When professors fail: students question faculty accountability processes


Graphic by Katherine Irving ’22.

Between the pandemic, resurgence in conversations about the experiences of BIPOC and international students and changes to the administration, Macalester’s community members are rethinking their formal and informal relationships with one another. At November’s sit-in, students questioned why there has been little action to address repeated complaints about faculty who have been known to cause harm. How can students voice concerns about professors when grades and academic success are at stake? These questions have circulated across campus and have prompted this The Mac Weekly investigation into how faculty accountability takes shape at Macalester. 

Students take the lead

When Valeska Fresquet Kohan ’23 signed up to take Introduction to Econometrics this past fall, she had heard of previous students having negative experiences with the course’s professor, Gary Krueger. Despite her concerns, Kreuger was the only professor teaching econometrics that semester, a required course for the economics major. Fresquet Kohan said that she felt obligated to take the class given study away and scheduling considerations. 

Krueger, who is tenured, was the subject of a Title IX case opened in the summer of 2019 when one of his students, Blair Cha ’20, accused him of discriminatory behavior in the classroom. The investigation ultimately cleared him of gender based discrimination. Although, according to Cha, the investigation administrators did “acknowledge that Krueger has created an uncomfortable environment in class by using generalities and singling out students in class based on their race and nationality.” 

During the course, Fresquet Kohan said that in addition to a disorganized class structure, she witnessed instances of insensitive comments and jokes. She remembered Krueger asking a student from Vietnam about prices in Japan, dismissing her and other female students’ questions and consistently failing to correctly pronounce students’ names.

Robbie, another student of Krueger’s econometrics class this past fall, who requested to use a pseudonym citing concern for the influence Krueger holds in the department, also had a negative experience in the course and said that they noticed differences in how Krueger treated students. 

The environment of that class was always some combination of discomfort and confusion,” Robbie wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly.  “The quality of the assistance you got depended upon how he perceived you — white male students were often praised for asking a question and given an insightful response, while others could ask the same question and be met with condescension.” 

Fresquet Kohan said that her own negative experience in the course reached a peak when she received a much lower grade than her classmate on an exam that required individual submissions but allowed for collaboration and peer work. 

“My friend probably did like two [questions] and I think I did the other 12, between doing it for her and just explaining it to her,” Fresquet Kohan said. “We got the results back and she had gotten an 87 and I got an 80.”

Fresquet Kohan, who is an international student from Brazil, said that she approached Krueger with both her and her classmate’s tests, and after going back and forth over each question, he ultimately increased her exam grade to an 88.

“It took a lot of me just crying and begging him to realize what’s happening, like this is bias,” Fresquet Kohan said. “Imagine how many points I would have gotten if I was a male athlete that he thinks is super smart or if I wrote like a Minnesotan —  if I had the same knowledge I have but I just wrote it differently or in a way that he likes.”

Krueger declined to comment specifically on Fresquet Kohan’s exam, citing the Family Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA). 

“A significant part of the grade is based on the quality of the final work-up, if what they turn in is different it is likely they will receive somewhat different grades,” Krueger wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. 

In early 2021, students led a sit-in at a senior staff meeting to address concerns with the mistreatment of BIPOC and international students at Macalester. Similar to the 2019 protest led by Cha, this sit-in called out problematic environments in economics department classrooms, particularly Krueger’s.  

In response to the November sit-in, department leaders asked for economics classes across the department, including Krueger’s econometrics class, to dedicate class sessions where students were left alone to discuss their experiences in the department. Following the discussion in Kruegers’ econometrics course, Fresquet Kohan and other classmates compiled a four page document listing a number of concerns that students brought up. The concerns included unclear expectations in assignments, repeated dismissive responses to students’ questions, especially those of female students and also outlined instances of comments made in the classroom that the students found to be inappropriate, such as advising students to “make a graph your mom could understand.” 

Twenty students across both sections of the course signed the letter. Chiara Affatigato ’23, one of the econometrics students who worked on the letter, said that they asked students from across the course to read it to Krueger when the class met next so that one group wouldn’t be singled out. 

“It was very nerve-wracking from our end,” Affatigato said. “Obviously, he decides our grades and this is an important class for econ, so if you don’t pass econometrics, it’s kind of a thing.” 

According to Krueger, he made adjustments to the Moodle site to make it more clear and changed some of the course structure in response to the student feedback. After the course ended, he enlisted a former student from the class to give feedback about the clarity of his assignments for future classes. 

“I appreciate the courage many students have shown in providing direct and important feedback, and have taken it as seriously as the spirit that it was offered in,” Krueger wrote.

