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Contacting faculty on behalf of students

While I care deeply about my students, when a student needs someone to contact other faculty, that person should not be me. The student should rely on Student Affairs, Academic Advising, or Student Health and Counseling Services. When a student asks me to contact faculty on their behalf, I will direct them to those offices.

Background: For many years, when one of my students was having some health or personal difficulty, I would directly contact the student’s faculty to ask them to make appropriate arrangements. For example, I might write Dear colleague. Student X is ill and will have difficulty finishing the essay for your class on time. Could you please give them an extra day?

In April of 2016, a number of factors led me to change my approach. In part, it’s that I was asked to have students follow our normal chain of command as it were. But I’m a tenured faculty member. I can do what I want. My own reflections on these situations led me not only to accept that recommendation, but also to support it. In this document, I attempt to explain my reasoning.

Official channels should be more timely. Student problems don’t just happen during the work day. They happen at all times of day and night, weekday and weekends. I’m not always available (and shouldn’t always be available). Our campus offices always have someone on call.

Using official channels improves those channels. I know that students have some reasonable complaints about Student Affairs, Academic Advising, and SHACS. However, if we side-step those offices, we give them neither incentive nor opportunity to improve. I know that it can be frustrating to deal with an office that is not behaving in the way that you think it should. But working with them on each case can make things better for all students.

I have too much influence. While I’d like my colleagues to make appropriate arrangements with my students who are struggling with various issues, I should not be able to force my colleagues to make arrangements with my students. I’m a tenured full professor and department chair. I’ve been division chair. I serve on many committees that make decisions over other faculty. A message from me can therefore carry too much weight with untenured colleagues.

I have too little influence. Although I have indirect authority over other faculty, in the end, I cannot force another faculty member to give a student an extension or make other appropriate arrangements. In contrast, our campus offices do have that power (or should have that power).

It’s better for the student. (Yes, I know that students won’t always agree with this.) Student Affairs, Academic Advising, and SHACS exist to support students. When they are left out of the loop, they cannot offer appropriate resources to students who probably need those resources.

It’s better for me. This reason is a bit selfish. But it takes time and emotional energy to serve as the person who contacts other faculty. Some of the students for whom I advocate are not my advisees, which means that I have to spend extra effort finding out who to contact. Sometimes the requests I get are indirect requests (My friend X is in really bad shape. Can you write to X’s faculty?) which put me in a troublesome situation. Particularly given that I have 47 advisees (as of 19 April 2016), taking on this much responsibility is unhealthy for me.

As I consider each of these issues, I find that almost any of them would individually be enough to suggest that I should direct students to the normal channels. Taken together, I find that it’s an inescapable conclusion.

Comments welcome.

Version 1.0.1 of Wednesday, 20 April 2016