I received a grade I deem unsatisfactory for the quality of work I completed, due to lateness penalties. The course instructor was partly responsible; he has never responded to several of my assignment inquiries. His non-response added several extra hours to my work, prompting lateness on said assignments - enough to lower the letter grade.

Furthermore, the professor has given zero feedback on any of my essay or research project submissions in this course of 'Engineering Ethics', only grades - and has remained 2-3 weeks avg. behind on grading.

I filed a complaint along a grade appeal to the Department Chair, describing said concerns, and proposing a resolution in form of raising the letter-grade (from which I am 0.2% away) - after failing to find a resolution with the professor. The chair denied the appeal. I forwarded the matter to the Dean of Students, who referred to the Vice Provost.

The response from all of them, in a nutshell, was "Policy was followed." None of them made any response to the complaint - which was detailed, and comprised majority of my letters. This was hardly a surprise*.

This said, there's zero intent on behalf of the administration to bulge on this matter. The only college official I'm yet to contact is the Provost - who I doubt will respond any different unless I shift gears.

That policy was followed in grading is true, but overlooks the fact that my grade suffered directly from the professor's negligence - unsure how to press on this point further (or pursue others).
Short of a lawsuit, what approach is advisable to increase the odds of winning the grade raise?

Additional info: It's a state university. Professor is a "Faculty Lecturer", untenured.

'* - the institution is ridden with incompetence: professors often lack basic understanding of course material, lab manuals are filled with faulty and ill-grammared instructions, outdated website, and a 'sheep'-like student culture that takes any sh*t from professors (hence the lack of accountability).

Worth noting, I called out the chair directly in my letter to the Dean, accusing "complicity with academic negligence" - and stated, "unless [college] is willing to risk being exposed as a scam institution, it should focus less on doing cover-ups and instead address the problem."

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    When did you ask for help in relation to the due dates? Once the professor was late in replying on the first assignment, why didn't you budget more time for the next ones?
    – mkennedy
    Jan 19, 2019 at 21:10
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    If there's a pattern of incompetence, vote with your feet.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jan 20, 2019 at 1:33
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    Does this professor have an engineering license (PE)? Is he perhaps a member of an engineering society (such as ASME, IEEE)? These oblige their members to provide proper mentorship and may act where the courts cannot, and the school will not. At the very least, they would very likely be willing to provide you with the feedback and teaching that your professor neglected, because Engineering Ethics is a rather big deal.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jan 20, 2019 at 1:38
  • @BenVoigt He doesn't, according to his curriculum vitae. Jan 20, 2019 at 19:59

3 Answers 3


The first step is to file a formal complaint against the instructor. When your university-internal avenues have been exhausted, you would then need to hire an attorney to sue the university. There is virtually no chance that you will succeed with a lawsuit. If the university had failed to follow its own procedures, or had egregiously violated your rights, you might win such a suit, but the chances of that having happened are virtually zero.

The essential problem is that there is no specific contractual right for you to receive an particular outcome in a class (based on my knowledge of rules & regs in various universities). For example, you might reasonably want to have written comments on assignments given within a week: but there is no rule guaranteeing that you will ever get written comments. (You need to look at the university rules to see what is an actual rule, as opposed to a "goal" for an academic unit). Since there is no such rule, the chairman has limited authority to penalize the instructor (he might for example decide to not assign that class to Prof. X in the future). The chair would not have the authority to raise your grade under the circumstances. As far as the courts are concerned, the university's judgment and resolution of the matter are final, unless they simply failed to respect your rights (exhibited racial prejudice, refused to follow their own procedures).

In certain contexts, professorial negligence could be legally actionable, but that would only be, for example, if an EE professor physically harmed a student by negligently confusing milliamps and mega-amps. His (non)action is not negligent in the legal sense.

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    @OverLord A court is basically never going to consider whether a professor's pedagogical decisions are reasonable. You're not paying to get a passing grade, you're paying to take a course. In fact, much of what you're paying for is the school's reputation, which comes in large part from not just giving students the grade they want and instead sticking to its standards (as opposed to actual scam schools, which will happily give everyone an A).
    – cpast
    Jan 19, 2019 at 23:12
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    There's an argument that the student didn't receive the instruction he paid for (feedback on work is an essential component of instruction), in which case he could have has tuition returned / credited toward a future class. Agreed that the grade assigned is not a matter of law.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jan 20, 2019 at 1:30
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    @OverLord The service you paid for does not include a grade you find acceptable. It does not include immediate assistance whenever you ask (since several hours' delay meant the assignment was late, I'm assuming you asked for help at the last minute, and so would anyone else who reads that). It does not include being taught in the way you prefer (if you need some accommodations, like because of a disability, that's another story). It does include the school's policies, but they were apparently followed. If other students did well, it suggests people could in fact learn from the class.
    – cpast
    Jan 20, 2019 at 23:09
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    @OverLord Here's the problem: you're not actually trying to fix the harm you claim to have suffered. You're not trying to get a chance to learn the material better. You're trying to get the university to say you learned the material better. That does nothing to solve the actual harm you claim to have suffered; you don't have a right to get good grades on your transcript. It suggests that your only actual complaint is a bad grade, not that you were badly taught.
    – cpast
    Jan 21, 2019 at 0:33
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    @OverLord You're still fundamentally mistaken. There is no legal harm to your grade. You do not have the right to a good grade. You did not pay for a good grade. If you claim that they taught you poorly, that still doesn't mean you have a right to a good grade. Your poor grade was because you submitted your assignments late, which is a valid reason to grade you poorly. Your excuse doesn't claim anything illegal was done -- unresponsive professors are not a legal matter, unless they don't respond because of something discriminatory (e.g. race).
    – cpast
    Jan 21, 2019 at 2:57