When asked by The Mac Weekly, Krueger did not comment specifically on his response to the feedback concerning inappropriate behavior and comments made in the classroom but said generally he was taking student feedback into consideration. 

“I am always interested to hear student concerns and will make adjustments accordingly,” Krueger wrote. 

After the econometrics students delivered the letter, there were only a couple of weeks left in the semester and most of the class was devoted to independent project work. Fresquet Kohan said that she noticed Krueger making more of an effort to listen and respond to everyone’s questions in classes, which was one of the concerns the students had voiced, but that the short amount of time left in the semester made it hard to notice if there was any long-lasting change in Krueger’s classroom behavior. 

“I do remember him trying to be a bit more sensitive on those last few classes, but I don’t know how well that stuck,” Robbie wrote. 

Another part of the student feedback was a request to have problem sets and exams be graded blindly instead of having names attached to them. Krueger wrote to The Mac Weekly that, as a result, he asked students to write their names only on the cover page of the next exam and that he would flip the page over before grading them.

Fresquet Kohan said that after her experience with the test, she was still worried that Krueger would know which one was hers and grade her differently. She chose to write her name on the back page instead. 

“He actually made fun of me … I wrote the exam and then at the back I wrote my name very small. The next class when he brought them graded, he was like, ‘oh guys, there’s a mystery novel here, there’s this exam and then on the back in very small letters: Valeska Fresquet Kohan,’” Fresquet Kohan said. “It was just crazy. I was so mad … If you saw my name you’d probably take out points that I don’t deserve to have taken out. Obviously I’m not going to put in my name.”

Professor Amy Damon, chair of the economics department, declined to comment on Krueger’s class but said that since becoming chair this spring, she hopes to strengthen relationships between students and faculty in the department.  

“I do want to improve the general information structure or communication structure between students and faculty,” Damon said. “I think that it is important to hear student voices both informally and more collectively and think about the things that they’re raising.” 

This semester, as a result of student efforts, the economics department started the practice of having student representatives in department meetings and created a “BIPOC in econ” student group. Damon said that she hopes these will ease the process of hearing student feedback in the department. 

Krueger is currently slated to teach one section of econometrics as well as the Economics Honors Seminar for the first time this coming fall. 

Fresquet Kohan, who was intending on pursuing an honors project next year, said that no one in the department warned her that Krueger would be teaching the seminar before it was formally announced this week. 

“It makes me wonder if the department truly listens to feedback and how these decisions are being made,” Fresquet Kohan said. “This is a lack of accountability and responsiveness from the economics department, that’s the problem now. It’s not Gary anymore because whatever happened, happened. Now, the problem is that the department isn’t responding.” 

Reporting grievances 

The students in Krueger’s econometrics course shouldered the task of addressing their concerns themselves last semester, but there are some formal systems in place for responding to student grievances. These processes generally depend on the nature of the student complaint. 

In situations of gender-based discrimination in the classroom, students can file complaints with the Office of Title IX. Title IX has its own formal reporting process.

When students have concerns with faculty behavior in academic settings, Section 3.19 Student Complaints and Resolution Policy of the Student Handbook outlines the formal process for addressing “complaints brought by students regarding Macalester’s provision of education and academic services affecting their role as students.” 

The handbook advises students to first seek an informal resolution with the faculty member at the center of the complaint, and call in a third party such as the department chair if needed. 

When an informal resolution is unsuccessful, the handbook directs students to file a complaint with the provost’s office, including a written statement of the concern, previous efforts to resolve it and requested remedies. If the complaint is accepted, the Provost’s office will issue a formal investigation, notifying the subject of the complaint and allowing all parties to present relevant information. The investigation must be completed within 30 days of the complaint’s filing, but the process can be extended or expedited with good cause. At its conclusion, the investigators deliver a report to all involved parties that outline the findings and steps towards resolution.

Ann Minnick, director of academic programs and advising, does not have a formal role in the process of dealing with student grievances, but acts as a point person for students looking to discuss their options if they want to raise concerns with a professor, class or department. Minnick said that she helps about a half-dozen students in a given year, and although she isn’t always privy to the resolution, she spoke positively of the process of hearing and addressing student concerns. 

“It seems to work from my perspective,” Minnick said. “Of course, I only talk to the students who come to me, so maybe there’s a lot of students who are feeling frustrated or don’t know where to go.”

Macalester also has a Bias Response Team (BRT) that is led by a group of staff members. Students can report biased language, images or behaviors in academic and non-academic spaces through an online form with the option of remaining anonymous. 

Emerson, a recent alum from the class of 2021 who wished to be referred to by a pseudonym, said that while they were taking a class with then-chair of the history department, Linda Sturtz, Sturtz did not grant them accommodations for an assignment that were in line with the student’s pre-approved disability accommodations. 

