Dr. Tamara White, University of Colorado Denver

Dr. Elena Sandoval-Lucero, University of Colorado Denver

Dr. Johanna B. Maes, University of Colorado Boulder


This case focuses on a conflict that arose between student affairs staff, academic administrators, and faculty during the investigation of academic misconduct at a comprehensive community college. Central to the case is the disparate impact suffered by the student due to the intersectionality of her race, gender, and disability. There was a lack of understanding of these dynamics of oppression by the faculty and academic administrators involved in the case, all of whom were White, and who viewed the case through dominant culture narratives. Student affairs staff believed their academic colleagues neither listened to nor valued their expertise in these areas. The student, who was African American, felt that the academic staff disregarded her, and referred her to the African American administrator to handle her. The teaching activities include opportunities for students to learn more about intersectionality, conflict management, servant leadership and transformative leadership.

Keywords: intersectionality, academic misconduct, accommodations, students with disabilities, conflict management, transformative leadership

The comprehensive community college in this case is 35 years old and enrolls 10,000 students. The student population includes 17% full-time students, 53% students of color, and 64% first- generation college students. The college meets the criteria to be designated both a Hispanic Serving Institution and a Minority Serving Institution. The student body has a large immigrant population from multiple African countries and Mexico. The employees of the college are 78% White, 14% Latino, 5% African American, 2% Asian, and 1% Native American. From its beginning the college experienced administrative growth, going from having no vice presidents to having a separate vice president for both student affairs and academic affairs. Of the nine top-level administrators at the time of the case, all were White except the Vice President of Student Affairs, the Dean of Students, and the Dean of Professional Studies.

Clarissa is a forty-seven-year-old African American woman who has been attending community college for over four years. Her goal is to earn an associate degree so that she can start her own non-profit agency to help children. She is a first-generation college student who has a mixed academic record, with success in some classes and struggles in others. Her grade point average reflects her struggles. She receives accommodations through the Disability Services Office for a brain tumor that was diagnosed after she became a student at the college. According to Ms. Elisa Taylor, her case manager in Disability Services, the illness causes Clarissa to have severe headaches that occur at unpredictable times. The tumor has also affected her personality, which causes an increase in emotional outbursts. These outbursts are especially likely to occur in stressful situations. Consequently, Clarissa has developed a reputation for being difficult. Faculty and academic administrators have described her as being hot-tempered and her behavior has been previously perceived as threatening at times. Various academic staff have filed reports referring Clarissa to the Behavioral intervention Team (BiT)on multiple occasions, and each time they reviewed the report using National Behavioral Intervention Team Association (NABiTA) protocols. The BiT team, all of whom have had extensive training through NABiTA, determined through their assessments that Clarissa met the standard for being a potential threat to herself due to a history of suicidal ideation. However, she is not considered to be a threat to others under those same protocols. A faculty member serves on the behavioral intervention team.

Because of the above-mentioned information, Dr. Mara Biely, Dean of Students, and other student affairs staff with whom Clarissa has interacted with regularly have closely monitored her. They have requested welfare checks by local police multiple times when she did not respond to their phone calls and emails for several days. In each case, police confirmed her safety and she subsequently followed up with student affairs staff after her interactions with officers. Dr. Biely has also connected Clarissa with counseling services on campus, and she has used them on occasion.

Clarissa worked with Dr. Valerie Jimenez, Vice President of Student Affairs, who is Latina, when she could not afford her art supplies for class due to financial aid disbursement policies. She was angry when she spoke with Dr. Jimenez, but the Vice President did not think that Clarissa was threatening in any way during their interactions. Clarissa worked with Career Services to get an internship at a community agency and has worked with Ms. Taylor in the Disability Services Office due to her brain tumor diagnosis. Her health issues affected her overall health and her behavior, which is why she was receiving accommodations. All student affairs staff who worked with her on a regular basis have developed positive relationships with her.

