Also known as academic dishonesty, academic misconduct is an issue that all institutions of learning—from high school to higher education through doctoral programs—take very seriously and with good reason. If you have been accused of violating standards of academic integrity, it's imperative that you approach the charges with an equal amount of gravitas.
Additionally, academic misconduct is a complicated matter, and if you try to go it alone, there could be devastating consequences that could derail your entire career. Today, we're taking a closer look at how allegations of academic dishonesty come about, the process of addressing those allegations, and how to ensure that you are treated as fairly as possible.
What is Academic Misconduct?
Academic misconduct comprises a wide variety of acts and behavior, but in essence, it describes any action that results in unfair advantages to the student, including acts that create disadvantages for other students. Some of the most common forms of misconduct include:
- Altering academic documents (including transcripts)
- Tampering with course materials, such as lab supplies, library resources, assignments, textbooks, or other items so that other students may not access or use them properly
- Claiming research or work done by someone else as your own
- Providing false information about oneself or another student in order to get ahead
- Accessing materials that aren't meant for students' eyes, such as exam questions or answers
- Fabricating credentials or academic records
- Disruption of the classroom or lecture hall
- Sharing notes or other course materials without permission
- Collaborating with other students without the instructor's permission
As you can see, there are many behaviors and actions that might constitute academic dishonesty—but there is also a lot of possibility for events to be misinterpreted or misconstrued.
How Can I Find Out If a Certain Behavior Is Classified as Misconduct?
When you attended your university or college's orientation, either before initially moving to campus or during the first few days of the semester, you should have been provided a copy of the school's Code of Conduct. (These, too, can be referred to by different terms, including Academic Conduct Code or Honor Code.) Or perhaps you were directed to read the Code of Conduct online.
Chances are that, in those first few heady days as a college student—when you were exploring the interesting courses available to take, finding your way around campus, meeting new friends, decorating your dorm room, and figuring out which of the cafeterias and snack bars offered the best food—you took one look at the Code of Student Conduct's multiple pages of fine print and shoved the booklet in a drawer. That's understandable because this kind of documentation doesn't exactly make for scintillating reading.
If you are facing disciplinary procedures, however, it's not a bad idea to go back and reread this information. Pay particular attention to the parts that spell out the steps that will be taken by the school from this moment forward and what rights and responsibilities you have as a student facing the possibility of discipline.
What About Failing a Course? Is That Misconduct?
Academic misconduct and poor performance in a given course are not the same and should not be confused. Academic dishonesty, by definition, involves an intent to gain advantages over other students, or an intent to improve one's own standing and reputation by false means. Most students do not deliberately set out to earn failing grades.
Both of these situations may result in suspension or expulsion from the college or university, but students with misconduct on their record tend to face more serious repercussions.
What Will Happen If I Am Accused of Misconduct?
The events that occur when a student is suspected of academic dishonesty can vary widely in nature. It depends on the nature of the offense or offenses in question, and it also depends on the specific college or university where the student is enrolled.
In some cases, you will be initially informed of the allegations in writing and asked to either confirm or deny that you committed the wrongdoing of which you are accused. In others, you'll be called in for a meeting to inform you of the charges as well as the order of proceedings that will occur.
If the misconduct is particularly serious, if you are accused of multiple instances of violating the Code of Conduct, or if you have a history of disciplinary actions taken against you, the college's disciplinary committee will likely open an investigation. They will speak to your professors and classmates to learn more about your character and previous actions. They may review your academic work or gather and evaluate other evidence.
After the investigation is complete, the committee will either dismiss the evidence or schedule a disciplinary hearing. You will probably be required to attend this hearing, but in some cases, you may be deposed ahead of time or asked to submit a written statement. Again, it depends on the university's policy, the nature of your case, and other factors.
What Happens at a Disciplinary Hearing?
At many schools, there is a Code of Conduct board or disciplinary panel that is tasked with adjudicating cases of suspected misconduct. Usually these are made up of faculty and non-faculty employees, and often there is a student representative as well. These people will lay out the case against you, present the evidence they have collected, and ask you questions relating to your behavior and intention. You will have the chance to defend yourself and to ask the panel any questions you might have at this time.
Usually, the student whose conduct is being evaluated will not be present for any deliberation that takes place. The board will probably convene at a later date to discuss the hearing and decide on an outcome. You will then be notified of the board's decision.
Is There an Appeal Process?
Some institutions allow for appeals, but others do not. Refer to your school's Code of Conduct documentation to learn about what kind of recourse you are entitled to.
Is a Disciplinary Hearing Similar to a Trial?
