My stock response to the question, "Can't they sue me for that?" -- and it gets asked far more often than I would have anticipated -- is, "They can sue you for anything. Whether or not it gets tossed out of court is a whole other story."
Attention was drawn earlier this month to a college student who sued her professor because she gave her a C-plus in a course she took in 2009, making the student unable to complete the coursework for a professional degree she wanted that would enable her to become a licensed therapist. The professor had deducted the full 25 percent of the student's grade for class participation.
When protesting the grade to the professor and the college went nowhere, the student decided to take the professor to court and sue her for $1.3 million in earnings she would never see as a result of not getting the grade she needed in that course to get the degree she wanted.
While a judge initially allowed the case to proceed, he eventually ruled that the grade should stand. The defendant's lawyers had argued that the U.S. Supreme Court barred courts from interfering with colleges on such matters.
The question that looms large here is whether, given how wronged she felt, it was the right thing for the student to bring the lawsuit in the first place.
In the interest of full disclosure, I, too, grade papers for a living at my full-time job. So while I have sympathy for any college instructor who must do the same, I believe that professors owe it to their students to commit to trying to teach them when they come to your course. While it's amusing, I don't entirely agree with the sentiment behind the story of the graduate student who tells her business school professor that he should treat her better because she's his customer only to have him respond, "No, you're not my customer. You're my product." Good teachers should be willing to work at least as hard as their students do.
Teachers should not have to live in fear of students who receive the grades they deserve for the work they do but don't happen to want. Students have every right and should question their grades if they believe the grades are inappropriate -- or even if they simply want to know how the grades were calculated. And teachers should be prepared to explain. Sometimes teachers make mistakes. Often they don't. If a student wants to take the case to higher-ups at the school when they believe they're not getting a fair response, that's fair game, too.
If the student truly felt that she was wronged and that no one at the college (where her father also happens to be on the faculty) fairly addressed her concerns, she had every right to seek justice elsewhere. A judge saw fit to rule that the C-plus grade should stand, leaving it to the college to make the final determination about the fairness of the grade.
Professors shouldn't take the ruling as an indication they have no responsibility to grade thoughtfully and responsibly. Sometimes, however, C-pluses are legitimately earned.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2013 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.