Case Narrative

In the prior semester, Clarissa passed developmental math after three attempts. In the semester of the case study, she was in an online, college-level math class and achieved a “B” average at the time of the complaint from Academic Affairs. Academic staff, including Ms. Cora Dayton, math instructor, Ms. Michelle Alden, English professor, Mr. Larry Albright, English Department Chair, Dr. Larry Summers, Dean of Liberal Arts, and Ms. Mary Saybrook, the Vice President for Academic Affairs, suspected her of cheating in this on-line math class. Ms. Dayton stated her suspicion arose due to her past struggles in developmental math.

All were concerned because the last time Clarissa failed developmental math, she had an emotional outburst in class. In the previous class, when Ms. Dayton told Clarissa in front of the class that it was statistically impossible for her to pass the class, Clarissa responded by yelling at her that she was not a good teacher, didn’t care about her, and learning from videos in a learning management system was not helpful. Ms. Dayton requested that Campus Security patrol outside her classroom for the remainder of that semester because she felt threatened by Clarissa. The presence of security, coupled with Ms. Dayton’s treatment of Clarissa, affected Clarissa’s decision not to attend her previous math class for the last week of the semester after learning she was failing. At the time of the complaint from academic affairs, Clarissa was also in a developmental English class for the second time. She was not doing well and the professor, Ms. Michelle Alden, had also accused her of plagiarism in that course.

During the investigation of the plagiarism complaint, Dr. Biely found that Ms. Alden was upset and irritated with the student’s behavior in class and felt “unsafe” in the classroom. Mr. Albright was concerned about Clarissa’s behavior overall. Clarissa was extremely frustrated with Ms Alden and the situation. This was her second time taking this class with Ms. Alden, and she reported that she constantly felt disrespected and targeted in class. Clarissa had been asking for feedback on various assignments and had yet to receive any. Clarissa first contacted Ms. Alden for feedback on the assignment two weeks into the term. When she did not get a response, she went to the department chair, Mr. Albright. They had a meeting and Mr. Albright said he would get feedback to her. When Clarissa still did not get the feedback she requested, she went to the Dean, Dr. Summers. When she received no response from him, she went to the president of the college for help. The President referred the complaint to Student Affairs.

Dr. Biely called a meeting to discuss how all involved could best help this student be successful. Mr. Albright said that it was unrealistic to expect a student at this skill level to pass this course or be successful in subsequent English courses. Ms. Alden admitted that she did not give this student feedback on her assignments. She justified her response by explaining that the numerous mistakes prompted her to request a meeting with the student rather than marking the paper. As they reviewed work submitted by Clarissa, they determined the first assignment was from three weeks ago. However, Ms. Alden had not talked to Clarissa about the paper. The second paper they reviewed was a rough draft. Clarissa received help on the second assignment from the writing lab yet had not received feedback from Ms. Alden. The investigation found no proof of plagiarism. During this meeting, Ms. Biely suggested they offer Clarissa an incomplete, and an option to redo/rewrite papers since she did not receive feedback. Mr. Albright and Ms. Alden agreed and said she would receive an “F” in the course, or she could withdraw.

Clarissa said that she felt discriminated against by Ms. Alden from the beginning and did not feel like the academic staff treated her fairly. She described being treated differently from other students. Not only did other students receive feedback on their papers, but the professor also called on them when they raised their hands to ask questions. Clarissa reported that when she raised her hand to ask a question, Ms. Alden often ignored her or made her a target by snapping at her. Clarissa reported feeling as if she was being treated like the stereotypical “angry Black woman” when she tried to advocate for herself in class. Several students interviewed during Ms. Biely’s investigation verified this account. Clarissa described feeling that this affected her performance in the class. Ms. Biely’s investigation concluded that Ms. Alden’s lack of communication and dismissive responses negatively affected this student’s experience in the class.

Subsequently, Mr. Albright and Ms. Alden decided that they would not send Clarissa through the judicial process for the two accusations of plagiarism. Mr. Albright determined that the level of feedback given was adequate, so Clarissa would not receive any other options to complete and pass the course that term. However, they agreed that the institution would cover the costs for Clarissa to retake the course during the next term. Clarissa withdrew from the English course feeling as though she did not have any other options. She also said that she felt like the college did not care about the time she wasted, or about her success.

