EXAMINING ADMINISTRATIVE PRACTICE IN PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS

 

Letter from Robinson

to the President:
RE: Investigation



February 11th, 2006



Dr. Bill Cade,
President
University of Lethbridge



Dear Dr. Cade,


I raised a matter with you just before Christmas about a situation in which I felt that some students had valid concerns. You asked Dr. Hosgood to look into the matter. I have seen a copy of Dr. Hosgood’s report on the handling of a situation regarding a class in the Fall semester 2005, in which the instructor was not able to continue teaching the course and certain actions were taken by administration.


As a member of the campus community, I am expressing my concern that the issue appears to remain unresolved—unless action has been taken beyond Dr. Hosgood’s report that has yet to be reported to the student who spoke with you. Dr. Hosgood’s letter offers explanations for actions by the Dean’s office but does not adequately address particular matters of concern. Initially, I assumed that the matter was a simple one and could be addressed quickly and quietly. I still hope the matter can be resolved in a way that students feel, in the end, they have been treated fairly and with respect. In light of that, I am laying out what I believe to be a reasonable description and assessment of the situation. Since the particulars of the events as I have learned from the student side of the matter generally seem to be confirmed by the responses from the Dean’s office that Dr. Hosgood has detailed, I will assume that there is general agreement on the particulars of the events, though not on the interpretation.


Students were given an option of dropping the course and losing half of their tuition or signing a contract in order to continue in the course. Further, students were told that the contract had been reviewed by a lawyer and that it was “water-tight” (or something along those lines). As well, they were told that they had no place of appeal, since their appeal would be to the Dean’s office, and the Dean himself had been involved in making up the contract.


THE ISSUE OF THE CONTRACT:
(1) Since students were put into the situation through no fault of their own, the university should have been more accommodating. If students wished to drop the course, they should at least have had their full tuition refunded. Given that they already had invested about two months into the course and bought course materials, they probably could have a claim against the university for even more.
(2) To force students to sign a contract to continue in a course for which they had already enrolled and paid their fees is, I would think, a violation of an implicit contract the university already had with the students who had registered in the course. Dr. Hosgood states that “the goal [of the Dean’s office] was to provide [students] with a commitment, from the Faculty, to complete the course appropriately.” That is a strange spin—students are forced to sign a contract that somehow will ensure that the Faculty would commit to completing the course appropriately! The Faculty already has that obligation. No contract was needed. The university has always understood its obligation in this regard. On numerous other occasions, courses have been completed by a different instructor than the one who started the course—without having students sign a special contract.
(3) To state that the contract had already been reviewed by a lawyer put the students at an unfair disadvantage. Perhaps the students, as a party involved in the matter, should have been given opportunity to run their case by a lawyer—at the university’s expense—since the legal advice that the Dean’s office received was paid for by the university. Further, when the Dean’s office makes a statement like that to students, the effect is to force compliance—whatever the intent of the statement might be.
(4) If the Dean’s office had the contract reviewed by a lawyer, some explanation should be offered to students why this particular situation had to be raised to a level of such seriousness. Situations frequently have developed where the original instructor has been unable to start or complete a course, and students have not been forced to sign a special contract in those situations. If the situation under discussion here was so unusual, particular caution must be exercised to ensure that the rights of students are not compromised.
(5) On the other hand, if the Dean’s office did not have the contract reviewed by a lawyer but, nonetheless, informed the students that they had, then the Dean’s office has lost credibility, and steps must be taken to ensure that all communication between the university and its students is fully accurate.


