Trustees | Freedom of Expression

CUNY Approves Steps for Dealing with Complaints About Professors’ Conduct

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  February 1, 2007 by Robin Wilson

Trustees of the City University of New York have established a new procedure to handle student complaints alleging faculty misconduct in the classroom and in other university-related settings. The procedure, which CUNY’s faculty union opposes, covers student complaints about professors’ “incompetent or inefficient service, neglect of duty, physical or mental incapacity, and conduct unbecoming a member of the staff.”

Students must file complaints within 30 days of an alleged incident. If the complaint cannot be resolved informally, the procedure provides for an investigation by a department chair or other senior faculty member or administrator. If a professor is found guilty of misconduct, a letter can be placed in his or her personnel file, or the university may decide to pursue disciplinary action.

The policy says university officials respect professors’ academic freedom and don’t want to interfere with that “as it relates to the content or style of teaching activities.” But the policy adds: “At the same time, the university recognizes its responsibility to provide students with a procedure for addressing complaints about faculty treatment of students that are not protected by academic freedom and are not covered by other procedures.”

The new procedure comes amid accusations from some national activists and organizations–including David Horowitz and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni–that professors indoctrinate students in left-wing ideology and penalize undergraduates with conservative views. Those critics have been calling on state legislatures to push public universities to report on specific steps they have taken to promote a mix of ideas on their campuses.

Before approving the procedure late Monday, CUNY’s board held a five-hour hearing in which students generally testified in support of the new procedure and faculty members testified against it. The board then made changes in its original draft–inserting the sentence about the university’s respect for academic freedom and giving examples of the kinds of behavior, including incompetence, that might be subject to complaint.

But Dorothee Benz, a spokeswoman for the Professional Staff Congress, the American Federation of Teachers affiliate that represents CUNY professors, said the revised procedure still threatened professors’ academic freedom and would have a “chilling” effect in the classroom.

“If you are looking over your shoulder because you’re worried that some kid in your class is going to use this vague process to start some kind of investigation of you, you’re going to back away from the kind of classroom discussion that you really want to have,” said Ms. Benz.

Jay Hershenson, a spokesman for CUNY, said a few of the system’s campuses have already been faced with student complaints, the details of which he declined to discuss. But he said no particular incident had led to the creation of the procedure. “This is not a response to any individual student complaint but a proactive way to make sure an appropriate channel is available for students,” he said.

Robert Ramos, chairman of the University Student Senate at CUNY, endorsed the new procedure. “A lot of students have had complaints, and I don’t think there were ever proper procedures so they could be addressed,” he said in an interview. “The complaints range from feeling students can’t voice their opinions on certain issues in the classroom to disrespect or discrimination by a teacher.”


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