Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Changes to academic integrity policy weaken students’ voice

Changes to academic integrity policy weaken students’ voice

*CORRECTION*

It was reported that the proposal to institute a first offender policy for cases of academic dishonesty and to amend the composition of disciplinary hearing panels was still in its infancy, and that there would be a significant amount of time for student to provide input. The reality is that the proposal will be presented to the March faculty meeting, and should they be approved, the new policies will be put into effect.

CHRIS BULFINCH ’18

STAFF WRITER

For the past three years, members of Trinity College faculty and administration have been developing a proposal to make significant changes to the college’s academic integrity policies, specifically dealing with academic dishonesty procedures. The changes are threefold, dealing with a revised First Offender Policy (FOP), and changes to the composition of the disciplinary panels that adjudicate cases of academic dishonesty, as well as social misconduct. The Honor Council and Student Government Association (SGA) were appraised of the proposed changes last semester, and after deliberation among the various organizations, a meeting was convened between the relevant faculty, administrators and students on Tuesday, Feb 9. The meeting precipitated a robust exchange of ideas, and the conversation is ongoing. Students will have an opportunity to weigh in on the changes in the weeks and months ahead, and the proposal, despite having been deliberated and crafted, is only in its infancy. The proposal will be sent up the administrative hierarchy after what will hopefully be a vigorous campus-wide discussion. All of this is to say that the changes are not set in stone and will likely not go into effect for some time. Nonetheless, the conversation has been opened, and asks many important questions about how academic integrity should be regulated and what role the faculty play in adjudicating cases of academic misconduct.

The proposal is, on paper, relatively simple. It calls for three primary changes, as mentioned above: 1. the implementation of a relaxed policy for qualifying first offenders in cases of academic dishonesty, 2. the reconstitution of the panels that hear cases of academic dishonesty, and 3. the reconstitution of panels that hear cases of social misconduct. An analysis of current policy is vital to understanding the impact of the changes proposed.

Under the current set of policies (which can be found easily in the student handbook), allegations of academic misconduct are appraised by the Dean of Students, and if “sufficient grounds” are found, then the relevant parties are notified and a hearing is scheduled. The hearings involve a panel, a “jury” of sorts in order to figure out the facts of the case, and recommend what punishment (“sanction” is the officially designated nomenclature, but the mechanic is essentially the same as a punishment), if any, the accused student should receive. The student can appeal if they find the ruling unfair. The current composition of the panels varies depending on the nature of the offense in question; for issues of academic dishonesty, the panel consists of four Honor Council representatives and three members of the Faculty Jury Pool, a group of 18 faculty members elected to three-year terms in the Pool. Using a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, the panel hears all relevant testimony and attempts to figure out whether or not an infraction of college rules has occurred. The consensus is based on a “majority rules” model, and sanctions are handed out on a case-by-case basis, though there is precedent for assigning certain sanctions to certain infractions.

The impetus of the proposed changes was a realization on the part of the faculty that there were serious problems with the system, notably with a lack of official reporting of instances of academic dishonesty. A study conducted by the college reported that two thirds of academic dishonesty cases were never brought to any administrative body. This “Trinity Integrity Survey,” completed in the spring of 2014, found that 60-70% of all instances of academic dishonesty were being handled “off the record.” In fact, 86% of faculty reported that they had not reported any cases of academic dishonesty to the Dean of Students in the five years. Only 24% of faculty have ever served on a Hearing Panel for the Honor Council. These statistics render meaningful change to Trinity’s academic adjudicating difficult, simply because there is a dearth of reliable data and accounts of people who have gone through the process.

The changes proposed would alter the process for students who had never before been found guilty of an academic infraction. Instead of going through the full disciplinary process, a student, if willing to admit guilt, would simply be assigned a grade reduction of some kind (depending on the severity of the offense) and a notation in Trinity’s records. No other sanction can be assigned under the terms of the FOP. The intent of the FOP is to make the process of reporting and adjudicating cases of academic dishonesty easier; hopefully, more professors will be inclined to report instances of academic infractions.