Ms. Taylor, whom faculty did not consult during the case, shared that online classes increased the possibility of Clarissa’s success. Ms. Taylor explained that this was due to the increased level of feedback given in online classes, and the flexibility to log-in and complete the work on her own time. Clarissa did better with detailed feedback. Additionally, if Clarissa was having headaches or felt ill, she could rest and log in later to do her work in the online classes at times that were convenient for her. The set time for a traditional class was challenging for Clarissa due to the unpredictability of her symptoms. Based on the history of Clarissa’s interactions with academic affairs, and information from Ms. Taylor in the Disability Services Office, the student affairs staff designed and implemented an intervention and graduation plan for Clarissa.

Over the course of two semesters, the student affairs team helped Clarissa enroll in online English and math classes, which she passed. Clarissa said she enjoyed the level of feedback in the online classes and could manage the work and her symptoms due to the asynchronous nature of online learning. The dean of students checked in regularly with Clarissa to ensure she was doing well and to address any learning needs or personal challenges that could interfere with her success. Clarissa also needed a science course to fulfill graduation requirements. There was not an online option, so she had to enroll in a traditional science course. Sally Hinton, the Director of Career Services, who had majored in science in her undergraduate degree program, tutored Clarissa while she was in the class. They met regularly, and Clarissa thrived with individualized support and feedback. The student affairs staff understood Clarissa’s issues and believed that they were living the community college mission of meeting students where they are and helping them achieve their goals. They felt as though their expertise in this situation was neither heard nor valued by their academic colleagues.

Once Clarissa graduated, Dr. Jimenez, the Vice President of Student Affairs cheered for her as she walked across the stage during the commencement ceremony. While Dr. Jimenez cheered, Mary Saybrook, the Vice President of Academic Affairs, leaned over and whispered to Dr. Jimenez: “How did she graduate?” The VPSA found this comment to be not only unprofessional but cruel, especially given all the challenges Clarissa faced in her life. Upon reflection, Dr. Jimenez realized that Clarissa graduated more in spite of the institution than because of it. Although the student affairs staff provided support throughout her time at the college and gave effective intervention at the end of her academic career, Clarissa had faced similar struggles in the classroom throughout her time at the college. The intersectionality of race, gender, and disability featured prominently in this case and pointed to a need for more focused DEI work at the college.

Primary Characters

Clarissa, the student - a 47-year-old African American woman with disabilities, who is working on earning an associate degree. She has attended the college for four years.

Ms. Elisa Taylor, Disability Services Coordinator - a White woman with physical disabilities. She has served students with disabilities at colleges and universities in three different states. This was her first year working at a community college, and she has worked at the college for a year.

Dr. Mara Biely, Dean of Students - an African American woman with 20 years of experience in higher education at universities and community colleges. She completed training through the Social Justice Institute and has considered becoming a chief diversity officer. She has worked on issues of equity, diversity and inclusion at multiple institutions. She has been the dean for three years and holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in higher education.

Dr. Valerie Jimenez, Vice President of Student Affairs - a Latinx woman with 30 years of experience in higher education in both student affairs and academic leadership positions. She has also been a faculty member in higher education and psychology programs. She holds a master’s degree in student affairs and a doctorate in higher education and has been the Vice President for three years.

Ms. Michelle Alden, English instructor - a White woman with 15 years of experience teaching English at several community colleges. Her only experience in higher education is teaching. She has never held any academic administrative roles. She has a master’s degree in English.

Ms. Cora Dayton, Math instructor - a White woman who has taught as an adjunct instructor at several colleges for eleven years.

Mr. Lawrence Albright, Department Chair - a White man who moved up the ranks from English faculty to department chair. He has a master’s degree in English. He has worked at the college for eight years.

Dr. Larry Summers, Dean of Liberal Arts - a White man with 30 years of experience in community colleges as an English faulty member He was director of a learning center and the dean at three different colleges. He has been the dean of liberal arts at the college for eight years. He holds a master’s degree in English and a doctorate in community college leadership.

Ms. Mary Saybrook, Vice President of Academic Affairs - a White woman who has 40 years of experience in K-12 and higher education. She taught high school math, was a middle school counselor, and has held various academic leadership positions. She has been the Vice President for three years.