DENIAL OF STUDENTS’ CONCERNS AND OBJECTIONS: A couple of matters suggest that the situation was handled in such a way as to silence students’ concerns and objections.
(1) Students were told that they had no avenue of appeal. This violates a fundamental principle of the university, where various mechanisms have been put in place whereby a more neutral party can judge an action where one party does not believe that a fair decision has been rendered. Indeed, the Dean’s office should have sent the very opposite message to students: if students had concerns, they should have been encouraged to bring the matter to the attention of administration above the Dean’s office. That is a basic principle of justice.
(2) When some students attempted to use the e-mail class list to discuss the matter, they were ordered by the Dean’s office to cease. It is offensive that students were denied this natural forum to discuss a matter of this nature. The issue specifically involved the class; the e-mail class list was the only mechanism available to guarantee that the matter was discussed with all the students of that class and with only those students. Dr. Hosgood states: “Dr. XXXXX* was instructed by the Dean to advise students that such use of the class e-mail list was inappropriate, as it necessarily included students who were not in disagreement with the new agreement and who were happy with the opportunity to complete their course work.” The Dean’s office should not have assumed that students who signed were “in agreement” and “happy,” given a situation where a number of matters worked together to force compliance. Such unusual action by the Dean’s office in forcing students to sign a contract should have been given every opportunity for discussion—not the very opposite. The explanation of the Dean’s office is particularly offensive in an academic context, where we hope for the free exchange of ideas—even when others might disagree with us.


Further, it is puzzling to have the Dean’s office say that students were happy “with the opportunity to complete their course work.” That is not a special concession to the students. The “opportunity to complete their course work” is an obligation that the university assumes when it registers students and collects money from them. To force students to sign a contract for the opportunity to complete their course work reflects language and attitudes that are offensive and inappropriate from the perspective of both students and faculty.


One final matter. It should be made clear that I have raised these objections to the actions taken by the Dean’s office—the student has not. The student who mentioned the matter initially simply expressed concerns about how the situation had been handled and how students had been offended. The student thought there was nothing that could be done about the matter—that was simply the way the university did its business. Since students often feel voiceless and powerless when dealing with administration, I have raised the matter—not just on their behalf but as a concerned member of the academic community. I believe that the issues expressed by this student are valid concerns and that the university can and should work to rectify aspects of the situation in a way that is more clearly sensitive to the students who were placed in a difficult situation.


The bottom line seems to be this. Students should never feel that they may be forced by the university to sign a contract to continue in a class in which they have already paid fees and invested effort—or be forced to drop the course and lose tuition fees paid. Such a situation simply should not occur. Further, if the university sought and received legal advice regarding the appropriateness of such contracts, the university should take steps in the future to gain legal advice more sensitive to the relationship we strive to foster with our students. Indeed, I would suggest that we get legal advice more informed about Canadian contractual law, which, I believe, would render of questionable status a forced contract such as the one under discussion here.


I understand that the position of the Dean’s office is that the decisions made were proper. I trust that the administration would reflect on the matter from the perspective of students—and, indeed, from the perspective of faculty members, too. The forced contract and the attempts to limit discussion have produced unacceptable, though unintended, consequences. I am sure that the Dean’s office acted in good faith in what they thought to be in the interests of all parties, but the reality is that some of the actions taken complicated rather than cured the problem. I know that all parties wish for a better resolution of the situation as it now stands and will work to bring that about.


If I may suggest a possible solution: I believe that the matter can be resolved by two actions: (1) a full refund of tuition paid for that course by students who felt forced to withdraw, and (2) communication from the university to the students of that course that expresses our concern as a university that students were placed in a situation that caused them a degree of unease and offence.


You will note that I have not mentioned the name the student from whom I learned of the situation. I assume that this student has remained anonymous to the Dean’s office in the discussions of this matter (except to Dr. Hosgood, who investigated the matter). If that is not the case, the matter becomes more complicated and considerably more serious.


Sincerely,


[original signed]

Tom Robinson
Religious Studies
c.    Dr. Chris Nicol
       Dr. Chris Hosgood
       student






  1. *My dispute is with the conduct of the University of Lethbridge President and with senior members of the Board of Governors. I have, therefore, deleted the names of junior players in these matters, except for Dr. Chris Hosgood, who was commissioned to investigate the matter. He was not otherwise involved in the matter.



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