Dartmouth drops cheating charges against med students, apologizes for flawed investigation

Dartmouth drops cheating charges against med students, apologizes for flawed investigation

2021-06-10 18:39:30
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Since March, FIRE has been monitoring Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine and has received reports that the treatment of students accused of academic misconduct has deviated from both the institution's written policies and basic fairness procedures. (Kane5187/Wikimedia Commons)

Dean: “We will learn from this and we will do better.”

by Alex Morey

June 10, 2021

Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine has announced it has dropped all charges against more than a dozen medical students under investigation for electronic fraud after they were accused of accessing online course materials during remote exams. FIRE and the Electronic Frontier Foundation first alarmed Dartmouth in March that there was not enough evidence to charge the students. FIRE and EFF have also raised concerns about student reports of serious violations of due process.

In an e-mail Last night, Geisel Dean Duane Compton said that new information had been obtained from his e-learning system, Canvas, and suggested that the technical data underlying the allegations were indeed insufficient. Compton apologized to the accused students and the entire Geisel students.

"We will learn from this and we will do better," Compton wrote, adding that the school is committed to “restoring the confidence that we recognize has been lost in some students during this process.”

It was a trial in which Dartmouth appeared to have seriously misunderstood or deliberately ignored the extremely complicated data it used as the basis for its accusations against the students.

Dartmouth jumped to conclusions — at student expense

EF rated the data Dartmouth said was definitive proof of fraud, finding it showed no such thing.

Instead, according to EFF, the individual data points Dartmouth pinned his cases on, which supposedly showed students accessing relevant course material during online exams, would have been produced by an automatic process. Inherent in Canvas's functionality is an automatic sync process known as AJAX, where a secondary device, such as a mobile phone or tablet that was previously logged into Canvas to study, can continue to ping the Canvas system itself. That process can produce data showing that a student's account has access to relevant course materials, even if the process takes place without a student's knowledge, on a device that 'slept'. or was otherwise not in use during the exam.

As Darmouth puts this scandal behind it, it must adopt policies that protect basic student rights. When students are accused of misconduct, fair and transparent procedures must be followed that respect these rights.

Only full logs showing students' devices interacting with Canvas over time would have provided a clear picture of when and how students' devices—or the students themselves—accessed Canvas content. If there was some remote process (or deliberate cheating) involved, the full logs should have shown it.

But Dartmouth withheld those logs from students, insisting that a single data point told the whole story.

Dartmouth then made matters worse by failing to provide accused students with the proper process that could have brought these discrepancies to light before this controversy became national news.

FIRE's most recent review of Dartmouth's fair trial policy (see "Private Trial" tab) for students accused of academic misconduct revealed that some elements of basic justice – such as a presumption of innocence, time to prepare a defense, the right to present evidence to a fact finder and a requirement that there be clear and convincing evidence of guilt — are not promised to students. When FIRE wanted to review this policy again in light of this case, FIRE discovered they were recently password protected, create confusion for prospective students interested in knowing what rights they would have on campus.

Due process horror stories

Perhaps predictably, the reports from the students accused in the Canvas case were veritable fair trial horror stories: Students said they were given less than 48 hours to prepare a defense based on highly complicated technical data for which expert analysis was needed to fully vet, and then denied access to that data — data that could have exonerated them — altogether. In what is arguably the most blatant charge, some accused students reported being forced to confess after Geisel's administrators assured them that prompt admission of responsibility — even if innocent — would lead to leniency.

Dartmouth's new commitment to "rebuild trust" among the students it falsely accused in this case should begin by promising a fair trial to all prospective students who may face a similar charge of misconduct.

It didn't; those students were still severely punished. Depending on how many exams they allegedly cheated, those students were punished extremely severely, from grade lists to suspension to expulsion.

(In the highly competitive world of securing a post-medical school residency, a transcript sign showing the mere existence of an investigation into academic misconduct has the power to end a career before it has even begun. )

FIRE too criticized Dartmouth for enacting repressive social media policies in the initial wake of the controversy, when students began sharing their experiences anonymously online. Dartmouth assured FIRE that the policy was a long time in the making and the timing of its release was purely coincidental. The policy nevertheless remains on the books and violates Dartmouth's broad promises of free speech, which give students the right to speak online even when criticizing administrators.

Dartmouth wants to restore confidence. It has to start with a fair trial.

As Darmouth puts this scandal behind it, it must implement policies that protect the basic rights of students. When students are accused of misconduct, fair and transparent procedures must be followed that respect these rights.

Students suspected of academic misconduct may only undergo an investigation if there is sufficient evidence to charge them. If Dartmouth wants to use online learning software that applies certain (sometimes very complicated) technical processes, the school must have a full understanding of what those processes are and what they do. If a student is suspected of fraud based on really sufficient evidence, they must receive a full and fair hearing – with a presumption of innocence, time to prepare for the hearing, access to evidence and an advisor (preferably a lawyer ), and other basic procedural safeguards that help all parties properly understand what happened and arrive at a just outcome.

Dartmouth's new commitment to "rebuild trust" among the students it falsely accused in this case should begin by promising a fair trial to all prospective students who may face a similar charge of misconduct.

When it comes to trust, a fair trial offers it: giving everyone involved the confidence that when a school achieves a result in an investigation into misconduct, it is a fair result.

FIRE will monitor Dartmouth's policies to ensure students can trust them in the future.


You can read Dean Compton's full email to Geisel School of Medicine below:

Dartmouth Geisel Email to Geisel Students, June 9, 2021


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