There is precedent in many jurisdictions that courts will not, under any circumstances, get into the merits of the grade you received for your work - they consider that to be the domain of academic assessment, not law.

They will also generally not hear a case (except for injunctive relief) unless and until you have exhausted all administrative appeals under the university's procedures.

As to the merits of the case: it doesn't have any.

The courts will not interfere in the raw mark (which you seem to have no issue with) and it appears that the assignment was submitted late and that the deduction of marks for late submission have been correctly applied so the court has no natural justice issue to deal with here.

Why you chose to submit late is probably irrelevant. Unless the university's procedures specifically identify non-responsiveness of university staff to inquirers to be a legitimate reason for late submission you have no justification for the late submission. It is unlikely that they do - such exceptions are usually limited to family or medical emergencies.

The facts appear to be that you took more time than other students to submit your work and have been penalized accordingly. They, presumably, were laboring under the same difficulties you were yet they managed to submit on time - why should you have the advantage of more time without penalty?

Your complaints about the quality of the education being provided are independent of the mark you received. You are entitled to make them. They are not obliged to do anything about them, in particular, they don't have to respond to you. Poor customer service is not against the law.


How to pressure college covering-up incompetent professor?

Absent any rules that compel the university to proceed more responsibly, your claim(s) would need to be premised/pleaded on a theory of implied contract. This is in line with a comment by Ben Voigt (also, his other suggestion is a very good idea).

Given the subpar follow-up you have gotten from the university so far, any unused "administrative remedies" --in addition to contacting the Provost-- seem unlikely to prompt a more appropriate approach. However, a prior exhaustion of "administrative remedies" (when available) is a prerequisite for filing a lawsuit.

At least in theory, grades are nothing more than a measure of whether a student is developing the knowledge he will be expected to apply & expand as a professional. But a student's learning is premised on that body of knowledge actually being imparted or fostered. For instance, apropos of receiving zero feedback in class, one meritorious argument is that a student simply does not enroll in school to read (or being reasonably expected to read) the professor's mind. Thus, the major focus of your complaint should be that the university is failing its duty to educate or foster the development of that knowledge.

In the event that you end up suing the university, you will have to overcome the retrograde hurdle of sovereign immunity, to which state universities typically cling in court. The historical reason of being of sovereign immunity had to do with preventing creditors from exerting pernicious control of the then-nascent and vulnerable nation. Two centuries later, sovereign immunity is alleged by state universities whose emphasis on sports and repertoire of non-strategic activities have nothing to do with the nation's cognizable vulnerabilities.

I am not knowledgeable of constitutional law, but you might also want to explore the legal issue of whether the university's pattern of impropriety hinders your property interests. In other words, whether the public university's conduct prevents (or tends to prevent) you from pursuing a specific profession. Although this might be quite a stretch, it is still worth exploring whether that property interest claim is available to students of a university which is legislatively established as an arm of the state.

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    @OverLordGoldDragon: It would be unethical to offer to help hide their misconduct in exchange for personal benefit. If they have acted inappropriately, you should expose that in the media, not threaten to do so to create incentives to treat you differently.
    – Ben Voigt
    Jan 20, 2019 at 20:06
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    @OverLordGoldDragon Are you requiring them to change their ways and right every student they've wronged? Or just adjust your own record?
    – Ben Voigt
    Jan 20, 2019 at 20:20
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    @OverLordGoldDragon: Ethics is always the topic. DId you learn nothing from that course?
    – Ben Voigt
    Jan 20, 2019 at 20:34
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    @OverLordGoldDragon Be aware that threatening legal action you have no intent of pursuing is a) unethical and b) illegal.
    – Dale M
    Jan 21, 2019 at 0:23
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    The concept of "sovereign immunity" in fact predates the formation of the US and had nothign to do with a "vulnerable nation". Its origin was simply "you can't sue the king". Its modern justification is that the state controls the courts and will not let them be used against itself except in limited ways to which it has consented in advance. Jan 21, 2019 at 1:14

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