Grievance Procedures Regarding Academic Freedom in the Classroom

At the request of the President, the Mailman School of Public Health reviewed its procedures by which students may express grievances regarding improper treatment by faculty. While the School provides many avenues for addressing non-academic concerns, its formal student grievance procedures focus solely on grade appeals.

In light of the President's request, other possible areas of student academic grievance were considered. It was recognized that the School's grievance procedures must take into account and balance basic understandings of academic freedom and academic obligation. The Mailman School is an academic community committed to fostering intellectual inquiry in a climate of academic freedom and integrity. Its members – students and faculty alike – are expected to uphold these principles and exhibit tolerance and respect for others.

The application of any grievance policy also must take into account key attributes and principles of public health and the nature of the education that we value. Specifically, there are sharp societal divides associated with many of the topic areas of public health. Some of the most important work in public health has questioned widely held assumptions and has resulted in ideas that are unsettling and offensive to many. Ours is a school in which advocacy in the arena of public health is respected. The robust and uninhibited debate that the School values as an indication of intellectual vitality must not be constrained. Finally, and of central importance, students and faculty members of the Mailman School of Public Health must not be put in a position of fearing reprisals of any kind for expressing unorthodox or unpopular political views.

In terms of the process for changing student academic grievance procedures, any change in the School's grievances policies requires the participation and concurrence of the School's faculty. The Dean appoints a committee of faculty and others to draft new policy on student grievances for presentation to the faculty. In the interim, and in response to the President's request, the Dean has put in place procedures to address student grievances concerning professional misconduct by faculty. Students and faculty are welcome to comment on these procedures or suggest ways in which they can be improved. Student comments should be emailed to the Dean of Students and faculty comments should be emailed to the Vice Dean for Education.

The University Statutes and the general policies of the University describe the roles and responsibilities of faculty in their teaching and research. A full description of faculty rights and obligations may be found in the Faculty Handbook. Faculty have a right to expect freedom in the classroom to discuss their subjects and not to be penalized for their private opinions. Faculty also have obligations arising from their position in the academic community, and should refrain from conduct in the classroom that adversely affects the learning environment. Chapter 7 of the Faculty Handbook reads in pertinent parts:

The University's commitment to the principle of academic freedom is defined in Section 70a of the University Statutes. That commitment assures officers of the freedom to determine the content of what they teach and the manner in which it is taught and the freedom to choose the subjects of their research and publish their results. It also guarantees that they will not be penalized for expressions of opinion or association in their private or civic capacity.

In conducting their classes, faculty should make every effort to be accurate and should show respect for the rights of others to hold opinions differing from their own. They should confine their classes to the subject matter covered by the courses and not use them to advocate any cause.

The current student grievance procedures are to be used when a student believes that a faculty member has failed to meet these standards in one of their classes. The procedures provide students with avenues for informally resolving complaints about the School's faculty and for seeking formal redress from the Dean of the School if those efforts at mediation fail. The grievance procedures also provide for an appeal of the Dean's decision by either the student or faculty member to the Executive Vice President for Health and Biomedical Sciences and to the Provost.

These procedures do not take the place of the grievance procedures already established to address disputes over grades. Students also should use alternative procedures in the following situations: 


Informal Conflict Resolution

A grievance might surface through a faculty member or a department chair that a student chooses to approach. In many cases the matter can be resolved informally at that level, if both parties are in agreement. The staff in the Office of Student Affairs is available to support students in their discussions at this stage.

For disputes that cannot be resolved, the student should be referred to the Dean of Students. The Dean of Students may discuss the situation with the Vice Dean for Education. Some complaints stop here through a process of counseling and evaluation if both parties feel that the matter can be addressed at this level. Accurate assessment and mutual solution are the goals at this stage of the proceedings. Students are advised of their options. They include, but are not limited to:

  1. Taking no action. (Sometimes discussion is the goal.);
  2. Role playing or problem solving should a student wish to have a conversation with the faculty person in question;
  3. The Dean of Students, serving as an intermediary between the faculty member and the student, mediating the concerns;
  4. The Dean of Students speaking to the relevant department chair. 
Students also may bring their problems to the University's Ombuds Officer, who serves as an informal, confidential resource for assisting members of the University with conflict resolution. The Ombuds Officer provides information, counseling and referrals to appropriate University offices. The Ombuds Officer also will mediate conflicts if both parties agree, but does not have the authority to adjudicate disputes and does not participate in any formal University grievance proceedings.

