Taking action

Often, students can fix academic mistreatment issues by taking action themselves. Standing up for your rights can be scary, but is an educational experience itself. Issues will arise in your future schooling, career, and personal life, so learning to take action is a great skill to build. 

The key is to be polite but persistent. For serious academic mistreatment cases, you deserve to have the case considered carefully. 

Note: You won't always get the matter resolved to your satisfaction. But at least you tried! Often, issues get resolved when a light is shone on a problem. 

Key steps:

  1. Write a concise email

  2. Send to relevant initial people

  3. Gradually escalate if unresolved

 

See below for more details.​

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1. Write a concise email

The first step to resolving a case of academic mistreatment is to write a concise factual email. 

  • Be concise: The shorter the better

  • Stick to facts: Avoid accusations or judgements. Quote school policy if relevant. 

  • Describe the impact and desired resolution

 

Even if you plan to talk with a professor, first writing an email can help keep your message focused. You can even glance at it to remind you of key point -- especially helpful if you're nervous. 

Sample email​ (from a real case)

Dear Prof. Jones, 

 

I request my final exam grade be recorded and my course grade updated. 

 

  • I took the final exam for section 003 on Dec 8,  with your TA as proctor. I scored a 94%.

  • On Dec 12, you announced section 003's final exams would be ignored due to scoring 11 points higher than other sections, stating we likely cheated, we'd receive an Incomplete (I) course grade, and we'd have to take the final next semester. This seems inconsistent with the school's academic dishonesty process at (URL). 

  • I studied hard and did not cheat, and have not been presented with any evidence that I cheated. 

  • Having to study for the final exam again next semester is a burden. Receiving an Incomplete also prevents me from taking the next class in the sequence. 

  • I respectfully request that my final exam score be recorded and my course grade updated. 

 

Due to the time-sensitive nature of this issue since grades are due next week, I would appreciate a reply by end-of-business tomorrow. Thank you for your time.

Sam A.

Student ID: 123456

Phone: 312-555-4000

 

2. Send to initially-relevant people

After writing a concise email, first send it to the people most-directly relevant to the issue. 

  • If an issue within a class, that's usually the professor and/or TA

  • If a broader issue, it might be the department chair

    • If there's a vice-chair and/or undergraduate advisor, cc them too​

Emailing is nice (vs. talking): Emailing is clear, provides a written trail, and is less nerve-wracking for young students.

Talking is fine too, having the benefit of letting the person see your smiling face, and letting them ask questions that you answer. In that case, you might email asking to meet, and include a reason in 2-3 sentences. During the meeting, you might take notes, and send an email summary after, to keep a written trail. 

If talking, remember:

  • Be concise. Rambling weakens your message. Stick to your points -- You can just verbalize your email. 

  • Stay factual. Don't accuse ("You didn't train the proctor"). Don't make judgements ("It's not fair"). Those make the person defensive.

  • Stay calm and polite. 

  • If the person seems taken aback or declines, give them a chance to ponder: "Would you be willing to think about this and email me tomorrow?". 

 

3. Escalate

If your initial request is denied or not replied to, you can follow an escalation process, where you email progressively higher-level people, asking for resolution. Students are often surprised at how effective this approach is. 

 

You can just "Reply-all" to the initial email and add the higher-level person(s) to the To: field. You might simply prepend a short message to the original email, like "Dr. Smith, could you help resolve the matter below?"

Below is a typical ordering of people you'd contact during the escalation process. 

  1. Professor / TAs

  2. Department chair / vice-chair (for undergrad affairs if exists)  / undergrad advisor

  3. College's associate dean (for undergrad affairs if exists)

  4. College's dean

  5. University's vice-provost for undergrad affairs

  6. University's provost and perhaps president/chancellor

If still unresolved, universities often have an "ombudsmen" whose purpose is to help with unresolved disputes. Some schools have a "student advocates" office as well. 

You can find emails for the above people on the university webpages (department page, college/school page, university page). 

How high you want to goes depends on how important the matter is and how strong a case you have. 

You can of course merge steps to speed things up. There's a risk of annoying the lower-level people, who might say "I wish you came to me before notifying ___" -- folks don't their "boss" to get complaints. But that can also get matters resolved more quickly, if the matter is urgent.