Emerson said they heard many other students having similar experiences with Sturtz and eventually reported the incident to the BRT more than a year after it occured. They said they would have done so earlier if they had known more about the reporting processes in place. 

“I had no idea that a reporting system existed,” Emerson said. “I knew there was Title IX for sexual violence, but I didn’t know about any other kind of avenue for students to talk about issues that they had with professors.” 

Emerson said that their disability accommodations case manager attempted to bring the issue to a higher-up, but that the process seemed to be disorganized and they didn’t see any resolution to their report. Emerson also said that there was little direction for students whose concerns are with the chair of departments themselves. 

Jennings Mergenthal ’21 also had a negative experience in one of Sturtz’s classes while she was chair of the history department and said that they felt singled out as one of the few BIPOC students in the class. Mergenthal said that when they had concerns with other history professors’ behavior towards non-white students, they were hesitant to say anything to Sturtz after their experience with her.  

“If I brought this concern up, the person in the position of authority would not see these as problems because those were things that she herself did,” Mergenthal said. 

Mergenthal said that they didn’t have a tenured point person that they trusted in the department or in the administration and that their general experience as a student hadn’t made them confident that the harm perpetuated by Sturtz would be treated as anything out of the ordinary. 

“For my experiences with that particular professor I didn’t feel like I had recourse because she was obviously the chair,” Mergenthal said. “But also, to be honest … it was not that different from the background levels of racism and ableism [and] antagonism that I received generally.”

Mergenthal also spoke with other students who had concerns with class environments in the history department but said that the students expressed that they wished to avoid the process of raising issues with a professor. 

“As a student, when the harm is actively being perpetrated, you are very tired and burnt out and you do not have a lot of capacity to raise these issues,” Mergenthal said.  

In an email to The Mac Weekly, Sturtz wrote that she cannot comment on individual students’ experiences but that she has generally conferred with Disability Services about addressing issues of disability accommodations in history classes.  

Fresquet Kohan said that she did approach Sarah West, the chair of the economics department this past fall, and the Provost about her concerns with Krueger’s class and was told by West that “actions were being taken” in regards to Krueger, but that no other information could be made available. 

“I wish students felt safe to have some official support other than their peers,” Fresquet Kohan said. “There has to be something else that isn’t final course evaluations, isn’t Title IX, is not [the] chair.” 

West is on sabbatical and did not respond to a request for comment from The Mac Weekly. 

Affatigato said that, similar to Mergenthal’s experience with the history department, the culture of the economics department didn’t feel like one that encouraged the students in Krueger’s Econometrics class to voice their concerns. 

“At a school like Mac, you want to think that it’s really easy to hold your professors accountable, especially as most of  the students support you,” Affatigato said. “But somehow it was still really scary — more than I had expected. It kind of felt like we were doing something wrong even though I don’t think we were.” 

Accountability in the tenure position 

As of 2020, 80% of all Macalester faculty are tenured or tenure-track. Under tenure, faculty have significant protection from disciplinary action from the college. The Faculty Handbook states that termination of a tenured faculty member, the most extreme form of discipline, occurs if Macalester is financially incapable of maintaining their number of employees or if there is “adequate cause based on clear and documented evidence.” The handbook defines adequate cause as, “demonstrated incompetence or dishonesty in teaching or research; substantial and manifest neglect of duty; and personal conduct which substantially impairs the individual’s fulfillment of their institutional responsibilities.”

The tenure position is designed with the purpose of ensuring academic freedom, a faculty member’s liberty to express their personal views in their classroom and research. According to Executive Vice President and Provost Lisa Anderson-Levy, this freedom is a fundamental part of Macalester’s teaching structure and has significant benefits. 

“It has to be that faculty can pursue their research agendas,” Anderson-Levy said. “Now, that was the purpose. And one of the side effects, I guess, is that faculty ended up being kind of like independent contractors.” 

According to Walter Greason, professor and chair of the history department, the legal protections of tenured professors rival that of any other job position, not just in academia, but across all careers. 

“The reason people study for decades and don’t go out and try and make millions of dollars in the private sector is to get those legal protections as tenured faculty,” Greason said. “That’s the number one thing they will fight and die for forever.” 

As a result, administrative processes that review classroom environments and teaching performance, like end-of-course surveys, generally have more teeth for non-tenured faculty. 

The Educational Policy and Governance Committee (EPAG), an educational goals advisory committee to the provost, requires classes to administer end-of-course surveys. The course’s faculty member and the department chair review the feedback. In addition, all tenure track and tenured professors are required to submit a personal addendum each year to their department chair reflecting on their teaching and research. 

