students at orientation

Dealing With Conflict

The Graduate School (TGS) recognizes that conflicts between graduate students and faculty sometimes arise during graduate study. Outlined below are steps graduate students can take to attempt to resolve such conflicts.

TGS provides guidance for how conflict can be avoided. This guidance includes two key documents: First, the Guidance for Positive Graduate Student and Faculty Adviser Relationships document was crafted with input from the Graduate Faculty and graduate students and was then approved in 2018 as an official statement of institutional expectations by TGS’s Administrative Board. Second, the Graduate Education Expectations Document was ratified in 2011 by TGS, TGS’s Administrative Board, the Graduate Faculty, and the Graduate Leadership and Advocacy Council (GLAC) to serve as a guide for student-adviser relations. Resolution of conflicts with advisers is also guided by principles outlined in the Guidance for Positive Graduate Student and Faculty Adviser Relationships. The University policies on non-retaliation apply to all University relationships and will be enforced by TGS.

In response to faculty concerns, as well as the GLAC Annual Survey, which has repeatedly found that a number of students experience conflicts with faculty, TGS has created a formal process to provide students and faculty with a means of documenting and resolving such conflicts. This procedure outlines the attempts that should be made to resolve conflict with the understanding that not all conflicts will have a mutually agreeable resolution. This process does not apply to matters of student-to-student conflicts; academic misconduct, such as breaches of academic integrity in research and publication; discrimination; or sexual misconduct. Specific policies on academic integrity, discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct are available on TGS’s website.

Conflict Resolution Procedure

Students and graduate faculty are expected to conform to all Northwestern University policies, including those outlined in the student handbook and on the Northwestern University policy index page; TGS policies; and graduate program and/or departmental policies that are published in each graduate program handbook. Students and advisers are encouraged to use the Guidance for Positive Graduate Student and Faculty Adviser Relationships to prevent conflicts that may arise from miscommunication or differences regarding expectations. In the event conflict does arise, resolution should be attempted as follows:
  • In the event that a conflict arises that is not addressed by an existing University, TGS, or program policy, the student and faculty member should attempt to work out the issue. Each party should document when meeting(s) occur and briefly summarize how attempt(s) to create a mutually satisfactory resolution were approached.
  • If the parties cannot reach a mutually satisfactory resolution, the graduate program or home department should attempt to facilitate the resolution. These efforts may be undertaken by the director of graduate studies, department chair, dissertation committee, or another faculty member. The program may have specific guidance within its handbook that outlines the program’s procedures. In all cases, local resolution should be attempted by the graduate program or home department before the matter is escalated. In rare cases, the student can bring the issue directly to TGS with an explanation of why local resolution is not possible.
  • If resolution is not achieved within the graduate program or home department, the matter may be brought to the appropriate school dean of the home school (or their designee) or to the Associate Dean for Graduate Student and Postdoctoral Affairs at TGS. (In cases when the parties in conflict are affiliated with programs based in different home schools, or when both individuals are affiliated with a cross-school program and the more appropriate home school is not clear, the matter is brought to the Associate Dean in TGS.) If the Associate Dean has a potential conflict of interest, a designate will be appointed by the Dean of TGS.
If the matter is brought to TGS’s Associate Dean for Graduate Student and Postdoctoral Affairs, all written materials must be provided, including documentation of all prior attempts at conflict resolution. These documents must be submitted by email to the Associate Dean.

Potential Courses of Action

  • Referral back to the program, department, or school:
    • If the documentation provided does not support robust attempts at local conflict resolution, then the home program, department, and/or school will be asked to oversee additional attempts at resolution.
  • Referral to an appropriate Northwestern office:
    • If the conflict falls under the jurisdiction of another Northwestern office, the matter will be referred to that office. Such matters may include, but are not limited to, breaches of academic integrity in regard to research and publication, or cases involving alleged discrimination or sexual misconduct.
  • Resolution by TGS:
    • Upon receipt of a request for formal review and any accompanying documentation, TGS’s Associate Dean for Graduate Student and Postdoctoral Affairs will review the request and any other relevant materials to consider whether any issues merit further investigation and review.

The Associate Dean may seek further information from the student, faculty member, or program. The Associate Dean will take action only in cases where prior local resolution was attempted and the issue is not governed by an already-existing policy/procedure. The situations that might warrant TGS involvement include but are not limited to:

  • failure of an adviser to follow the graduate program’s and/or TGS policies, including but not limited to degree milestones, such as qualifying examinations, comprehensive examinations, preliminary examinations, or thesis committee evaluation;
  • direct and indirect actions from the faculty, program, or department that result in an inappropriate delay of a student’s academic progress;
  • direct and indirect actions from the faculty, program, or department that require a student to perform services unrelated to academic duties.

Examples of situations in which TGS will not participate in the conflict resolution process include, but are not limited to, challenges to decisions of TGS petitions; challenges to decisions regarding transfer, admission, or readmission; or standard evaluations of student academic performance/progress. The Graduate School’s Associate Dean will have the final authority in determining whether there are steps to be taken to promote the resolution of the conflict.


Additional Resources