Student Grievances, Academic Concerns, and Complaints

The following procedures are part of a process to ensure that student concerns about experiences in the classroom or with faculty are addressed in an informed and appropriate manner.

Due to the size and diverse nature of our scholarly community, each school maintains its own processes for addressing issues raised by students, including their concerns about experiences in the classroom or with faculty at their school. Experience has shown that most student concerns are best resolved in a collaborative way at the school level. Columbia Engineering offers several informal paths for students to use, as described in this statement.

If a student’s concerns are not satisfied through this process, or if the student believes that a direct complaint to the Dean is more appropriate, formal grievance procedures are available through the Vice Dean of the School. These procedures should be used for complaints about Engineering faculty. For those faculty who are not members of Columbia Engineering, the student should consult the procedures of the school in which they serve.

For academic complaints relating to Engineering faculty, these procedures, like those of other schools, provide for a final appeal to the University Provost.

The procedures under item A do not take the place of the grievance procedures already established to address disputes over grades, academic dishonesty, or issues of behavioral concerns as they relate to student conduct (see item B). They also should not be used when students believe that they have been the victim of sexual harassment or discrimination (see item C) or that faculty have engaged in scholarly or scientific misconduct (see item D).

We welcome students’ thoughts on ways to clarify or enhance these procedures. If you are an Engineering student, please e-mail seasdean@columbia.edu.

A. Complaints about Faculty and Staff Academic Misconduct

In fulfilling their instructional responsibilities, faculty are expected to treat their students with civility and respect. They “should promote an atmosphere of mutual tolerance, respect, and civility. They should allow the free expression of opinions within the classroom that may be different from their own and should not permit any such differences to influence their evaluation of their students’ performance. They should confine their classes to the subject matter covered by their courses and not use them to advocate any political or social cause” (2008 Faculty Handbook). A fuller description of faculty rights and obligations may be found in the Faculty Handbook. Students who feel that members of the Engineering faculty have not met those obligations may take the following steps (the procedure below also applies to complaints against instructional and administrative staff): 

  1. Students are encouraged to seek a resolution to their complaints about faculty misconduct by talking directly with the faculty member. If they feel uncomfortable handling the situation in this manner, they may ask for help from a departmental faculty mediator, who will assist students with complaints about faculty members, other academic personnel, or administrators. The name of the faculty mediator is posted in the department office and on the departmental website. Students may also ask the department chair or administrator to direct them to the faculty mediator. The faculty mediator tries to resolve any issue by informal meetings with the student and others, including faculty as seems appropriate. Students who are dissatisfied with the outcome may request a meeting with the department chair. The chair will review the mediator’s recommendation and seek informally to resolve the student’s complaint.
  2. Students may bring their concerns to the University’s Ombuds Officer, who serves as an informal, confidential resource for assisting members of the University with conflict resolution. The Ombuds Officer provides information, counseling, and referrals to appropriate University offices and will also mediate conflicts if both parties agree. The Ombuds Officer does not have the authority to adjudicate disputes and does not participate in any formal University grievance proceedings. Further information on the Ombuds Office may be found at www.columbia.edu/cu/ombuds/.
  3. Students may seek a grievance hearing if informal mediation fails. The grievance procedures students should follow will depend upon the school within which the faculty member is appointed and the nature of the alleged misconduct.

If the faculty member holds an appointment in Columbia Engineering, the student may use the procedures described below to address the issues listed below. If the faculty member belongs to another school, students must use the procedure of that school. They may, however, ask for help from the departmental faculty mediator, chair, and the School’s deans in identifying and understanding the appropriate procedures.

Conduct that is subject to formal grievance procedure includes:

  • failure to show appropriate respect in an instructional setting for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from their own;
  • misuse of faculty authority in an instructional setting to pressure students to support a political or social cause; and
  • conduct in the classroom or another instructional setting that adversely affects the learning environment.

Formal grievance procedure at Columbia Engineering

If the informal mediation mentioned above failed, the student should compose and submit to the Vice Dean of the School a written statement documenting the grievance and should also include a description of the remedy sought. This should be done no later than 30 working days after the end of the semester in which the grievance occurred.

