Thursday, August 28, 2008

Court Tosses Student's Lawsuit Challenging Low Grade Received From Female Professor

If you or anyone you know teaches in a Women's Studies department, this story will sound familiar:

After receiving a D in English 111 course at Ivy Tech Community College in Gary, Indiana, student Richard Faloona complained to the administration that his female professor, Nancy Riecken, gave him a low grade because of sexism. As the only male student in the section of the course in which he was enrolled, what else could explain a D? It couldn't possibly be the quality of his writing, which had only limited opportunities to improve in light of his tendency to miss classes, leave early, and fail to make up the work.

The Dean of Students reviewed Mr. Faloona's complaint and asked several of Riecken's colleagues to independently review his grade. All concurred that Faloona should consider himself lucky to have received a D, so the Dean informed Faloona that unless he appealed in writing to the Academic Dean, the grade would stand.

Here is where a familiar story takes an unfamiliar turn: Rather than continue his internal appeals, the student actually sued in federal court. Since he was representing himself, the only thing I can think of is that he wanted an opportunity to improve his writing after all. Hopefully, he got something educational out of the experience, because he certainly did not prevail in his case. Last week, a federal judge granted Professor Riecken's motion for summary judgment, finding no support at all in the record for Faloona's allegations of sexism. For example, he claimed that the female students who earned A's missed more classes than he did, a fact belied by Professor Riecken's attendance records. Nor could he demonstrate that Professor Riecken directly considered his attendance deficit when calculating his grade. As such, his claims that Riecken violated Title IX and his rights under Constitution's Equal Protection clause both failed.

As silly as this lawsuit is, it does provide us with the opportunity to point out the fact that courts are very deferential to professors' academic decisions -- to the comfort, perhaps, of those in academia who are routinely targeted for bias claims. Students challenging their grades in court must show that the professor's decision represents “such a substantial departure from accepted academic norms as to demonstrate that the person or committee responsible did not actually exercise professional judgment.” Moreover, professors who are charged with bias in dealing with students “are entitled to a presumption of honesty and integrity" and the student must prove that the professor has an actual bias "such as personal animosity, illegal prejudice, or a personal or financial stake in the outcome."

Decision is: Faloona v. Riecken, 2008 WL 3896751 (N.D. Ind., Aug. 18, 2008).