A Student’s Complaint to the U.S. Department of Education: Introduction

I was a PhD student at Indiana University (IU). In a separate series of posts, I have described how faculty and administrators on the university’s two largest campuses prevented me from going on to graduate and also refused to explain this behavior. The present post introduces what happened when I complained about these matters to the U.S. Department of Education (DoE).

Briefly, I was pursuing a PhD in parks & recreation on the Bloomington campus; and when they stopped me from progressing in that, I switched over to social work on the Indianapolis campus, spent another several years there — and then they did the same thing again. So within that separate series of posts, there are segments focusing on parks & recreation and social work.

A newcomer to all this might assume that there was something wrong with me, or with IU, or both. Again, that other series of posts will facilitate more informed judgments on those sorts of questions. That’s not the focus here.

Here, the focus is on what happened when I complained about the IU situation to DoE. Students do have complaints sometimes. In a well-run organization, administrators commonly try to address and resolve complaints early, rather than let them fester into bad publicity, lawsuits, or other adverse developments. People at IU apparently felt that they didn’t need to worry about that sort of thing. Not to get ahead of the story, but as far as the DoE was concerned, they were right.

Outside the university, DoE would not necessarily be the first place to which a student might turn. A university’s accreditor would supposedly require it to give students certain rights and protections. Here again, sadly, there was slippage. IU’s accreditor — the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) — took the position that it was only concerned with “broad institutional practices,” and claimed that even a deeply troubling situation involving an individual student would not rise to that level. This was a mere excuse for inaction. My complaint to DoE — a memo that I sent, first, to HLC — documented numerous instances in which IU had demonstrably violated HLC’s principles; yet HLC did essentially nothing in response.

So I turned to DoE. DoE offered various routes to the complaining student. Specifically, I complained about IUPUI to DoE’s Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE). They told me that I had to go to DoE’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). I also complained to Carol A. Griffiths, OPE’s Accreditation and State Liaison, about HLC. OPE was supposed to be involved in “investigating third-party complaints” regarding accrediting agencies. It was a formal complaint, consisting of 15 pages of text and nearly 60 pages of exhibits. Ms. Griffiths did not respond.

Hence, I filed a complaint with DoE’s OCR. It was odd to be limited to the topic of civil rights, commensurate with OCR’s jurisdiction, when there were so many other issues at stake. DoE was approving billions upon billions of dollars of federal student aid; there was a long-term scandal in which half of the adults who commenced PhD programs after successful undergraduate educations dropped out, year after year; and yet DoE could offer nothing except the slim possibility of a claim based on discrimination.

The complaint that I sent to OCR was focused on my experience at IU’s school of social work. I had not filed such a complaint the first time around, when I was being drummed out of IU’s parks & rec program on the Bloomington campus. So, for instance, I did not notify DoE of bizarre events there, such as when my doctoral advisor vanished for nearly two years. I did notify DoE of equally bizarre events in the school of social work, such as when its PhD program director reported me for having a nightmare.

The next post in this series provides a revised version of the complaint that I filed with DoE. Subsequent posts then proceed to trace the complaint process up to the present day.


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