The Vice Dean will review the complaint to determine if a grievance hearing is warranted. If so, the Vice Dean will convene an ad hoc committee consisting of the Associate Dean for Graduate Student Affairs (graduate students) or the Associate Dean of Student Affairs (undergraduate students), who acts as chair; a faculty member chosen by the Vice Dean; and a student chosen by one of the student councils (an undergraduate or a graduate student to correspond to the status of the student grieving).

The faculty member is given the student’s letter of complaint and invited to submit a written response. The Committee reviews both statements and is given access to any other written documents relevant to the complaint. It will normally interview both the grievant and the faculty member and may, at its discretion, ask others to provide testimony. The merits of the grievance are evaluated within the context of University and Engineering school policy.

The investigative committee serves in an advisory capacity to the Dean of the School. It is expected to complete its investigation in a timely manner and submit a written report to the Dean, who may accept or modify its findings and any recommendations it may have made to remedy the student’s complaint. The Dean will inform both the student and the faculty member of his decision in writing.

The committee ordinarily convenes within 10 working days of receiving the complaint from the Vice Dean and ordinarily completes its investigation and sends the Dean its report within 30 working days of convening. The Dean normally issues his or her decision within 30 working days of receiving the committee’s report.

The Dean may discipline faculty members who are found to have committed professional misconduct. Any sanctions will be imposed in a manner that is consistent with the University’s policies and procedures on faculty discipline. In particular, if the Dean believes that the offense is sufficiently serious to merit dismissal, he or she can initiate the procedures in Section 75 of the University Statutes for terminating tenured appointments, and nontenured appointments before the end of their stated term, for cause.

Either the student or the faculty member may appeal the decision of the Dean to the Provost. Findings of fact, remedies given the student, and penalties imposed on the faculty member are all subject to appeal. A written appeal must be submitted to the Provost within 15 working days of the date of the letter informing them of the Dean’s decision.

Normally, the Provost will take no longer than 30 working days to evaluate an appeal. The Provost usually confines his or her review to the written record but reserves the right to collect information in any manner that will help to make his or her decision on the appeal.

The Provost will inform both the student and the faculty member of his or her decision in writing. If the Provost decides that the faculty member should be dismissed for cause, the case is subject to further review according to the procedures in Section 75 of the University Statutes, as noted above. Otherwise the decision of the Provost is final and not subject to further appeal.

All aspects of an investigation of a student grievance are confidential. The proceedings of the grievance committee are not open to the public. Only the student grievant and the faculty member accused of misconduct receive copies of the decisions of the Dean and the Provost. Everyone who is involved with the investigation of a grievance is expected to respect the confidentiality of the process.

B. Disputes Over Grades or Other Academic Evaluations

The awarding of grades and all other academic evaluations rests entirely with the faculty. If students have a concern relating to a particular grade or other assessment of their academic work, the student first should speak with the instructor of the class to understand how the grade or other evaluation was derived and to address the student’s specific concern.

If the students do not feel comfortable speaking with the class instructor about the matter, they should then bring the issue to the attention of their class dean (undergraduate students) or department chair (graduate students).

If the students are unable thus to resolve the matter to their satisfaction and believe that a procedural issue is involved, they should bring the matter to the attention of the Vice Dean. The Vice Dean will work with the student and the faculty to determine whether there has been a procedural breach and if so, take immediate steps to remedy the matter. If the Vice Dean, together with appropriate faculty other than the instructor, decides that there is no need for further action, the student will be informed and the decision will be final.

C. Discrimination and Sexual Harassment

IIf the alleged misconduct involves discrimination and sexual harassment, a student should file a complaint with the Associate Provost for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action. The procedures for handling such complaints are described in the statement Discrimination and Sexual Harassment Policy and Procedure.

D. Scientific or scholarly misconduct

Complaints against the School’s faculty that allege scientific or scholarly misconduct are evaluated using other procedures. These are contained in the Columbia University Institutional Policy on Misconduct in Research.