Columbia University Ombuds Office:


Formal Grievance Procedures

Students are encouraged but not required to seek an informal resolution to their complaints. They may elect, instead, to ask for a formal grievance hearing. They may also seek a grievance hearing if informal mediation fails. The grievance procedures that students should follow will depend upon the school within which the faculty member is appointed and the nature of the alleged misconduct.

If the faculty member holds an appointment in the Mailman School of Public Health, students may use the procedures described in this statement to address faculty misconduct in relation to the standards quoted above from the Faculty Handbook. If the faculty member belongs to another school, students must use that school’s procedures. Students may, however, ask for help from the Mailman School's department chairs and the deans in identifying and understanding the appropriate procedures.

Any student currently enrolled in the University and directly affected by the behavior of a faculty member of the Mailman School of Public Health may ask for a grievance hearing under the procedures in this current grievance procedure.

The student initiates the hearing by submitting a written statement to the Dean of the School documenting the grievance. The request must be submitted no later than thirty (30) days after the end of the semester within which the misconduct was alleged to have occurred.

The Dean will review the complaint to determine if there are sufficient grounds to proceed with a hearing or if the issues raised by the student can be resolved in another manner. If the Dean determines that a hearing is warranted, the Dean will appoint an ad hoc advisory committee to operate as a fact-finding body and report back on whether the complaint is justified. When appropriate, the committee also may recommend remedies to the student's complaint and disciplinary action against the faculty member. The composition of such an ad hoc advisory committee cannot be determined before the event. It is selected by the Dean for its expertise in meeting the issues raised. The membership will normally consist of faculty members and, at the discretion of the Dean, could include a student and/or senior administrator.

The accused faculty member is given the student's letter of complaint and invited to provide the ad hoc advisory committee with a written response. The committee reviews both statements and is given access to any other written documents relevant to the complaint. It will normally interview both the grievant and the faculty member and may, at its discretion, ask others to provide testimony.

The ad hoc committee serves in an advisory capacity to the Dean of the School. The committee is expected to complete its investigation in a timely manner and submit a written report to the Dean who may accept or modify its findings and recommendations. Any actions taken by the Dean, including faculty discipline, will be imposed in a manner that is consistent with the University's policies and procedures. The Dean will inform both the student and the faculty member of this decision in writing.

The Committee ordinarily convenes within ten (10) business days of being appointed by the Dean and ordinarily completes its investigation and sends the Dean its report within thirty (30) business days of convening. The Dean normally issues a decision within thirty (3) business days of receiving the committee's report.



Either the student or the accused faculty member may appeal the Dean’s decision. Findings of fact, remedies granted the students, and penalties imposed on the faculty member are all subject to appeal.

There are two possible levels of appeal. The student or faculty member should first appeal to the Executive Vice President for Health and Biomedical Sciences by submitting a written request within fifteen (15) business days of the date of the letter informing them of the Dean's decision. If either is dissatisfied with the outcome of the appeal to the Executive Vice President, he or she may ask for a further review by the Provost. To exercise that right, they must write to the Provost within fifteen (15) business days of the date of the letter informing them of the Executive Vice President's decision.

Normally, the Executive Vice President and the Provost will each take no longer than thirty (30) business days to complete their evaluation of an appeal. They normally confine their reviews to the written record but reserve the right to collect information in any manner that will help them make their decisions on the appeal.

The Executive Vice President and the Provost will inform both the student and the faculty member of their decisions in writing. Any actions taken by the Provost will be imposed in a manner that is consistent with the University's policies and procedures. With the exception of actions that are accorded further review by the University statutes, the decision of the Provost is final and not subject to further appeal.



All aspects of an investigation of a student grievance are confidential. The proceedings of the grievance committee are not open to the public. Only the student grievant and the faculty member accused of misconduct receive copies of the decisions of the Dean and the Provost. Everyone involved with the investigation of a grievance will be instructed to treat the process with utmost respect and confidentiality.

Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health. Student Handbook 2015|16

2015 by the Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York