University 101: Striking a balance in student misconduct
Sometimes, you just have to shake your head. In one reported case of plagiarism at the U of A, a student was caught passing off whole paragraphs of his instructor’s published work as his own in a course essay.
As the gravity of offence began to sink in, the student confessed to the professor with dismay: “I paid good money for that paper.”
Cases of academic misconduct of that magnitude are easy to assess, especially when there is a clear-cut admission of guilt. But sometimes the circumstances are considerably murkier, and that’s where the Office of Student Judiciary Affairs (OSJA) comes in.
Staffed by two discipline officers, the OSJA hears academic cases forwarded by deans across campus and non-academic cases forwarded by University of Alberta Protective Services. Non-academic charges account for about 80 per cent of the caseload, and most of those are minor infractions involving drunk and disorderly behaviour, possession and use of drugs and vandalism. More serious charges, such as those involving assault, may involve the criminal justice system, as well.
Only the most serious academic charges are dealt with by the office—those that come from a dean’s office with a recommendation for suspension or expulsion. “Very often it stops at the dean,” says OSJA director Deborah Eerkes. “The student gets an F in the class or a fail on the assignment. But if it’s serious enough to warrant suspension or expulsion, then it comes to our office for another go-around before a final decision is made.
“These things have a huge impact on a student’s life and career, so we want to make sure it gets a second look.” All decisions by the OSJA office can be appealed to the University Appeal Board, which will do a full rehearing of the case.
Last year, the OSJA passed down a total of 64 discipline decisions, including 11 suspensions, seven exclusions (barring someone from a part of campus) and one expulsion. Those decisions all hinge on a standard of proof called the “balance of probabilities,” which, simply put, means weighing whether the infraction is more likely to have happened than not. If there are two explanations for what happened, says Eerkes, it’s the more likely one that rules, even if there may remain some doubt.
“We always hope for more evidence than less; we don’t like to make a decision on that 51 per cent line. So there are cases where you have to make decisions based on the credibility of the witnesses, because that’s all you have.”
There are some cases, for example, where a student turns in work of consistent quality all year, then suddenly submits something radically superior: “Even if we can’t track the source, there is a possibility of still finding that person to have committed an offence against the code, says Eerkes.
“We have to be careful with those, because we don’t want to punish a student for simply improving. But if a student goes from sub-undergrad to PhD-level writing, with nothing in between, you might want to call them in and ask them to explain.”
One student, says Eerkes, pleaded a photographic memory and claimed to have simply regurgitated a passage in an essay without knowing it. “It’s very rare, but not outside the realm of possibility,” she says. “We had one student who was actually able to prove it.”
The bulk of the OSJA’s workload falls under prevention. That includes designing and running the Academic Integrity Program, which informs people about what constitutes academic misconduct. Eerkes also chairs the Coalition for Action on High-Risk Drinking and is currently working on a program for the prevention of hazing. Last year, she helped establish the new restorative justice program in campus residences. “We’re hoping this will actually create more ownership and community,” she says, “so people understand that when they do something, it impacts everyone.”
The Office of Student Judiciary Affairs is available to anyone who wants support or resources to better understand the code of student behaviour and how the adjudication process works. Consult its website for more information at www.uofaweb.ualberta.ca/osja/.