Last month's ad hoc grievance committee report offered a harsh critique of the University's current means of handling student concerns, citing a "widespread systemic confusion about responsibility and authority," and calling for the individual schools within the Arts and Sciences to aim for accessible, transparent, and widely understood grievance policies.
The report catalyzed ongoing considerations and revisions of grievance procedures across the University— revisions that, for the most part, have consisted of codifying and standardizing existing procedures. In its examination of charges of academic intimidation of pro-Israel students by faculty members of the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures, the ad hoc committee also recommended a review of advising procedures, an evaluation of the Office of the University Chaplain and associated campus ministries, and the establishment of a central University site for grievance articulation.
While the revision process for each school has differed significantly, each school has strived to create procedures that are clearly articulated and uniform and has introduced a new time element: in most cases, grievances should now be raised no later than 30 days after the end of the semester.
In addition to these school-specific policies, there is a new standing committee on grievances for Arts and Sciences will provide an external formal procedure for students seeking an alternative, non-school or department- based process. This committee will be appointed by the Executive Committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which is chaired by Stuart Firestein, professor of Biological Sciences. While the option of raising grievances before the standing committee will be available to any student, administrators at most schools hoped that the most important aspect of recent changes will be the increased clarity of school-specific policies and a result-ing improvement in communication between students and administrators.
Columbia College's grievance policies have been formally written for the first time this semester. Dean of Academic Affairs Kathryn Yatrakis said that the revisions were part of an ongoing process of review that occurs every few years. She emphasized that the College deals with a wide variety of student issues, and placed grievances at one end of a continuum that includes concerns and complaints. The College's revised procedures maintain this spectrum of concern, complaint, and grievance to describe the kinds of issues student raise. Yatrakis said that the Committee of Instruction and deans of the College also worked to make the school's language more consistent with those expressed in the Arts and Sciences' formal grievance procedures released by President Bollinger earlier this month.
"The linking of the College rules with the Arts and Sciences' rules, as well as the substantive connection to Arts and Science procedures in terms of language and process, is a significant revision and a welcome change," Yatrakis said.
She said it was not immediately clear whether or not these revisions would elicit more formal reports of grievances than the previous system and said that the College's renovated system would hopefully prevent students from feeling overlooked by bureaucracy.
As part of the College's reevaluation process, Yatrakis and other deans met with the Columbia College Student Council to discuss student perceptions of grievance procedures and academic freedom.
"Going into the meeting, the council was not clear on what was at stake in the grievance procedures," CCSC President Matthew Harrison, CC '05, said, adding that the council was now confident in the clarity of the procedures and in the College deans' willingness to address student concerns.
School of General Studies
Unlike Columbia College, the School of General Studies had already articulated formal academic complaint procedures, according to Mary McGee, dean of students and associate dean of faculty. As such, she said, "the only thing that we've changed is that we tell students to start with us—we made more explicit what was already happening to incorporate outside sources. ... Our language always said ‘keep us informed,' and we've clarified this and embraced the language of the Arts and Sciences," as well as the possibility of addressing grievances to the new standing committee.
"It's still very much the same process we've had before, with this other welcome avenue, although we're not expecting this higher process to be used very often," she said, noting that most concerns fielded by the school are about grades or GS-specific complaints about registration or exclusion from courses.
Two important features distinguish the GS's complaint articulation structures, McGee said: individually assigned advisors, who are seen as the first line of action, and a procedure that allows students to officially raise a concern with their advisor or with the Office of the Dean of Students without formally proceeding with it.
"I think sometimes a student just wants to be heard," McGee said. "I don't expect a significant change in the kind and range of reports we're getting. I don't think that any of our students ever looked at the grievance section of our bulletin before—now, it's been raised and spelled out, and that's a healthy thing. The more consistent and common we can make these things, the better," she said, adding that the University procedures now provide alternate avenues to students who are uncomfortable with their advisors. But this week the General Studies Student Council appeared less enthusiastic with the new University- wide procedures. According to Ariel Beery, GS '05 and president of GSSC, and a key figure in Columbia Unbecoming, GSSC has drafted and approved a letter to Vice President of Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks calling for student presence on all new adjudicating bodies, particularly the new Arts and Sciences Standing Committee on Grievance.
"As student body president, I think it's crucial that students be involved in every level having to do with student grievances. I think it's preposterous for students aggrieved by a faculty member's bias to have to rely solely on the good graces of that faculty member's peers. ... They're willing to pack the court, if you will, with people with only their same interests at heart," Beery said.
Placing students on the Standing Committee on Grievance, Beery said, "would be a positive step, and would demonstrate that the University is committed to community governance." He likened adjudicating bodies without students on them to all-white juries trying black defendants.
GSSC voted Tuesday evening; GS University Senator Matan Ariel, GS '06, is currently drafting the letter, and the Council expects to send it to Dirks over the next few days.
