Conflict Resolution Policy

Procedure for dealing with student-supervisor problems

Under the section on Responsibilities, the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Guidelines for Academic Units on Graduate Student Advising and Supervision state:

“The Chair of the unit should ensure that procedures are in place to address serious disagreements that may arise, for example, between a student and a supervisor or between a supervisor and committee members. Such procedures should involve a neutral mediator who will ensure that all sides of a dispute are heard before any decision is made.”

In case of issues, the Division will have a Standing Committee on Academic Affairs, whose members can be mobilized to help deal with serious student-supervisor problems. The standing committee shall consist of a Chair (2 year term), chosen from the Executive Committee of the Division, three active thesis supervisors (rotating 3 year terms) and a member of the Division Student Council in the senior years of the Ph.D. (1 year term). However, the intent of the following guidelines is wherever possible to be able to defuse and solve student-supervisor problems without mobilizing the Standing Committee. The Academic Advisors of the Division are seen to play a key role in that process, and in response to their request, a document outlining their function in the Division is being prepared.

1. Student Complaints

Problems most often first surface when the student contacts the Director or their Academic Advisor. In the case of a student complaint against a supervisor, the following procedures are proposed:

The student should first try and resolve the issue with their supervisor directly.

If this fails, the next person to hear the complaint of the student should be the Academic Advisor. Thus, should the Director first be contacted by the student, the Director will refer the student to the Advisor, unless a conflict of interest is perceived, in which case a third party appointed by the Director will hear the complaint. The Advisor (or person who meets with the student) should take minutes of the meeting and type them up.

(a) If, as a result of the first interview with the student, the Advisor feels that the student and supervisor may be able to resolve the problem, the supervisor is informed and a meeting between supervisor, student and Academic Advisor (plus the Director if so desired) should be convened. At the meeting, the supervisor and student are encouraged to seek a mutually acceptable solution to the perceived problem, so that their degree may be completed. Once a solution has been agreed upon by all parties concerned, periodic checks on the student's progress must be put in place (by way of the thesis committee). The aim is to keep the process within the confines of the laboratory and the Division, and it is hoped that, in these cases, further interference or sanctions will not be necessary.

(b) If the case is not resolvable by such meetings, and if the Academic Advisor perceives the case to be serious, (i.e., the student’s completion of the degree in the supervisor’s laboratory has been prejudiced, or rendered impossible), the student is asked to give an account of the complaint against the supervisor in writing, and is assured that the document will not be given to the supervisor, but kept in a confidential file until the case is resolved. Assurance should also be given to the student that the department will, in so far as possible, assist the student to find an alternate project in the laboratory of another supervisor. If the new supervisor is in Experimental Medicine, departmental rules dictate that the student must have a stipend. The Advisor or, if absent or in cases of conflict of interest, an appointed third party informs the Director of the problem.

Upon receipt of the document from the student, the Director informs the supervisor in general terms of the serious and official nature of the student's complaint, and the Director and the Academic Advisor then seek an interview with the supervisor. They bring with them a written statement from the Director and Academic Advisor describing the student's complaint. They inform the supervisor that the student may have to or wishes to leave the laboratory and that the department will help the student find another laboratory to complete the degree if final resolution of the issues is not possible. Minutes are taken, typed up and signed by all those present at the meeting. The supervisor is asked to respond to the complaints, in writing, to the Director.

Upon receipt of the supervisor’s response to the student’s complaint, the Director and Academic Advisor decide what further steps ought to be taken. A number of scenarios are possible:

  1. The problem may be resolvable with further mediation by the Academic Advisor and the Director, and the student can complete their degree in the laboratory of the supervisor. An attempt is made to reconcile the parties in the manner suggested in part (a) above. If a solution is achieved, periodic checks on the student’s progress are put in place, e.g. by way of the thesis committee.
  2. The problem between student and supervisor is serious but is defused by the student leaving the laboratory. The matter may then be dropped and no further action taken. However, if complaints against the supervisor have previously been made by a student or students, or it is known that another student, or other students, have left the laboratory because of dissatisfaction with the supervisor, the Director and Academic Advisor may decide to bring the case to the Standing Committee. The supervisor is informed of this decision. The Committee will attempt to interview the student(s) concerned, as well as the supervisor. The procedure is then similar to that outlined under (iii) below.
  3. There is a serious dispute between student and supervisor which cannot be resolved. The Director and Academic Advisor convene a meeting of the Standing Committee to present the case. The Standing Committee, without the Director or Academic Advisor present, subsequently meets to hear both the student's and supervisor's side of the problem. The parties may be heard either separately or together, at the Committee’s discretion. If the committee perceives that the supervisor has been at fault by transgressing the accepted norms for supervision in the Division (the transgression ranging from careless to serious lack of proper guidance and supervision to actual 'misconduct' as defined in the Faculty of Medicine's Guidelines for Investigators, etc.), it recommends to the Executive Committee of the Division that the supervisor receive a warning in writing to the effect that another similar verdict would result in withdrawal of further student supervision privileges for a period to be determined. Minutes of this meeting are taken, typed up and signed by all members of the Standing Committee. The committee’s minutes and recommendations are sent to the Director, and to the Chair of Medicine.

The Chair of Medicine (or in the absence of the Chair, the Director of the Division) will write and inform the supervisor of the decision of the Standing Committee. In cases where an action has been taken against the supervisor, the Associate Dean, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, and the Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research, Faculty of Medicine, are informed of the decision of the Standing Committee.

2. Supervisor Complaints

If the supervisor contacts the Director or Academic Advisor and complains about the student on matters affecting the student’s academic progress, the problem is normally resolved by the thesis committee chaired by the student’s Academic Advisor. The thesis committee and Academic Advisor can advise the Division to impose sanctions on the student in order to restore satisfactory progress. For example, they may recommend that the student be put into a probationary status, requiring a satisfactory performance and satisfactory report from the supervisor at the next thesis committee meeting, and where applicable, B+ grades in remaining courses. Failure to meet all the requirements of the probationary status will result in the student being asked to withdraw from the program.

If the supervisor’s complaint involves a violation of the student code of conduct, the Division will refer the matter to the Associate Vice Principal, Graduate Studies. The decision as to the future disposition of the student will then be made in accord with existing university guidelines.

If the supervisor’s complaint involves another matter not concerned with the student code of conduct (e.g. serious deterioration of the relationship between student and supervisor), the procedure should initially be similar to that outlined above under 1(a) - meeting of the Academic Advisor with student and supervisor in an attempt to resolve the problem. If this proves impossible, the Director and Academic Advisor request a written statement from the supervisor giving an account of the problem. Upon receipt of the document from the supervisor, the Director and Academic Advisor seek an interview with the student, in which the student is apprised of the complaint and given a copy of the statement from the supervisor. The student is advised that the Standing Committee will be convened by the Director and the Academic Advisor to hear the case, and that the student will be asked to appear before it. The Standing Committee will conduct a hearing, without Director and Academic Advisor being present, and refer its report to the Director of the Division and the Chair of the Department. The matter is then referred to the Executive Committee for further action.