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Faculty working group seeks to ensure equal treatment in academic dishonesty cases

April 6, 2018

After an uptick in cases of academic dishonesty brought before the Judicial Board (J-Board) in recent years, a working group consisting of both faculty and students has been formed to address discrepancies in the application of the College’s honor code. Currently the group is mainly concerned with policies which do not obligate faculty members to bring cases of academic dishonesty before the J-Board. These policies raise questions about equal treatment of students accused of cheating.

The recent increase in cases has led some faculty members to express concerns about the process and workload of the J-Board. During the 2016-2017 academic year, there were 16 cases of academic dishonesty reported to the J-Board; in 2015-16, there were 22. In the 13 years prior to that, an average of 8.7 cases were reported to the J-Board each year. In response to the increase, the Committee on Governance and Faculty Affairs (GFA) appointed an additional faculty member to the Judicial Board and created the working group.

According to Rachel Connelly, professor of economics and chair of GFA, the working group is mainly concerned with issues of faculty autonomy and the faculty’s trust in the J-Board process.

“Students should know what to expect across the board. We’re never going to be able legislate it completely because we have a lot of autonomy in what we do in general,” Connelly said. “[Faculty] need to hear what each other are saying and try to move towards a consensus that we’re all going to use the system, or we need to have a consensus that we’re not comfortable with how the current system works and that system needs to be adjusted, so we can feel comfortable.”

A concern that arose from the report is the inconsistency among faculty on what constitutes a violation—what needs to be brought before the J-Board, and what does not. Faculty members currently have the right to resolve academic dishonesty cases independently. However, such faculty discretion must be balanced with fair treatment of accused students.

“We have a prescribed thing for what we are supposed to do, but not everybody follows it, so I think that is one of the issues that concerns us,” said Richard Broene, professor of chemistry and chair of the working group. “We would like it if the same activity in a similar class taught by a different individual produced the same outcome.”

In an interview with the Orient last fall, Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster argued that it is important for faculty to report academic dishonesty to the J-Board.

“[Say] a faculty member decides without consultation with us to handle a matter themselves within the class, [and] later in the same class a faculty member takes a case and brings it forward to us and we discover through the process of the hearing or in advance of the hearing that the faculty member has dealt with a previous case him or herself—that is wildly problematic,” Foster said.

The working group is charged with finding explanations for the increase in cases over the past few years. However, many faculty do not believe that this is a matter of intentional dishonesty but an issue of clarity.

“What we need is to articulate to students clearly [that] these are my rules, and if you violate my rules that is a violation of academic honesty. Then it would go to the Judicial Board,” Connelly said.

The inconsistencies among faculty members have led the group to investigate two components of the issue. The first is evaluating the faculty’s role in clearly stating and teaching their expectations regarding academic honesty. In an informal poll at the March 5 faculty meeting, 78 percent of faculty said they have a statement regarding academic honesty on their syllabi, while only 48 percent said they revisit the issue of academic honesty during the semester.

The second component is evaluating the J-Board’s effectiveness and why some faculty do not bring academic dishonesty cases to the J-Board.

“The Judicial Board is not faculty-driven in any way, but since we staff that Judicial Board, since we are the users of it, we have to feel comfortable with it to bring up a student before the Judicial Board. We have to trust in the process,” Connelly said.

Another issue the College may be facing is a disconnect between the intent and culture of the Academic Honor Code. Nora Cullen ’18, chair of the J-Board and a member of the working group, explained that the group has discussed how to shift the perception of the Academic Honor Code away from “very scary, very punitive.”

“People are more fearful of violating academic honesty instead of celebrating it … I would hope students would feel empowered to explore and engage and discover while they’re here, because that’s what the purpose of Bowdoin is,” said Cullen. “I feel like, now, people are scared of stepping across a line, and that makes people pretty wary.”

The working group will have a report at the end of the semester with recommendations for faculty to consider.

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