — slight changes in how he spoke to her, how he treated her, subtle differences that made her uneasy.
He called her “my dear.” Before class one day, he interrupted her question about the course material to ask if he could look more closely at a necklace hanging between her breasts.
When grades came out at the end of the semester, Emma was unsatisfied with her grade on the final assignment. She emailed the professor requesting feedback on her work, but he wasn’t helpful. He told her grading was subjective and, in Emma’s view, failed to provide constructive feedback.
Emma thought this could be retribution for her complaint.
She initiated the process to appeal her grade. Her academic adviser suggested she talk to the head of the department, but he redirected her back to the head of her program — who was also the professor teaching the other section of the class. According to Emma, the head of her program did not respond.
At this point, Emma decided she had two options. She could either decide not to advocate for herself and drop the situation, or she could email the head of her program again. “I’m not a quitter,” she said.
In an email to the head of her program, Emma laid out the entire story, which she felt substantiated her grade dispute. After a semester of uncomfortable encounters, she thought her professor knew she had filed a complaint, and he had treated her unfairly as a result.
The head of the program CC-ed the professor — a close colleague — in his response to Emma.
If her professor didn’t know who filed the complaint at that point, he did then.
After the head of the program did not support her appeal, she took her case to the Dean of her college. She met with him and explained the sexual misconduct complaint, the grade dispute and that she felt she was treated unfairly. He suggested she file a Title IX complaint, but did not intervene on behalf of her grade.
“I walked away with nothing,” Emma said. “Reporting to Title IX is a huge burden on me as a student, and this issue already has been. I’ve been making reports all semester.”
Any other UT student would file a grade dispute in a similar way. While some colleges have their own procedures posted online, all are centered around a University policy that a student can dispute the grade through three steps. This includes bringing your case to the instructor in question, then the department chair or a designated administrator, and finally the Dean if the case still hasn’t been settled.
According to Emma, this lengthy process is why most people don’t take their appeals as far as she did.
Regardless of which authority figure puts the dispute to rest, no decision can be made without first “consulting with and considering fully the position of the course instructor.”
Under the guise of keeping professors informed, this process can neglect student privacy and safety. Even in cases where students have filed complaints against a professor, that professor still has a significant sway over any grade appeals.
In Emma’s case, the University’s grade appeal process failed. Her confidentiality was violated, and personal friendships among colleagues took priority over the well-being of a student who felt she had been mistreated. At several turns, the process could’ve been more efficient, professional and — above all — unbiased.
UT needs an external department to handle grade disputes, especially in cases involving professor misconduct. This department should be composed of unbiased parties that are capable of objectively evaluating a student’s grade in a course, as well as the professor’s choice to assign that grade.
The current grade dispute system requires all parties provide relevant documentation of student grades. Why stop there? There should be a department made up of impartial arbiters, similar to a human resources department. This will help exclude departmental officials who might have existing loyalties to professors within their departments, and help avoid another experience like Emma’s.
Only through establishing this board can we guarantee students such as Emma safe and equitable access to a degree from UT.