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During an acute mental health episode last year, I emailed my department chair complaining about the "tone" (and wording choice) of some of my former professor's communications, accusing her of triggering my anxiety. (The details are in my post history on stack exchange academia.) The chair then emailed me saying that he was meeting with the dean and bringing a formal grievance against my professor. (His words were that "considerable time" was being devoted to "formally record my specific grievances.)

I admired this professor and received an A in both of her courses. Thus, I later felt guilty and went to every level of administration requesting the grievance be dismissed and explained that I had written to the chair during a mental health episode. Everyone, however, from the dean to the provost etc. said that there was never a grievance, nor was the professor harmed by my complaint. Their statements however, contradict the chair's email, which he forwarded to the associate dean. Meanwhile, I've been sick with guilt and anxiety for over a year from this.

I initially asked if a grievance can be retracted, but the question was closed for being "off-topic." Obviously, anyone can ask to retract their grievance, but what I wanted to ask was if it being written during an acute anxiety episode matters. In other words, even though I was in a hypersensitive state at the time it was written (and my anxiety had been out control for months prior to that), could they still have found her conduct unprofessional and reprimanded or disciplined her? (She wasn't aware of my anxiety disorder.)

I think the worst part of my complaint was where I said that a particular phrase she used (in a prior communication) caused me extreme anxiety and then said "Although distracted, at least I was not near the point of self-harm. Imagine, however, if these interactions occurred with a severely depressed student?" The phrase wasn't offensive, but I reported being affected by it, so I worry that they reprimanded her and/or punished her (i.e. docked her pay, denied her emerita status etc. [she was in the process of retiring ]).

Also, would the nature of the mental illness matter in such situations? For example, would it be easier to retract a grievance/punishment if the "aggrieved" party was suffering from paranoid delusions and later, after treatment, wanted to retract the grievance/accusation than it would be if the complainant was "merely" hypersensitive due to anxiety? In the former case, it's probably clear that the accused didn't commit the act they were accused of whereas something like tone is more subjective. Thus, even if most people wouldn't have been affected by the professor's tone/wording choice, they investigated the grievance and acted based upon my (stated) subjective feelings at the time.

I hope the legal nature of my question is clear enough to have it reopened now.

  • Not really a legal question. – George White May 28 at 23:33
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    I’m voting to close this question because it is not regarding a legal topic. – George White May 28 at 23:34
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    I see that you have edited this to try to bring it on topic. At least one reason it is still (and probably fundamentally) not on topic is that general "grievances" and their adjudication by educational institutions are not subject to any law but the institution's own policies (if any). There are many laws that educational institutions must follow (e.g., Title IX), and there are some that specify how allegations of violations must be handled, but this does not appear to be one. – feetwet Jun 18 at 0:19
  • As one of the original close voters I agree with @feetwet the edit doesn't change that this isn't a matter of law but of the internal policy of the institution. The closest I can get this to a legal matter would be something along the lines of "is it legal for an institution to have a policy where grievances filed by someone with acute mental illness are valid" and I'm not entirely sure whether a) that would be a good question here and b) whether even if it was it would be of any use to you - I mean that's getting into the realms of trying to argue you were mentally incompetent – motosubatsu Jun 18 at 8:41
  • And I mean "mentally incompetent" in the legal sense of the term - not as an insult! – motosubatsu Jun 18 at 8:42
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This is a practically-unanswerable question. The answer depends on the particular institution and its policies, and the discretion available to those in charge of hearing a grievance. So this is the general outline of the legal considerations. A professor has a property interest in his/her job and related privileges, and grievance procedures threaten that interest. In some cases by law and in all cases because of the interests of the university (to not get sued), the university has an interest in only pursuing complaints with merit. If, and only if, there is reason to suspect that a professor has violated a university policy, the university grievance procedures will mandate pursuing an investigation (which could lead to sanctions).

If there is additional reason to suspect, beyond an individual complain, then the procedures probably mandate that the investigation continue to its conclusion. The specific procedure at my former institution was that every administrator (chair, dean, provost) has the power to terminate an investigation, and those recommendations are influenced by various committees (e.g. the Faculty Hearing Committee, which evaluates the evidence presented to it). The committee has ad hoc discretion to dismiss, or to recommend sanctions (there were no concrete guidance documents / rules).

There is no general rule that an institution must cancel a grievance procedure in response to a petition by the allegedly aggrieved person. There is a bit of reason to hold that they should not do so, because ignoring complaints pertaining to protected class status can be very serious. So if there is a complaint alleging sexual discrimination, the university must respond appropriately lest a "pattern" of discrimination develop, which has very negative financial consequences.

As you describe it, you did not actually initiate a formal grievance process, so you cannot retract one. You can deny / retract a prior allegation, which may or may not affect an official procedure if one had been initiated.

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  • My complaint involved a "curt" email tone and a subtle fluctuation in her tone during one in-person encounter. The problem, however, is that I mentioned experiencing significant distress from these communications and seeking therapy because of them. At the time, however, my anxiety was already out of control, and I overreacted when I thought she was upset with me (based on my perception of her "curt" email). Admin. assured me that she didn't suffer and that there's no record of the complaint, but that contradicts the chair's email. – Gemini May 29 at 0:27
  • Also, did he mishandle this by not meeting with prior to initiating an investigation? Typically, students are instructed to try to resolve the issue with the faculty member before making an official complaint, but he never did that. This all stemmed from a minor miscommunication... – Gemini May 29 at 0:32
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    Well, my answer is about the legal issue, not the interpersonal relationship problem. There's no law against being a jerk. – user6726 May 29 at 0:53
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    @Gemini Stack Exchange has an interpersonal site if you want to ask that sort of question. You might also get some useful answers on academia. We just do law here. – Dale M May 29 at 6:19

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