Having a more robust system to track offenses will supposedly have salient benefits. Firstly, the faculty will be more aware of serial offenders – when issues of academic dishonesty are handled “off the record,” it is possible for a student to engage in academically dishonest activity across several different classes with no repercussion except for lowered grades. Secondly, professors will have to take responsibility for grade sanctions that they choose to impose on students; under the current system, a professor could accuse a student of academic dishonesty and lower their grade unilaterally. Without any kind of third party to mediate, students are rendered vulnerable to arbitrary grade reductions – though professors surely do their best to be as fair as possible, the current culture of hand2ling academic integrity behind closed doors has certainly produced victims. With a better system of reporting, students would not need to fear any kind of arbitrary reduction to their grades, and Trinity’s records would be more complete, allowing the college to keep track of offenses and to ensure that serial offenders do not slip through the cracks. 

The other two changes entail changing the composition of the panels that hear cases of academic dishonesty, as well as those adjudicating issues of social misconduct. The proposed changes would involve a greater faculty presence on both kinds of panels. In the case of academic dishonesty panels, two student positions are being eliminated, meaning that the new panels will be composed of three faculty members and two students from the Honor Council. The new Academic Dishonesty Hearing Panel will be chaired by a faculty member. Social Misconduct Panels will also have their composition altered under the new changes, with three students and two faculty members; previously, Social Misconduct Panels were entirely in the hands of students.

The faculty and administration explain the necessity of the above changes in a variety of ways. According to the “Rationale” section of the amended Student Handbook, “…the committee fully supports the faculty preference [the faculty majority in Academic Dishonesty Panels], based on the view that in the absence of students’ self-policing, faculty members should have the preponderant voice in the adjudication of dishonesty cases.” As far as the FOP is concerned, those responsible for the changes argue: “This meeting [the FOP] is intended to impress upon the student the seriousness of his or her action. It would also serve to create an academic dishonesty record for that student.” This would, in the eyes of proponents of the changes, remedy a “fundamental defect in the College’s current system” which is that “no inclusive record kept of instances of academic dishonesty.”

The reconstitution of the disciplinary panels and the institution of the FOP give a significantly greater voice to the faculty, who previously only had a minority vote in matters of academic dishonesty and no voice at all in matters of social misconduct. The previous system, particularly in the context of panel composition, favored a system that allowed students a significant degree of input in matters of discipline; this characteristic is a vestige of an attempt on the part of the administration from upwards of a decade ago to move Trinity towards an honor code-oriented system. Such a system relies heavily on self-analysis and self-policing on the part of the student body, and while there is a Student Integrity Contract that matriculating students must sign at the beginning of their first year, only 60% of the faculty believes that its existence “increases the student’s sense of the College’s commitment to its principles,” according to the Trinity Integrity Survey.

It is also worth pointing out that while there is a campus-wide vote for members of the Honor Council, the Dean of Students office has the power to veto any candidates; those with significant past disciplinary infractions cannot run as long as there are enough qualified candidates. Additionally, a dearth of applicants this year meant that elections did not take place at all – any qualified candidate who applied was placed into the “jury pool.” The Dean of Students Office is also in charge of the training of appointed student jurors. This policy has given the administration, particularly the Dean of Students Office, a significant degree of influence in disciplinary hearings. The proposed changes would allow for the faculty’s voice to carry more weight. In a larger sense, the changes can be seen as a departure from the attempted honor code system, a system that places more control, and thus responsibility, in the hands of the student body.

Though the goal of improving the academic integrity of the campus through more thorough adjudication and record-keeping is an admirable aim, it is unclear if the proposed changes will remedy the problem in a satisfactory manner. Certainly, there will be a broader variety of voices contributing to hearing panels with the integration of more faculty, and more cases will be heard as a result of the FOP, but the wisdom of departing from an honor code-inspired adjudicatory process, one which lends great credence to student perspective, is a matter of debate. The next meeting that will occur between SGA representatives, Honor Council, and relevant faculty and administrators is on the 25th of February. Students are strongly encouraged to contact the SGA, Honor Council, or other student leaders if they have questions, concerns, or input of any kind. The conversation about the proposal has expanded and evolved over the three-year process of drafting the changes, and the opportunity for student voices to be heard has come. The discussion has the potential to be far-reaching and robust, and will develop in myriad ways as events unfold.

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