Knowing how to handle student complaints is an essential skill for department chairs. In an interview with Academic Leader, Patricia Markunas, chair of the Psychology Department at Salem State University, offered advice on minimizing the number of complaints and managing those that do make it to the department chair.

Markunas groups complaints into two categories: grades and behavior. When not addressed properly, complaints in either category can be a source of unpleasantness, particularly when the student goes up the chain of command looking for resolution.

  • Follow protocols. At most institutions, chairs are not expected to handle complaints that fall into legally protected categories, such as racial or sexual discrimination or sexual harassment. In these cases, the chair’s job is to send the complaint to the diversity officer.
  • Ask the student to talk to the faculty member. The best resolutions to complaints often come through discussion between the people directly involved, so Markunas invariably asks students whether they have discussed the problem with the faculty member. “If they haven’t, I send them back,” she says.

Occasionally a student is too upset to talk to the faculty member directly, and the chair needs to handle it. When this happens, Markunas asks students to schedule an appointment with her.

  • Avoid using e-mail. “I discourage students from venting in e-mail. We’re at a public institution, and our e-mails are public records. I much prefer that they come and see me face-to-face so that there isn’t an archive of a complaint about a faculty member,” Markunas says.Likewise, Markunas discourages faculty members from sending e-mails related to problems they’re having with students because those are public records that students can access. “If there’s a real dispute, the student or student’s lawyer can access any e-mail communication between a faculty member and chair, which could prove embarrassing or difficult for the faculty member,” she says.
  • Refer to the syllabus. When she meets with a student about a complaint, the first thing Markunas does is review the course syllabus with the student—she has the syllabi for all the department’s courses on file. “That takes care of a fair number of complaints,” she says. “Some students are mathematically challenged, and they don’t quite get weighted grades, but I’ll explain how the grading formula works and how the faculty member has to follow the syllabus.“A few students will argue that if a professor used a different formula, the result would have been a better grade. I reply, ‘That’s nice, but the professor has to follow what was published in the syllabus,’” Markunas says.

    Another common complaint is about late work: Are faculty members required to allow students to submit late assignments or take a makeup exam? “I go over those syllabus policies with students. They may not be happy, but it tends to resolve those complaints,” Markunas says.

Markunas strives to prevent complaints and offers the following advice to faculty:

  • Create a simple, consistent, and flexible grading policy. “Faculty need to keep grading procedures simple. I was chair of the tenure committee, so I got to see the syllabi across the university. I’ve seen grading formulas that would require a math degree to understand,” Markunas says. “Simple is better. Also, include some avenue for students to avoid late work or makeup exams where you drop the lowest grade or allow students to skip a quiz or something like that. That adds an element of flexibility for students so that when they are sick or are pressed for time with other work, they have some flexibility in terms of meeting their assignments. It’s easier than having students complain that a faculty member rejected their excuse for absence or late assignments. A certain amount of simplicity, consistency, and flexibility in grading goes a long way.”
  • Be approachable. Markunas suggests that faculty members, through their words and demeanor, should create an environment in which students feel comfortable talking about concerns rather than approaching the chair or dean.
  • Be professional. This includes things such as avoiding talking about personal issues and showing up to class on time. “If you don’t want students to show up late for class, you shouldn’t show up late for class. If you want students to submit assignments on time, you need to make a commitment to grade them and get them back to students in a timely way,” Markunas says.
  • Apologize when warranted. Try to resolve problems as they arise. “If a student feels that he or she was demeaned in class, for example, an apology isn’t going to kill you. An apology goes a long way toward making your students feel better and restoring equilibrium with the student. To be hard-nosed and act like the student deserved that sort of treatment doesn’t help,” Markunas says.


Reprinted from Academic Leader, 30.5 (2014): 8. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.