No two universities share the same policies when addressing students accused of academic misconduct. Breaking down each university's unique rules can be an impossible task for students and their families, especially if those parties are actively contending with accusations that they believe to be false.
Unfortunately, false accusations of academic misconduct are not uncommon. Ever since an incident involving 125 accusations of misconduct in 2012, Harvard University has made a point to clarify its Code of Conduct to better classify academic misconduct. Similarly, Stanford University accused 120 students of cheating in an introductory course due to misinterpretations of the Honor Code.
False accusations of academic misconduct in the university setting have a long history - and, luckily, precedent that an attorney-advisor can reference in court. With that in mind, students who are accused of academic misconduct, they're not alone. Instead of trying to break down a university's legal jargon, students and their families can work with advisor-attorneys to address their accusations and better understand how to work within the legislation presented by their university.
What is Academic Misconduct?
This era of online higher education has been a boon to those students looking to protect themselves and their loved ones from an unprecedented pandemic. It has also, however, opened a plethora of students up to accusations of academic misconduct. University across the United States are unequipped to contend with mass-online teaching and are, in turn, turning against their students to try and combat the institutions' lack of infrastructure.
Interpretations of academic misconduct will vary from university to university. Even high schools each have their own understanding of what behaviors constitute academic misconduct. If a student receives notification from their university detailing the behavior of which they've been accused, they can most often look through their student handbook to see how, specifically, the behavior interacts with the university's honor code and other academic guidelines.
Some of the most common forms of academic dishonesty and misconduct include:
Plagiarism sees students fail to provide appropriate citations for the work that they submit in their classes. More specifically, however, plagiarism is the act of passing off someone else's ideas, data, or intellectual property as one's own. In the age of the internet, plagiarism has become all the simpler, even if it's engaged in accidentally. Nowadays, students can just as easily fail to cite a source appropriate due to the complex nature of that citation as they can copy and paste information from sources throughout the internet.
While each university will define plagiarism in its own way, the act most often involves:
- The use of another person's verbatim language, code, data, or intellectual property without an attempt to cite the original source.
- The presentation of another person's language, code, data, or intellectual property as one's own.
- The use of information that does not appear to be common knowledge without addressing a source.
- Purchasing or bribing another student to draft a homework assignment, exam, or paper and then failing to acknowledge that student's efforts upon the submission of the assignment.
- Refusing to acknowledge permitted collaborators on a homework assignment, quiz, exam, lab report, or similar document.
While learning how to appropriately cite different documents in the age of the internet can be difficult, doing so appropriately can keep a student from facing unwarranted accusations of academic misconduct. Unfortunately, some universities are inclined to bring students' accusations to light if that student makes an error in their source citation even by accident. If this is the case, that student may face an academic misconduct hearing without ever having intentionally done something wrong.
Note that instances of plagiarism can include self-plagiarism. Self-plagiarism sees a student reuse a paper, an original quote, or a topic that they've already touched on in one course within another. Determining what constitutes self-plagiarism can be a tricky matter, unfortunately. If a student, for example, changes the name of the file that they uphold to a new class's online dashboard after having previously submitted that paper in another class, they can more readily be accused of self-plagiarism. However, if a student chooses to write two papers on the same subject for two separate classes, the matter has to be considered with greater care.
The term “cheating” is broad in its definition. Once again, each university has its own understanding of the behaviors that constitute cheating. These behaviors are defined both on an institutional level and on an individual basis by each of the professors a student works with. This means that the behavior that one professor considers to be cheating may not constitute cheating in the eyes of another.
For example, in 2020, North Carolina State accused nearly a quarter of students participating in a Statistics 211 course of cheating after the course moved online due to the COVID-19 crisis. These students, the university claimed, were believed to have bought or otherwise procured the answers to an exam from an online tutoring service. Unfortunately for the students and university alike, these behaviors are far more difficult to assess and appropriately bring to light considering the lack of clarity regarding each university's mid-pandemic student expectations.
In general, students at a wide variety of universities can expect most incidents of unapproved collaboration to be considered cheating in the classroom. More specifically, though, cheating in the eyes of a university can include:
- Copying another student's work on an assignment, paper, quiz, or exam.
- Allowing another student to copy one's work on an assignment, paper, quiz, or exam.
- Using notes or referencing a book while taking a closed note exam.
- Procuring the answers to an assignment, quiz, or exam without the authorization of a professor or other academic supervisor.
- Deliberately providing another student with false information regarding a quiz, exam, paper, or another assignment.
- Bringing unapproved notes into a quiz or exam.
- Fabricating data related to lab work, assignments, or exams.
- Bribing or otherwise paying another student to take an exam or to submit an assignment under a false name.
- Buying a paper, quiz results, exam answers, or similar documents and using those documents to improve one's grades.
Using Unfair Advantages on University Assignments
While each student will have a different approach to the work that their professors assign, all students should ideally have the same opportunities to pursue the same grades. Put another way, no student should have an unfair advantage on an assignment. Students who work to secure these types of advantages may face university-wide consequences. These unfair advantages can include but are not limited to:
- The use of stolen, reproduced, or inappropriately-secured information regarding the correct answers on an exam, quiz, or assignment.
- Preventing other students from effectively completing their assignments, exams, papers, or other work.
- Destroying property that might otherwise allow other students to complete their academic work.
Note that students who deface or otherwise misuse academic property while on or affiliated with a particular university may face additional consequences for their behavior, should it be reported to the university.
Falsifying Records or Documents
Popular media makes it seem like a simple matter to alter one's grade or academic documents. Doing so, however, can have significant academic consequences. If a student is accused of falsifying official university records, either to alter a grade, remove notification of academic dishonesty, or some other purpose, then that student may be removed from the university's campus.