Ms. Sally Hinton, Director of Career Servicesa White woman who has 20 years of experience in career services in workforce education and higher education settings. She is a cisgender woman who identifies as LBGTQ and also identifies as having a disability.

Teaching Notes

This case can be used to teach students studying higher education from multiple perspectives and topics including conflict management, leadership styles, intersectionality and equity, student affairs/academic affairs collaboration, and online learning. The following are important considerations to note in class discussions of this case.

Several contextual and intersectional factors contributed to the conflicts in this case. There were also stereotypes that came into play and overtook all other considerations by the faculty and academic administrators the student encountered in this situation. The student’s learning needs were lost in these dynamics by the educational institution that was supposed to put her learning needs at the forefront.

First, consider the assumption that a student who struggled in traditional classes would certainly struggle in online classes. This does not align with the current literature about online learning. Research has determined that the learning strategies required for online learning increase student self-efficacy and success in classes (Puzziferro, 2008; Wadsworth, et. al., 2007). Online learning allows flexibility, but also requires discipline and focus. Practicing the self-regulated learning strategies required to be successful in an online class increases academic self-efficacy (Puzziferro, 2008). This student did better with the detailed feedback she received online and was doing better in her class. She knew this about herself, which indicated a level of academic maturity for which faculty did not give her credit in this case. Additionally, the asynchronous learning contributed to her success as they allowed her to manage her health issues and her studies.

Second, think about how the dynamics of intersectionality influenced faculty in overlooking the important, clarifying information about the student’s disability and success in online learning in this case. In fact, exploration of whether this student was receiving adequate accommodations was almost an afterthought. Because the student’s disability affected her ability to manage her emotions, the stereotype of the angry Black woman overtook all other considerations by the White faculty and academic administrators she encountered in this situation. The evaluation of this student’s behaviors as unacceptable and devaluing or outright ignoring her needs as a student had likely been happening to her for her entire educational career. It is well documented that even when African American girls do well academically in school they are reprimanded for their behaviors, they are told they have bad manners, and are asked to change who they are to fit in educational settings (Morris, 2007). It would be worth exploring the impacts on learning with this type of disability to become an advocate to this student, or any other student who discloses a disability. We are including one possible resource that could have helped in this case for further study and discussion.


Third, another important consideration in this case is the lack of communication between academic affairs and student affairs that contributed to this case. As the student affairs profession grew and became more specialized, such as having disability services offices to serve students with disabilities, so did the disconnect between those who work in student affairs and those who work in academic affairs (Frost, et. al., 2010). However, the shift from access to completion in community colleges makes collaboration between academic and student affairs more important than ever to increase student success and completion outcomes (Frost, et al., 2010). How would collaboration between the student affairs and faculty in this case contribute to the success of this student? Consider the lack of respect signified by the faculty in not consulting the offices with applicable expertise. This highlights that the role of the student affairs professional in the 21st century has evolved to become interdependent with faculty to enhance student learning.

For this student, the intersections of race, class, gender, and disability overshadowed her learning needs when at an educational institution her learning needs should have been at the forefront of the case. As often happens, intersectionality of race, class, gender, and disability cause people to become non-entities in the eyes of the legal, educational, and governmental social institutions that are designed to serve, teach, and protect them (Erevelles& Minear, 2010). It is also likely that the student had similar experiences in her K-12 education (Morris, 2007).. Think about the role of student affairs professionals in creating a superior student experience, and about what we need to learn and do in order to disrupt the dominant narratives that influence perceptions, policy, and processes in higher education in order to create a more equitable learning environment for all students.

Discussion Questions

1.       Think about how the dynamics of intersectionality affected the key players. Which important, clarifying information from disability services was needed but possibly overlooked?

2.       How could an understanding of intersectionality have improved the student outcomes in this case?

3.       Do faculty and staff have a responsibility to complete training in ADA requirements as a part of an institution’s ongoing equity and inclusion work?

4.       How can student affairs staff with training and expertise in disability accommodations, behavioral intervention, conflict resolution, and equity gain recognition and respect from academic colleagues?

