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When Students Should Draw the Line on Professorial Misconduct

We've previously made the point that professors are people too and that you should remember to treat them with respect. But what about when the pendulum swings the other way and you're being seriously mistreated by a faculty member at your college or university? This article will offer advice that will help you put a stop to any bad professorial behavior.

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By Sarah Wright

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When Professors Cross the Line

When I was in college, I had a friend whose brother suddenly died at the beginning of our senior year. Since her brother was young and healthy before his shocking death, my friend was understandably devastated and unsettled. No one would have faulted her for wanting to take a leave of absence from school, but she decided to push forward. She was so close to the finish line, after all.

She'd always been a very hardworking student, but this tragedy did impact her ability to pursue her work with the singular focus she had in the past. However, she was still performing well above average in her classes, and none of her professors had anything negative to say about her work. Well, almost none.

Unfortunately, one professor decided that she wasn't working hard enough and started giving her a hard time. He aggressively pressured her to work harder, and said that her perfectly adequate work ethic wasn't cutting it. He was rude and insensitive, condescending and insulting. Under normal circumstances, this kind of bullying would be over the line, but considering my friend's personal tragedy, the professor's behavior was verging on downright immoral. Even though the haze of dealing with the loss of a sibling, my friend could see that the way she was being treated was wrong. And she didn't stand for it. She went to the Dean of Faculty at our school and told him about her professor's misconduct. Needless to say, that particular faculty member did not continue harassing my friend about her performance.

Professor-Student Ethics

I remember being incredibly proud of how my friend handled this situation. She was fortunate enough to have a strong personality and never really took much guff from anyone. But I don't think that every college student would have reacted the same way. Maybe it's a vestige of high school, but we tend to want to treat professors as authority figures. It's true that we need to respect our professors, but that becomes a very clear two-way street once we enter the world of higher education. College faculty can reprimand students, but it's important to remember that students have the power to reprimand their professors as well.

Professorial misconduct is serious. It isn't something as trivial as a grade you don't think you deserve; it's a clear and unacceptable violation of professional ethics. While professor-student relationships are often far friendlier than any student-teacher relationship most have previously experienced, that doesn't mean that you are peers. Any intimidation, harassment or bullying by a professor should be dealt with swiftly. This includes sexual harassment or unwanted romantic advances. Just because you're both adults doesn't mean you have to allow your professors to flirt shamelessly or bully you while you're trying to earn your education.

What to Do

If you or a schoolmate have a serious problem with a professor, you should take action. Most colleges and universities have a Dean of Faculty or some other officer who serves as the de facto leader of all faculty on campus. Make your complaints to this individual, and provide evidence of misconduct if you have it. If this step does not cause the problem to stop, expand your search for help to include student services, trusted professors, the problem faculty member's department head and college administrators.

Above all else, do NOT take any of these steps to make false claims and exact revenge. There are proper channels for dealing with things like unfair grades or an absurd amount of homework. Dishonestly accusing a professor of misconduct could have serious legal and career implications for the accused, and it's not something to be taken lightly.

On the other hand, if you like your professors, here are some tips on how to get along with them socially.

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