I am a faculty member at major graduate program. Like many such programs we have a variety of climate problems. Also like many departments we have many members working to improve our practices and improve the situation. One graduate student who has been especially active in departmental discussions of our problems has also been active in another way. She has made multiple formal complaints to the university alleging misconduct on the part of faculty members and other graduate students. As is required by university policy, these complaints have all been thoroughly investigated. Every one of her complaints has been found to be completely unsupported by evidence and therefore without merit. The student continues to complain about even the issues that have been formally resolved with findings of fact completely at odds with her allegations. Many in the department have been distracted from our real problems by these false complaints and accompanying formal investigations. The student seems to either not realize or not care that her steady stream of false allegations has greatly slowed the attempts at progress that many of us are working to promote. Do you have any suggestions for dealing with a situation like this one?
This is an extremely tricky situation. The first thing, though, is not to assume that the complaints were without merit simply because they were dismissed this way. Sadly, this happens all too often even with very real, very serious and repeated cases of harassment.
Two concrete suggestions: i) From your description, it sounds like there are ongoing positive programs to improve the climate. Would it be possible to find the student something constructive to do – ideally, a specific task that can’t devolve into complaining – to allow her to be involved in a targeted way? Sometimes those who are included in the constructive work for change learn how hard it is to do things perfectly, or even be effective in the way intended! ii) Does the student have an approachable friend among the grad students that she trusts? If so, someone might speak to the friend and ask for suggestions about how to approach the student to discuss strategic issues, e.g., how her allegations have slowed the progress others are trying to achieve and what might be a better approach. If the student you are concerned about is included in such a strategy session, she may feel she is on the inside of the efforts for change, rather than in an oppositional position. Speaking to the friend might also provide some valuable background information about the student, what explains her actions, and how the department might support her more effectively.
But whether or not these complaints actually were without merit, my view is the same: you and your colleagues who are trying to address the problems should simply go on trying to address them. This is what matters most to improving the climate of the department.