5.       What would you recommend as an equity-minded resolution to this this case?

6.       What are some additional ways to support this student?

7.       How could this college work to increase equity in educational outcomes for their diverse student population?

8.       Who is accountable if a student sues the institution for disability discrimination, faculty, college leadership, student affairs, the disability services office? Why is the office/entity the responsible party in this situation?

Bureaucratic Leadership

The academic leadership in this case utilized bureaucratic leadership styles. The foundation of bureaucratic leadership is based on the belief that organizational efficiency and effectiveness are facilitated through strong processes, policies, rules, regulations, and protocols (Nevarez, et. al. (2013). Thus, bureaucratic leaders are regulation oriented. Their primary focus centers on control over guidelines, processes, and expectations (Nevarez, et. al., 2013; Terry, 2015). Consequently, the role of a subordinate, in this case a student, and to some extent, in their minds, the student affairs staff, was dictated by academic leadership and not up for discussion. As it relates to higher education, bureaucratic leadership provides firm guidance on academic functions such as academic standards, academic freedom, graduation requirements, due process procedures, course scheduling, state reporting and accreditation (Balzer, 2020; Nevarez, et. al., 2015).

To improve the outcomes of this case, the leaders could focus less on rules and process and more on awareness of power differentials. Bureaucratic leadership favors organizational hierarchy. Communication flows up the organizational chain of command and decisions flow down to subordinates. This structure does not allow for “relationships to be built across ranks” (Nevarez, et al, p.15). Thus, effective relationships had not been built with student affairs staff who had extensive knowledge of the student from multiple perspectives. This led to policies and protocols being enforced by academic affairs from a place of disconnect between how things are assumed to be operating or should be operating and the realities the student and student affairs staff were facing. Attending to power helps bureaucratic leaders move to a model of shared power versus dominance over others. (Dugan, 2017). The nuances of expectations, processes, job responsibilities, organizational structure, and student needs in higher education are better suited to a shared power model. Many institutions used a shared governance model to make decisions.

On a college campus, the focus of academic leaders could be more creating an environment where students have agency over their education path. This would also align with the equity work in which the college is engaged. Creating space for agency involves “re-centering decision making, responsibility, and control with those involved in an activity versus those with positional authority.” (Dugan, 2017, p.48). This would have given all perspectives more consideration and resulted in a more equitable resolution to the case. At the very least, it could have provided space for a productive and informative conversation about the situation before decisions were made.

Servant Leadership

One of the goals of community colleges centers on serving first-generation, low- income, and historically excluded students from diverse backgrounds, while providing them with equal access to a higher education that many would not otherwise have experienced (Bahr & Gross, 2016). Students arrive at community through many pathways and with varied previously educational experiences. Some begin taking dual enrollment classes while in high school and matriculate to college after graduation. Others are working adults who never had the chance to attend college until now. Some students have attempted university after high school and did not have a successful experience. They may have scars or trauma from their first college experiences. Students who are immigrants may have completed their schooling in their home country. Others may have completed their K-12 schooling in the U.S. beginning with English as a Second language classes. All these pathways to the college need to be honored and supported by the college. Community college students need advising, tutoring, and mentoring, as well as support that targets school, work and life balance (Bettinger, et al., 2013). In addition, colleges need to redesign developmental education pathways to be shorter and move students into college level work in a semester or less (Bailey, et al., 2015).

This context requires an ethos of inclusion and service from leaders, not exclusion and gatekeeping. Faculty and staff within those institutions should be reminded that many of their students are the first in their families and oftentimes communities to enter higher education institution and are unfamiliar with the processes and procedures one must adhere to be a successful student. These faculty and staff members should be taught and asked to practice many of the tenets of servant leadership to effectively serve the 21st century community college student. According to Spears (2004), servant leadership focuses on the idea that those who are served have the highest priority and it crucial that their needs are being met. In this case, it is the student who should be at the center of importance while it is the job of the servant leader to promote them by exercising empathy, awareness, stewardship, and commitment to building community (Spears, p. 16).