Chair of the chemistry department Keith Kuwata said that the extent of reflection in these addenda varies significantly between professors. 

“Younger faculty are always very thoughtful about student feedback because when they apply for reappointment or tenure, students provide evaluation letters or fill out evaluation forms for that review file,” Kuwata said. “I’d say that the attention to that, or the concern for student feedback does kind of fade over time.” 

The faculty handbook states that department chairs must check for consistency between a professor’s personal evaluation of their teaching in their addenda and the student feedback in end-of-course surveys. In the case of a discrepancy, chairs are asked to raise the issue with the provost. For pre-tenure professors, department chairs always submit feedback on the addenda to the provost. But Kuwata said that for tenured faculty, there is no requirement for a department chair to submit an evaluation to administrators, something that Kuwata said he disagrees with. 

“Even if you’ve attained the highest rank, which is what full professor is, teaching is still the most important part of your job — what students are saying is very important,” Kuwata said. “In some ways I think there should be more accountability for full professors in particular in their teaching.” 

Kuwata said that academic freedom in the tenure position can make it difficult to know how to address student feedback about faculty members.  

“We can’t make any faculty member fundamentally do something that they don’t really don’t want to do, so long as that’s not improper,” Kuwata said. 

According to Damon, serious problems with professors require calling in the provost and don’t lie under her disciplinary control. 

“We’re kind of like a team captain … with a lot of extra duties,” Damon said. 

New department chairs are appointed every three years with the possibility of reappointment up-to an additional three year term. Damon said that the rotational leadership structure contributes to her ability to influence her colleagues. 

“In terms of authority over my colleagues, I can talk to people as a peer, basically, but I have no institutional authority to discipline anyone, nor do I want it, because if you think about it, I’m chair right now, and so you have Person A chair, over Person B, and literally the next month Person B would be chair over Person A,” Damon said. “It’s kind of a weird system if there’s an actual supervisory relationship.” 

Greason admitted that faculty have significant autonomy within the bounds of their legal contracts but that department chairs and administrators like deans and provosts still have some power to influence their colleagues. 

“There are informal uses of chair authority that can make these people’s lives much less comfortable as they go about trying to figure out what they need to do to continue to enjoy all the legal protections that they have,” Greason said. 

Greason cited withholding grants to travel and to conduct research from faculty members who have behaved inappropriately as one of the more extreme examples of a way to open up conversation with faculty about making changes in their behavior. 

“There are no paddles. There are no torches to go and take at somebody, but there are things that they want that they may not get because they’ve done something that’s created a problem,” Greason said.  

When The Mac Weekly asked about “informal uses” of chair or administrative power, Anderson-Levy did not respond to the request for comment. 

Greason ultimately expressed that the role of chair has more gravity than that of a “team captain” in ensuring that student’s voices are heard. 

“We’re not trying to kick the ball in the net,” Greason said. “We have several dozen young people that are trying to build their lives. I’m sorry, that’s a little bit more serious.” 

Moving forward

According to Greason, he’s seen how rewarding it is to be a professor that teaches to the highest standard. He said that trying to compel faculty to be their best is more appealing to him personally than punishing them when they fall short. 

“I’d rather spend more time driving all of my faculty colleagues to keep in mind how to be their best and let them get the good things, whatever they are, that come to them out of doing that,” Greason said. “That’s my tension with it. I try not to focus on the punishments although we cannot really have a world without them.” 

Anderson-Levy said that she believes that most faculty at Macalester are committed to working with students in a supportive relationship. When professors fail in the classroom, she said that she hopes students can voice their concerns directly to those professors.  

“I think the student should feel empowered to say ‘so why would you frame this like this?’ Instead of not saying anything, and then reporting,” Anderson-Levy said.  “I’ve been misunderstood that I’m saying the onus is on students. I’m not saying that. I’m saying that the teaching and learning is collaborative, and it is always already an iterative kind of relationship. It is not unidirectional.” 

Anderson-Levy did acknowledge that there is an unbalanced power relationship between students and faculty. According to Fresquet Kohan, these power dynamics still preventing students seeing their concerns addressed. 

“I wish there was a way to report professors — while classes are being taken — that don’t threaten the student who is doing that. Although it seems like there are channels like Title IX, there really is a crazy power dynamic in giving grades,” Fresquet Kohan. “It feels like no one can do anything. Not even the adults. So as a student, as an international student, as a Latina, if they the powerful, the ones who know can’t do anything, then obviously I can do much less.” 

Estelle Timar-Wilcox contributed to the reporting for this story.

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