Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Advocacy Advice: Complaints

There’s a whole host of things that people come to the Student Rights Centre for. Some of them have specific processes, and are attached to particular outcomes (grade appeals, re-entry to a professional program, etc), but there’s one that’s always a little more free-form, and that’s complaints.

KPU has a complaint policy, but it doesn’t really tell you very much other than that you have the right to complain about things, and to go up the chain of command if you’re still unsatisfied. The most important thing you’ll learn from it is that if you go straight to the president of the university, you’ll likely get a response sending you back to the supervisor of whoever you’re complaining about.

There are a bunch of things that can help you decide whether to write a complaint or use some other procedure, how to write an effective complaint, and to make sense of what’s going on after you send it in.

There’s a deceptively tricky answer to this question, sometimes. Most of the time, a complaint is the thing to do if someone who works for KPU has treated you disrespectfully, seriously wronged you in some way, or done their job poorly. A complaint is a written explanation of what someone did that was wrong, which you send to their superior at the university.

For faculty, this is usually the dean of their faculty, for other departments it’ll vary. You might be asked to come in and talk to the person receiving the complaint to go over the details. They might also bring someone from KPU HR. We can also come with you for support - this usually involves taking notes, coaching, debriefing, and talking about your next steps.

The tricky stuff starts when you look at the exceptions. If you feel like you’ve been wronged by unfairly marking an assignment, or another kind of academic decision, you’re looking for a grade appeal, not a complaint (a future blog post on this soon). If you just don’t like someone or their style, that isn’t worth writing up as a formal complaint, but we can help you to find ways to mediate or to work through a rough relationship.

Folks, I hate to be the one to say it, but RateMyProfessor ain’t that good. You never really know if you’re seeing bitter low ratings from bad students, or creepy high ratings from horny students, or what. Personally, the one time I personally found RMP really useful in picking a class, I was choosing between a few English classes and took the one whose negative reviews were all spelled wrong - Al Valleau was great, and I learned a lot about close reading and grammar on the side. And frankly, if your goal is to take only “easy” instructors, I’m not sure if you’re taking advantage of your time in university.

There’s a bunch of reasons why KPU does faculty assessments, and you should take advantage of those to give the most complete feedback you can. Thoughtful and detailed feedback should help KPU keep things on track. It’s also helpful to tell us or your elected KSA representative if there’s long-term problems that don’t get fixed even though there’s been feedback over time, so we can work on it.

Faculty and most other staff at KPU are represented by labour unions, who have negotiated collective agreements that cover the terms of their employment. The details there may lead to some particular quirks in how a complaint gets handled once the university has it, but it probably shouldn’t affect you too much. Sometimes, the person you’re complaining to will hint that something you’re asking for is impossible because of a collective agreement. Sometimes they’ll just say that as a cop-out, though, so keep on your toes. People should explain in more detail what’s going on. And just because someone brings up a collective agreement doesn’t mean you still can’t lodge the complaint, come talk to us if this happens.

Complaints are a tricky place for everyone’s privacy rights. On the one hand, students are often hesitant to come forward and attach a particular beef to their own names. Especially in small programs, there’s a reasonable fear that other students and instructors will find out what you’ve said, and no one wants their problems to be the subject of gossip. On the other side, there could be all kinds of things going on for an individual instructor that students don’t need to know about - maybe they’re disorganized in class because they’re getting divorced or a family member just died. Who knows? You also don’t have a right to know the details of what KPU has done HR-wise about a complaint.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to respect each other’s privacy as much as possible, but I think you still have a right to know a few important things about your complaint. For instance, does the person you are complaining to believe you or not? Is what you’ve said happened a problem or not, even if they don’t believe it did happen? Those are important parts of proving that your complaint has been taken seriously. Whether someone believes you is actually information more about you and your complaint than about the KPU employee you’re complaining about, and whether it’s considered okay or problematic is information about KPU itself and what kind of experience it wants to provide.

A lot of the time, you’ll be asked what outcome you would like out of your complaint. This is something to think about. Most of the time, in my experience, what people want is to either undo something that was done to them or to be assured that it won’t happen again. Unfortunately, a lot of the time the damage can’t be undone, and KPU hates to give people their money back. It can take some time to process what’s happened, or to try to resolve things informally, and that time can also make it harder to fix things afterwards. I strongly encourage anyone who’s thinking of writing a complaint, or pursuing something informally, to talk to us and/or a KPU counselor sooner rather than later. Even if you just talk it out and go over your specific situation and options, that can help you to handle a difficult solution before it gets worse.

-- John (KSA Advocacy Coordinator)

Information on the KSA's Student Rights Centre, and contact details for our Advocacy Coordinator, John, can be found at http://www.kusa.ca/studentrights/

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