Transformative Leadership

The student affairs leaders in this case engaged in transformative leadership. Transformative leadership is founded in concepts of equity and social justice including opportunity, equity, fairness, and freedom (Nevarez, et al., 2013). Transformative leaders want to change higher education to better serve the diverse 21st century student population. They seek to identify and disrupt the systems and processes in higher education that perpetuate institutionalized racism and structural inequity (Arrellano & Vue, 2019).

For transformative leaders any form of racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and any type of marginalization on their campuses and in their communities are meant to be disrupted, the harm repaired, and policies implemented to prevent students from experiencing these roadblocks in the future (Nevarez, et al., 2013). Transformative leaders also do not operate from a deficit-based view and place the blame for the results of these forms of marginalization on the students (Nevarez, et al., 2013). They seek instead to transform the institution into one that is accountable for its failure to serve the students well. They approach student diversity and difference from an asset-based mindset (Nevarez, et. al., 2013). The student affairs leaders in this case worked to provide the student with agency over her own educational choices and a pathway to success.

Transformative leaders would also work to change the policies that created roadblocks for the student and others like her. Implementing policy reform in community college it the best way to transform our campuses into more equitable places for all students to learn and succeed (de Jesus Gonzalez, et. al., 2021)

Transformative leadership aligns well with the community college’s focus on access and success. Nevarez et al. (2013) point to the need for leadership that aligns with the community college’s mission-critical focus on “equity, access, diversity, ethics, critical inquiry, transformational change, and social justice” (p. xvii). The unique role of community colleges to provide development education, transfer preparation, workforce development, lifelong learning, and service to the community (Hirt, 2006) creates both opportunities and challenges for their leaders, and the impact of leadership is significant for the students and communities that community colleges serve.


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About the Authors

Dr. Tamara D. White currently serves as Associate Dean of Students and Interim Director of the Cultural Center for the division of Student Affairs and Inclusive Excellence at the University of Denver. She is an adjunct faculty member in the higher education concentrations of the EdD and the MA programs at CU Denver, School of Education and Human Development. Dr. White formerly served as the Vice President of Enrollment Services and Student Success at Front Range Community College, the Associate Vice President and Dean of Students at the Community College of Aurora, and the Director of Admission and Access Policy for the Colorado Department of Higher Education. Dr. White is a first-generation college student who has spent most of her professional career in higher education, serving in leadership roles in policy, student life, multicultural affairs, and residence life. Dr. White earned her doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. She is a proud mom of two children, both of whom are attending college at Colorado institutions of higher education.

Dr. Elena Sandoval-Lucero is an assistant teaching professor at CU Denver in the School of Education and Human Development. She teaches courses in the EdD Leadership for Educational Equity program and advises students on their doctoral research projects. She is the lead faculty in the higher education concentration of the MA in Leadership for Education Organizations. Dr. Sandoval-Lucero has 37 years of experience in academic and student affairs settings in higher education. She has led strategic planning efforts and developed enrollment management plans at multiple institutions. Previously, she served as a campus vice president, vice president of student affairs, dean of enrollment management and student success at two community colleges in Colorado, and director of admissions and outreach at MSU-Denver. She led efforts to help two institutions achieve Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) status and was significantly engaged in equity work at multiple colleges. She dedicates her work to her late husband and father, both first generation college students who became educators dedicated to fighting for justice and equity. She also honors her grandma, who told her to go and get her education, but never forget where she came from, and the people who are left behind.

Dr. Johanna B. Maes is an Associate Teaching Professor, Director of the Master of Arts in Higher Education Program and Director of the Multicultural Leadership Scholars Program at the University of Colorado Boulder, School of Education. She has held leadership roles in K-12, higher education, and the non-profit sector, all in Colorado, for the past 25 years. She has expertise in diversity, equity, and inclusion; gender issues in higher education leadership, and access/equity themes in education. She has co-authored numerous academic articles on race and equity in higher education and has co-edited two books focusing on women of color leaders in academia and intersectionality in higher education. Dr. Maes is a proud first-generation college student whose paternal grandparents were farm workers and ranch hands in rural Colorado and her parents were dedicated blue-collar workers in the service industry. She also comes from an extended family of eclectic artists, musicians, and social justice activists.