Yes and no. The two situations are similar in that there are two opposing sides. It's important to make the best possible impression, which means you should dress professionally, speak respectfully, and behave with decorum. If your lawyer is in attendance, they may be permitted to give opening and closing statements, present evidence, and call witnesses. And, of course, the “state” in this case, the university's Code of Conduct board, will pass judgment after the hearing has concluded.
There are some significant differences, however. You may not be allowed to have your attorney accompany you, although it is standard for the accused student to have an advisor of some type accompany them. This could be a family member, a faculty member who supports you, or a friend. (And if your lawyer can't be there, they will nevertheless have prepared your defense in such a way that you can advocate for yourself.)
Unfortunately, in most academic adjudication hearings, the accused student is not entitled to the same protections and rights as the defendant in a criminal trial. The university's representatives are not impartial, and the accused is not presumed innocent until proven guilty. In short, students in this situation cannot depend on due process.
What Are the Potential Penalties or Punishment?
Just as there is an enormous range of infractions that fall under the umbrella of academic dishonesty, there are many possibilities when it comes to facing the music. Depending on the severity of the offense, the penalties could include:
- A reduced grade in the course or lost course credit
- Academic probation
- Loss of scholarships, financial aid, or work-study opportunities
- Ineligibility for student housing
- The inability to participate in athletics programs or other campus organizations or activities
- Expulsion or dismissal
- Inclusion of the misconduct on the student's permanent record. This could, in turn, prevent them from transferring to a different school, gaining admission to graduate programs, being fired from a job, or being disqualified from certain jobs.
There are many careers that will be largely or completely closed off to anyone with a black mark such as this on their record. Medical, legal, and financial careers, in particular, can be jeopardized by an act of academic misconduct.
If the act of dishonesty also violates local, state, or federal law, the student could also face criminal charges.
I've Just Been Accused of Academic Misconduct—What Do I Do?
First things first: take a deep breath, or better yet, several deep breaths. Hearing the news that you are facing sanctions from the university or college you hope to one day call your alma mater is guaranteed to send your heart rate spiking. But this situation calls for a cool head, so make sure to calm yourself before you do anything else. Lashing out at your accusers, even in your own defense, is not going to be helpful; in fact, an impulsive outburst is much more liable to hurt your case.
Similarly, be choosy about who you talk to about this matter. It's only natural that you want to vent about this development, seek advice, or solicit assistance (and sympathy). But remember that the disciplinary committee will be conducting interviews with your friends, dormmates, and classmates. Anything you say now could be repeated to the misconduct investigators—so it's better to say nothing at all.
As suggested above, take a look at the school's Code of Conduct to review the violation you're accused of committing. If there is any discrepancy between the allegations against you and the official policy, make sure to note it.
Sit down with paper and pen to make some lists. One list will be questions you have for your attorney (more on that in a moment.) Another should be a list of questions to ask the academic conduct board or your contact person on the committee that's bringing the charges against you.
Additionally, write down everything you recall about the event or events that are at issue. Answer these questions to the best of your ability:
- Where did this take place?
- When did it take place?
- Who was there? Would any of those people serve as helpful witnesses to support your side of the story?
- What did you do, to the best of your recollection? Can you explain why you did what you did?
- Are there supporting documents or evidence that you can use in your defense? Consider things like emails, text messages, IMs or DMs, social media posts, pictures, videos, and check-ins that might put you in a different location at the time of the alleged action. Any detail, no matter how small it seems now, might turn out to be helpful, so don't omit anything. Keep your lists within close reach over the next few days so you can jot down any additional recollections, ideas, or questions as they occur to you.
Perhaps most importantly, contact an experienced academic misconduct lawyer like Joseph D. Lento. Like a defense attorney in a criminal trial, your attorney will assess the accusation, review the evidence, help you prepare a defense, and otherwise advise you in these confusing, yet critical, circumstances. It's important to be 100% honest with the attorney, so they can take all the facts into account in order to formulate the best possible approach to your defense.
Moreover, it's extremely probable that your lawyer will calm your fears. They might describe the typical results of cases that are similar to yours or reassure you that your case isn't as dire as it might seem.
Am I Allowed to Represent Myself at the Hearing?
You are not required to use the services of an attorney, but it's highly advisable. After all, a lawyer who specializes in this field has abundant experience, detailed knowledge, and extensive resources, none of which you possess. Why wouldn't you take every possible precaution to safeguard your reputation, your standing in the university community, and your future career success? You've dedicated incredible amounts of time, money, energy, and hard work to your college experience; don't jeopardize it now. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his team have helped hundreds of students across the United States overcome allegations involving academic dishonesty and academic misconduct and they can help you also. Call Attorney Lento and the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or reach out through our contact form to discuss the details of your case with an experienced, compassionate, and results-driven student discipline defense attorney.