Student appeals process has “serious problems”: Lane

TRUSU refuses to send students as representatives on appeals committee

The Thompson Rivers University Students’ Union is refusing to put students forward for appointment to the senate appeals committee, the body that hears student grade appeals and complaints, over concerns that the process is unfair and inconsistent.

In the past, TRUSU’s student caucus has been asked to put forward student representatives to fill the position. But now, TRUSU executive director Nathan Lane says that they will no longer respond to those requests.

To appeal a grade, a student must first try to resolve the issue with his professor. If that isn’t successful, however, the student can pursue a hearing before the senate appeals committee, which consists of two faculty representatives, two student representatives and the committee chair. Students and faculty are drawn from a committee membership roster that includes faculty from a variety of departments and is supposed to include students from a variety of departments, as well.

Lane has watched a number of appeals from up close. Through TRUSU, he serves as the member’s advocate, a kind of guide in the process that advises students and prepares them for their appeal hearing. He helps students fill out forms, helps determine which questions they should ask and will sit with them at their appeal, although he isn’t allowed to speak at the hearings.

The main issues for Lane are a lack of consistency in the process, no adherence to the principles of natural justice, no rules for evidence and a lack of training for the included parties.

“I can’t imagine anyone who would participate in this process and not recognize that there are serious problems that need to be addressed,” Lane said.

To provide an example of the issues, Lane talked about how evidence is handled in hearings and how accusations that seem indefensible can be brought up in hearings.

“In numerous appeals that I’ve participated in, evidence that a student may have committed plagiarism would be that a faculty member would come in and say ‘John Smith has been in two of my classes and did only mediocre, and therefore I would find it hard to believe that John Smith got an 80,’” Lane said.

“There’s no bar for evidence.”

Lane also said that witnesses are often called before the committee without even knowing what they’re going to be testifying about.

Another issue on the table is the lack of training. Faculty and student representatives hearing a student’s case only receive a binder full of information that has been collected and reviewed by the student affairs office and the university registrar, and the rest is up to them.

Michael Bluhm, associate vice-president strategic enrolment and university registrar, said “It’s tricky,” when it comes to training.

Bluhm also sits as the chair of the appeals committee.

“If you consider the hearing panel. Is it a panel of lawyers? Is it a panel of trained judicial administrators? Or is it more aligned with, say, a jury? The idea of a jury is that they are unbiased, they are untrained, they are the public view,” Bluhm said.

“The idea of a panel is that it is people that are engaged in the same kind of activity at the institution, whether it’s providing education or receiving education, and to have their own opinions about that.”

But if you ask Lane, the stakes are too high to not train those who hear a student’s case.

“At stake in an appeal is often somebody’s academic future. There is not a single moment of training provided to people who sit on the panel about procedural fairness, about natural justice, about issues of evidence,” Lane said.

As for evidence, Bluhm said he doesn’t see the issue, and that evidence presented, even if it’s hearsay, should be given to committee members for a hearing.

“It’s not going to be filtered out from getting to the panel, but at the panel hearing, the panel of course, should be diligent enough to say ‘Okay, this is a claim, where’s the evidence?’” Bluhm said.

“I, as chair, would have some accountability in making sure that the panel is taking into consideration the validity of the information before them.”

Under review

Policies at TRU are given a review date when they are approved by senate. ED 4-0, the policy that covers student academic appeals, was to come under review in April 2016.

By the nature of his position, as university registrar and chair of the appeals committee, Bluhm will be involved in the review of the policy, but didn’t comment on the progress of addressing issues raised by TRUSU.

“I don’t think it’s far enough along in that review,” he said.

When asked if he’d be willing to consider the issues brought forward by TRUSU, Bluhm said he would.

“That’s the point of a review, to make sure that you’ve got a working policy that outlines a procedure that is intended to ensure fairness and equity and ensure unbiased opinions and decisions,” Bluhm said.

“We absolutely have to be open to look at how that policy is serving the current needs and situations.”

He added that the coming consultation will “certainly involve” TRUSU and other groups on campus, like faculty and the office of student affairs, and noted that any changes must be “meaningful and suit everyone’s needs.”

Until the policy is reviewed and changes are implemented, however, Lane said that TRUSU won’t be responding to requests for students.

“Until the institution can demonstrate that this process is improved, that it has training, that it has regulations, that it has oversight from institutional staff who are supporting and resourcing it … we are not going to be subjecting student representatives to participate in that.”