Tips for reporting unfair treatment by a college professor

Few professors are out to get their students, purposely treating them unfairly and striving to cause them trouble. Even if a professor has treated you unfairly, he or she may have done so unintentionally. But whenever you face unfair treatment, you can and should do something about it.

Before you report unfair treatment, be sure that’s what it is

If you feel you’ve been treated unfairly by a professor, you should make sure the treatment you consider unfair is actually unfair – this will help protect your time, energy, reputation and scholastic career.

Following are a few key questions that should be answered before bringing accusations against a professor: Is the treatment justified by a written policy, either by the school or in the course syllabus? Is the treatment specific to one student, to several, or to all? Sometimes when students seek exceptions for special circumstances, they feel the professor isn’t flexible enough, but does that make it unfair?

Certainly ask yourself these questions, and ask other students for their opinions – but you should humbly and respectfully present them to your professor as well. Your professor may have a legitimate reason for his actions. If you are uncomfortable taking these questions to your professor, go to your academic advisor, the professor’s department head, or the appropriate dean.

To distinguish between unfair treatment and an unfair policy, you’ll need to identify the basis for the professor’s actions and who the professor’s actions have targeted.

If a particular professor is harsh toward all students, when he or she treats you harshly this doesn’t represent an inequality – but overall harshness can be unreasonable and unfair. If a professor is unilaterally “unfair” – treating all his or her students in a manner undeserved – such treatment should be addressed.

If a professor’s actions are justified in his or her syllabus, whether they seem fair or not, you had a written explanation, from the beginning of the course, of how the professor would act under given circumstances. If a policy seemed unfair to you and you subsequently chose to disregard that policy, the professor’s response may be justifiable.

But just because a policy is in the syllabus, that policy is not intrinsically fair. If a professor’s written policy seems unfair, even though you probably could have avoided the unfair policy, you are nonetheless justified in reporting any unfair treatment, but by ignoring the syllabus you are unlikely to be given much sympathy.

And if a professor’s seemingly unfair treatment is justified by school policy, the policy may need to be addressed. But most schools, especially private institutions, have policies that are unlikely to change; if the school justifies the policy and you simply don’t like it, you may want to consider attending a different school.

Private schools have certain rights that public institutions do not have, but if you suspect a policy infringes upon the students’ rights or is otherwise illegal – whether your school is public or private – you might consider seeking legal counsel.

When reporting unfair treatment, respect the chain of command

Generally speaking, the higher a person’s authority within an organization, the greater their responsibilities. When reporting unfair treatment, you should be careful not to overstep any rungs in the ladder of authority – go to the person most directly responsible for your present issue.

Following this hierarchy does not eliminate your responsibility to speak first with the professor allegedly at fault. A professor cannot know a student feels wronged if the student doesn’t communicate that feeling. Students who express their complaint simply, honestly, humbly and respectfully will often find a professor much more congenial than expected.

Professors aren’t always caring, however, and if your professor seems uncaring toward your concerns, go to your academic advisor or the professor’s department head.

When reporting unfair treatment, avoid certain actions and attitudes

You should never attempt to damage the reputation of a professor among his or her colleagues, among the student body, or among your friends and family. If the professor actually treated you in an unfair way, addressing that treatment appropriately will save you time, effort, and frustration and the professor’s reputation will suffer automatically.

But if the wrong wasn’t committed and you pursued a mudslinging campaign, not only will your reputation likely suffer, you may even be sued by the professor for defamation of character. Let truth speak for itself. Never lie. Don’t exaggerate. Anything you say short of complete honesty will create more problems for you than for the professor.

You should also be as patient as is possible – try not to lose control. If you lose your temper, you will likely cause more problems for yourself.

What to expect after reporting unfair treatment

When actual wrong has occurred and all the right avenues are taken, a student should expect some level of restitution. Few professors will be wholly unresponsive to students who approach them with humility and respect. If you just talk to your professor about the treatment, the issue could be resolved without any further steps.

And if talking to the professor doesn’t help, a professor’s department head or dean will not likely ignore the situation if actual wrong has been committed.

You should understand, however, that proving a professor has treated you unfairly may be difficult. You might not see results immediately, and there is a possibility that a professor’s behavior may be deemed fair or reasonable, despite your feelings to the contrary.

But by avoiding some common pitfalls and approaching a bad situation in the best possible light, a student can often end any unfair treatment by a professor.