Appeals and the Soft-Hearted Registrar

This post was originally penned on 1/13/2009. Six years after writing it, I have never had an appeal go over my head. I think the system and process really works. Read on to see some details.

I don’t know if your institution is facing the same struggles that ours is, but we just reviewed our students’ academic progress and made some difficult decisions regarding the future of a few students. We required some students to withdraw because their grade point average was too low and had remained too low to allow them to continue their studies. It is always difficult to make these decisions around Christmas time, especially for international students who have no real options except to go back to their country of origin and find work. In my position, I am the arbiter of appeals of decisions like this, and each year I hear from numerous students pleading to be permitted to continue. I know myself well enough to know that I am vulnerable to the most urgent, heart-felt appeals, but I also know that if I relent, these students almost never turn their academics around. I’ve come to realize that in many cases, these students have great skills in pleading and making their case and getting one more chance, but they have not transferred those skills into learning their course materials. I do them no favour by permitting them to continue studying at my university.

However, there are exceptions. There are students who, through no fault of their own, are caught between a rock and a hard place. These are the students who have had circumstances beyond their control affect their ability to succeed in the short term, but they have every reason to succeed in the long term. These students should make an appeal to continue their studies, and their appeal should be carefully considered.

Recently, a Registrars Association list-serve question came to my inbox that asked, “Do you charge a fee for appeals?” and “Do you refund such fees if the appeal is successful?” Clearly, these fees are intended to reduce frivolous appeals – appeals that have no hope of gaining a positive response. The fee is intended to make a person think before they act. To charge such a fee may also help guard the appeal court from the pleading, heartfelt-cry appeal with no substance behind it. A reduction of these kinds of appeals means a reduction in the number of baseless appeals that take so much time to review because they are so heartrending. In reality, the list-serve question was an appeal for a fairer process and outcome.

I propose another way. An appeal should not be considered an appeal unless it is able to be documented. I propose that all appeals should meet at least one of two criteria: a) did the University make an error or apply a policy incorrectly (e.g., did we calculate the grade point average incorrectly?); or, b) were there circumstances beyond the student’s control that directly caused the student to be in a place of extreme difficulty?

Each criterion should require documentation. For example, if the university calculated the GPA incorrectly, the student should show that this was the case. If the student ended up in the hospital during final exams, then a doctor’s note explaining this should be included in the appeal.

In my own university, we have required these two criteria for an appeal to be bona fide. Without these two criteria and documentation, appeals do not see the light of day. I can feel sorry for the appellants, I can pray for their difficult circumstances, but I also have to reply to their appeals in this way, “I am sorry, but if your appeal does not meet criteria A or B, and if you cannot document A or B, then I cannot accept your appeal.” I can do this without guilt or malice, and I can offer my condolences. In the past year after we have implemented this system, no student has ever complained or tried to go to my superiors. It is a logical, fair system and students (even the most adept at pulling heart-strings) seem to understand it.

I recommend it!

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2 thoughts on “Appeals and the Soft-Hearted Registrar

  1. We are in the midst of revisting our appeal process – especially as it relates to final exams. We have actually had fewer exam conflicts this year than we have had in a while. What we are wondering though is if our policy is too inflexible. It is tough to find the right balance.

    Our other appeals process seems to work fairly well. I really do like the approach that for an appeal to be accepted it needs to meet one of the two criteria and must be documented. As I think back on recent appeals there are a few that would not see the light of day but a number would. Mostly (I think) because of circumstances beyond the control of the student.

    I wonder how it would work to have the criteria and a fee which would be refunded if the appeal is granted.

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    1. I’m not sure you would want a fee because if you have the two criteria and documentation then the appeal is legitimate, and only needs to be adjudicated. To charge a fee at that point might be more work than is worth (receipting the fee, depositing the fee, refunding the fee, receipting the refund, etc.).

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