Other behaviors that may elicit a response from a university's disciplinary board, in whatever form that might take, include:
- Forging any manner of signature, for one's self or another student, on a university-approved document.
- Providing academic representatives with false information or falsifying information regarding one's academic on official documents.
- Altering or otherwise falsifying information presented to a student by the university.
Student Consequences for Academic Misconduct
The consequences a student may face when accused of academic dishonesty will vary based on that student's previous disciplinary record. Students who are facing these types of accusations for the first time may receive warnings for their efforts, but others who have faced similar accusations before may see more serious consequences come their way.
While, again, consequences differ from university to university, they can include but are in no way limited to:
Written or Verbal Warnings
Students who have not been accused of academic misconduct before or who have engaged in academic misconduct by accident (failing, for example, to cite an author appropriately) may benefit from sanctions that are less overwhelming than others. Written and verbal warnings are meant to discourage a student from engaging in unapproved behaviors again, but these sanctions are infrequently recorded on that student's record or used in such a way as to negatively impact the student's opportunity to maintain their GPA moving forward.
Notes on a Student's Disciplinary Record
Most of the time, incidents of academic misconduct, regardless of how many times the student has been accused of such behaviors, will be recorded on the student's disciplinary record. This way, members of a university's disciplinary board can reference these records should the student be accused of similar behavior again.
Extracurricular, Supplementary Coursework
Students accused of academic misconduct may be required to attend classes designed to teach them about their inappropriate behavior and to provide them with alternative outlets for their academic frustration. For example, students who have been accused of plagiarism may have to attend courses designed to teach them how to appropriately cite materials and ideas that are not their own. The completion of these courses can see notices of previous disciplinary actions removed from a student's permanent record or may simply stand-in for more severe sanctions.
Students who have been accused of academic misconduct on multiple occasions may be placed on academic probation pending an investigation into their most recently behaviors. Probation of this sort may see a student banned from using certain university resources, like computers or library. Students on probation may also be barred from holding certain roles around campus or from participating in Greek culture. Only upon the conclusion of an academic misconduct investigation can students have those rights removed from them restored. However, if a disciplinary board believes that a student did engage in academic misconduct, the aforementioned probation may carry forward for a set period of time, only ending when a university's disciplinary board believes it is appropriate to do so.
Students may also face suspension from a class or the university as a whole depending on the severity of the accusations they face. If sanctions are awarded by a professor, then the suspension may be confined to the class in which the accused's behaviors are said to have taken place. However, if the scope of the accusation expands beyond one professor's classroom, or if the disciplinary board believes that the professor may award sanctions in addition to university sanctions, then the student may not be able to attend any classes for up to a year at a time. Upon the completion of a suspension, the student may return to their university and complete their degree.
Students who have been accused of academic misconduct on multiple occasions will face more severe sanctions regarding the actions they are believed to have engaged in. Should a student be accused of some serious transgression against a university and fail to argue their case, that student may be expelled from said university. The university in question will allow that student to receive their transcript upon request, but the student's expulsion may be marked on that transcript as a reflection of the behaviors the student is believed to have engaged in.
Degree Revocation After Graduation
Students who have recently graduated but who are accused of academic misconduct are not free from the sanctions that their university may place upon them. If a university's disciplinary board believes that the student in question engaged in the behaviors of which they are accused, the university may revoke that student's degree and make it difficult, if not impossible, for the student to complete their education through the university.
Note, too, that professors have the right, at some universities, to determine what sanctions a student may face when accused of academic misconduct. Consequences put forward by professors can include the lowering of a student's in-class grade and failure in the course in question. More often than not, students are not allowed to drop courses that they've failed due to academic misconduct, meaning that these failed grades will remain on a student's academic transcript as long as they remain with the university in question.
Academic Misconduct Hearings
If a student faces accusations of academic misconduct, and the applicable university board deems that the behavior is severe enough to pass over sanctions like a written or verbal warning, then that student may be brought forward in an academic hearing. The process by which these hearings take place is never the same between universities. They do often, however, have similar staples. Students preparing to engage in an academic misconduct hearing can anticipate undergoing something like the following:
A supervisory body, be that a professor, a TA, a fellow student, or someone in a similar role, may bring forward their concerns regarding a student's behavior to a university's appropriate board. This process is usually made simpler courtesy of an online form or a form that the party in question may print out and submit at their leisure.
That said, some universities require that these reports be filed within a certain number of business days following the day the party believes that the academic breach took place.
The office to which the report was filed will then consider the report in question. If the concern brought to the office's attention seems to be a valid one, then the office may go about deciding how best to address the student against which the accusations have been leveled. If the concern seems to have been made with ill-intent in mind or baseless, however, then the office may throw it out and disregard both it and its implications.
If the office does decide to proceed with accusations, then the student who has been accused will receive notifications regarding those accusations via email or a letter. At some universities, that student may be expected to stop attending the class in which the inappropriate behavior is said to take place until the investigation into their behavior is complete.
Meeting with the Student
In some cases, university representatives who believe that a student has engaged in academic misconduct will meet with that student prior to taking further judicial action. During this initial meeting, a student has the opportunity to learn more about the report filed against them and to explain the behavior in which they are said to have engaged. At this point in time, students may accept responsibility for the accusations leveled against them or hold to claims that they engaged in no such behavior.
Students who accept responsibility for their behavior often receive less severe sanctions in response to their cooperation. However, this does not mean that a student who has not engaged in academic misconduct should capitulate to a university board to avoid more severe consequences. Instead, students who believe that the accusations leveled against them are false should reach out to an advisor-attorney to discuss how best to move forward.
Bringing Together a Board
The office to which the complaint regarding a student's behavior was filed will then bring together a board – either consisting of both students and faculty or just faculty – to consider the case in question. These