Difficult Decisions

At Trinity Western University, the Registrar (me) is responsible to respond to student appeals regarding matters of Academic Probation. In reality, this means that when students are suspended for poor academic performance, they can make an appeal to the Registrar. Most of the time, these are relatively pro forma because we have clear criteria for what qualifies as an appeal.

What are our criteria? We have two. Students can appeal if:

  1. we screwed up (e.g., if we calculated their Grade Point Average incorrectly); or,
  2. something happened in their life over which they had little or no control and it messed up their academic life.  An example of this might be if the student was injured in a car accident and couldn’t hand in a major paper. In both cases, students must produce documentation to support their appeal.

So, appeals are usually fairly straightforward. We never screw up (not that I’d tell YOU anyways) and if students can document a legitimate situation beyond their control we make accommodations. Easy.

But every now and then something not-so-easy challenges me. This time, a student was suspended, and given the normal deadline to appeal. The deadline passed with no word from the student. But then the student came to one of my staff and said, “I didn’t think I needed to appeal because I was still waiting for one more grade to come in which raised my GPA over the threshold.”

Quick check – yes, it’s true – his grade did raise his GPA over the threshold.

Hmm, what to do?

Knee-jerk-response: tough beans, buddy! You missed the deadline. The decision was made and you didn’t follow through. You could have appealed but you didn’t. You may reapply in 6 months. See ya later.

5 minutes later response: wait – didn’t I just write a blog post about bureaucracy gone bad? Is this an example of unnecessary rule-mongering? His grade is good enough to keep him here. He is a paying student and will contribute to our full time equivalent numbers (as a private university with no financial contributions from government, that’s important to us). There is still time before the course add/drop deadline so we can get him registered.  Maybe I should re-consider…

6 minutes later: will I undermine the process if I overturn his suspension? We were very clear in our letter to him about how his grades are taken into account and when, why and how he should make an appeal, but he didn’t do anything. As you might have suspected, this is not unusual behaviour for him – this is a pattern.

15 minutes later: what is the right and good thing to do? Even though the student should have followed the process, he didn’t; however, he could still be a student. The only thing keeping him from being a student is the important matter of the deadline. Another question I’m considering: is it possible to rule in favour of the student in a case that is a little unclear without there being a travesty of justice?

And the decision is… [drum roll, please]… Appeal Granted!

Why did I rule this way?

  1. It is possible the student could understand that because his grades were not all in at the time of our decision, that we would review the decision when they did come in. We’re very clear about this, but still…
  2. The student ultimately met the spirit of the policy, and almost the letter of it except for the matter of the deadline.
  3. If I upheld the original decision, the student could complain rather convincingly that it was only the matter of the deadline (and his  misunderstanding of it) that kept him from being able to continue. Could I argue against that to the 6:00 News? To the rest of the student body? To my boss? I’m not sure I could.
  4. I can sleep at night after making the decision in his favour.

What would you do? Did I make the right decision?

Grant

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7 thoughts on “Difficult Decisions

  1. I guess it pays to avoid knee-jerk responses. You probably have made a big difference in his life. At least I hope so. Once I benefited from a professor giving me the benefit of the doubt when I didn’t deserve it and went on to do very well academically and professionally.

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    1. No, not a student-athlete. And yes, student athletes often assume someone else will look after them. They might assume this for good reason, too. Someone has looked after their administration so they can focus on their studies and sports.

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  2. Very akin to making HR decisions which always involve people and usually involve their having a misunderstanding of some kind over a policy or procedure issue.

    Experience says to always avoid the knee-jerk although it is tempting! Glad to know the student is still studying and perhaps this is the wake up call they need to be more dedicated to their studies

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    1. Nice to hear from you, Bill! Yes, it is much like making many administrative decisions. The one thing we need to keep in mind is that people almost always interpret a policy or a process from their own perspective and usually to their own personal benefit. If there’s room to think that something will be to our benefit, we usually assume it will be and we act accordingly. I’m going to explore the value of having clients, customers, students, etc. review policy and process so that we get exactly that perspective when we’re crafting policy and process.

      Of course, knee-jerk would be fun (for a very short period of time…). Always appreciate your perspective.

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  3. I would have gone with the student – customer service and good relations. Ex. have you ever tried to return something to a store and it takes some effort or or bring something back on warranty and it takes a lot of convincing that it was not your fault. It puts a bad taste in your mouth when the store does not believe you or there is lots of red tape. The next time I am thinking of making a big purchase – I will think twice about whether its worth buying at this store.

    Then take Costco – they return anything – no questions asked. As a result I feel valued and I am going to shop there again.

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