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences' grievance and discipline policies, which were instituted two years ago, were extensive and detailed before the release of the ad hoc committee's report, comprising no fewer than 15 pages of information.
The only change to the policy was the replacement of the phrase "the subsequent decision of the Dean is final," with a description of the new possibility for direct complaint to the Office of Vice President of Arts and Sciences, as Assistant Dean John Axcelson explained in an e-mail.
As for the implications the revisions will have for graduate students, Axcelson said, "I wouldn't say that this change will have a substantive effect on the GSAS population, which was pretty well-covered under the original policy. Nonetheless ... the extra security provided by the connection to the Art & Sciences policy should make our students more comfortable."
Office of the University Chaplain
The ad hoc committee's report identified the Office of the University Chaplain and the United Campus Ministries as holding particularly ambiguous roles in the eyes of students and recommended a reassessment of their prerogatives and responsibilities. University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis identified the source of this ambiguity as the unique space that Religious Life Advisors—members of the United Campus Ministries—occupy at Columbia.
"Many people think of my office as being the kind of place where you can talk about a whole palate of concerns," Davis said. "Sometimes it has been unclear when someone went to, say, Rabbi Sheer, whether they expected him to pass their concern along, or whether it was something private, something covered by priest-penitent concern."
"Relationships are hardly ever without their complexities," Davis said. "It you think of someone going to a Rabbi, a Catholic priest, at Earl Hall, at Hillel, it's not like running into someone at Saint Patrick's ... there's an understanding that students are talking to a person of authority, or of influence, at the University," Davis noted. "We're asking religious leaders to do the hard work of helping students sort out what they're really asking for. Do they want their concern addressed, or are they looking for someone to discuss it with informally?"
Davis said her office's approach to this issue primarily involved making more clear the distinctions in Religious Life Advisors' roles, both by word of mouth and newly-distributed protocol sheets. "We're trying to help people understand that we cannot formally resolve complaints, but that we are well-suited to help in informal resolution of some student concerns while maintaining the privacy and confidentiality of the student," Davis said. She also hopes to gather anonymous, aggregate information about the types of complaints that students bring forth, either within United Campus Ministries or Community Impact, with the hope of passing it along to University policymakers who otherwise might be unaware of the nature of problems raised by students.
The link between the Arts and Sciences' standing committee on grievance and the Office of the Chaplain will be informally articulated. Davis said that Religious Life Advisors constituted part of the University's informal avenues for raising grievances. "There will not be a formal link, but I have begun to speak with the Office of the University Chaplain to develop better lines of communication between our respective offices," Dirks said.
The ad hoc committee report recommended each dean conduct a review of school-based advising procedures "to remedy the lack of information, knowledge, and acceptance of responsibility" they saw in the course of their investigation. At the undergraduate level, both Mc- Gee and Sandra Johnson, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs for both Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, asserted that the structure of student advising was not the issue.
Instead, Johnson said, the problem was one of poor information: "If a student didn't understand advising centers were where they went before, then they couldn't come to us. If now we've distributed these procedures, so students understand their options, they can come and see us with these issues," Johnson said.
"To be very honest, students come to their advisors a lot. We have seen a lot of students. In terms of academic freedom, I think those students will come forward. We have always worked with students in terms of grade issues, incompletes, developing relationships with their faculty members," Johnson said.
The Enrolled Students survey indicates that 84 percent of students did in fact communicate with their advisors last year, with varying levels of satisfaction, depending upon advising area; however, the survey also indicates that advising centers' approval ratings have fallen over the last five years.
Harrison said that some of this dissatisfaction was the result of rising expectation. "As advising here has improved ... the role of the advisors has been constantly expanding. As the offices have gotten batter at handling concerns each year, there are more and more concerns that need to be addressed," Harrison said.
"What this particular crisis and conversation demonstrates is the need to continue this kind of positive growth for the office," Harrison said.
The implications of these revisions will be difficult to assess for some time to come: Yatrakis, McGee, and Dirks all noted that it remains to be seen whether or not policy changes will elicit more grievances from students, or whether the codification of these procedures will encourage alternate solutions.
"We need especially to pay attention to concerns from students that may not qualify as potential grievances but still be important and need attention, and this is something my office will work on with the deans, as well as with the University Chaplain," Dirks said.
"I'd argue that if grievance procedures are very clear, and very formalized, then smaller concerns will start traveling down the pipeline. It doesn't mean that more and more professors will be called before ECFAS," Harrison said, but rather that department chairs, for example, might get a better sense of areas for concern and training among their department faculty.
He said that clarifying formal procedures might expand the definition of what constitutes a formal grievance by creating a structure through which more student concerns can reach the administration.
"The key question is: how do we take this new knowledge of what bothers or offends or irritates students and use it to support our professors and their freedom to teach," Harrison said.