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Faculty, students discuss proposed policies for handling cases of academic misconduct

by Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu - November 26, 2007

A proposal to streamline procedures for handling cases of academic misconduct and centralize the adjudication of such cases was the topic of a public forum organized by the University Senate Scholastic Standards Committee in Konover Auditorium on Nov. 13.

The proposal, available on the Senate website, is an outgrowth of a 2004 report on plagiarism by an ad hoc committee of the Scholastic Standards Committee, said Andrew Moiseff, professor of physiology and neurobiology and chair of the Scholastic Standards Committee.

The draft proposal would identify the Office of Community Standards in the Dean of Students Office as the administrative center for cases of academic misconduct. Currently, oversight of these cases is the responsibility of schools and colleges.

“The idea of centralization is not that all students be treated same way, but that procedures and rules of evidence be consistent,” said Moiseff.

The committee also recommends the creation of an Academic Hearing Board to adjudicate cases of academic misconduct. The board would comprise two faculty members, two students, and an administrative officer, drawn from a pool.

In addition, the draft proposal suggests making a notation in the transcript of a student found responsible for academic misconduct that would remain after the student leaves or graduates from the University.

Currently, Moiseff said, a student found to have engaged in academic misconduct can have grade forgiveness, take the course again, and there’s no consequence.

“We’re more an educational institution than a punitive one,” he said, “but there are egregious cases where quite honestly there is no excuse.”

Cathy Cocks, director of the Office of Community Standards in the Dean of Students Office and one of the panelists at the forum, said that although a faculty member may still resolve a situation of suspected academic misconduct directly with the student under the proposed policy, faculty should report all suspected cases.

“Our office is a warehouse of information,” she said.

“Even if you think it’s an isolated situation, by keeping us in the loop we can make sure there’s not a wider pattern of academic misconduct,” and impose sanctions where appropriate.

Cocks said during the past three years, the office has been informed of about 50 such cases per year. Three quarters were resolved in informal meetings with the faculty member, and about one quarter of the cases went to a hearing.

Jason Stephens, an assistant professor of educational psychology who studies cheating, said academic misconduct is a concern to any educational community.

“As a practical matter, the problem of academic dishonesty should concern us, because we don’t know whether students are learning if they’re cheating in widespread numbers.”

He cited national studies that found more than two-thirds of college students cheat on assignments, about half plagiarize, and about half cheat on tests or exams.

An individual’s decision to cheat is embedded in a larger social-cultural context, he said. “As educators, we can change the context, by helping create an environment where academic integrity is really salient.”

Anne Hiskes, associate professor of philosophy and director of research ethics, said a centralized office, with expertise in recognizing what counts as evidence and how to pursue certain kinds of complaints, would offer greater consistency.

She welcomed the inclusion of students on the hearing board, noting that judgment by peers encourages people to develop “philosophies to which they themselves are going to be responsible.”

She suggested that the board include members with expertise in a variety of different settings, such as labs and internships as well as the classroom.

Hiskes emphasized “the importance of there being a process, and of following the process.”

She said when faculty think they have sufficient evidence of cheating, they must “actually follow the process” and notify the student in writing.

“It’s painful and time-consuming, and it’s easier to pretend it doesn’t exist,” she said, “but the process needs to be open.”

Meredith Zaritheny, representative of the Undergraduate Student Government, said from the student perspective, the draft proposal is positive.

It brings a “bigger air of fairness to the issue,” she said. In particular, she said, judgment by peers is “easier for students to relate to.”

During the question and answer session, a faculty member in the School of Nursing said academic misconduct takes on special significance for the professional schools.

Noting that nursing students in their senior year will soon be responsible for patients, she said “There’s a difference between plagiarizing a philosophy paper and misconduct where lives are at stake. Falsifying patient records is a public safety issue, and we have to sign off on these students when they graduate.”

Another faculty member, who teaches an online course, said it’s important that academic misconduct policies “have teeth.”

“We’d like to say at the beginning of the class that several people have been removed because of academic misconduct, to prevent others [engaging in it].”

Moiseff said the committee will revise the draft policy in light of the information presented during the forum, and then present it to the Senate.

He said if the proposal is approved, both faculty and students will need education on how the process works.

The procedures should also be simplified as much as possible, for example with boilerplate letters for faculty to send to students accused of academic misconduct and for students to request a hearing.

Comments on the proposal may be sent via e-mail to andrew.moiseff@uconn.edu.

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