On trial: the committee on standards
By Jilian Gundling
Published on Friday, January 19, 2007
We've all heard of them -- the miscreants, the prosecuted, the kids who fade into the background under a cloud of secrecy and shame: the Parkhursted. Few people know what "Parkhursting" actually entails beyond a revocation of BlitzMail and a push out of the Dartmouth bubble. Like car accidents and death, people usually think, "That won't happen to me." At least that is what Daniel Obaseki '07 thought up until his entrance into the world of suspension. "I used to think there was a certain type of kid that got Parkhursted," Obaseki said. "The individuals who bought papers, or cheated on tests. I never realized there's an entire subculture of kids getting shafted by the system."
Obaseki had just returned from a stressful recruiting trip this fall and had been hired by an investment banking firm. He was a senior, five credits away from graduating, and the tracks for the next stage in life had been set into place. Life was good. After dinner with his best friend he stopped at the Thayer BlitzMail terminals to make plans for the night. But then he saw it, an email from his philosophy professor. He had been suspected of plagiarism. The paper that he had stayed up all night writing had been forwarded to Undergraduate Judicial Affairs. The process had been set in motion, and Obaseki would later be suspended for three terms. "I'm thinking 'This can't be happening,'" Obaseki said. "'Oh God, my life is over.'"
In the 2005-2006 academic year, 59 suspension-level cases were heard for academic and conduct violations at the College and 30 cases resulted in suspension. In a separate process, about the same number of students were suspended for failing grades, according to Director of Undergraduate Judicial Affairs April Thompson. According to the numbers, other schools in the Ivy League of comparable size are less eager to impose such harsh sanctions. At Princeton, out of 413 cases tried in the 2004-2005 academic year, only 14 students were suspended. At Brown, only eight out of 317 non-academic cases tried in 2005-2006 resulted in suspension. In response to questions about Dartmouth's seemingly trigger-happy policy on suspensions, Thompson replied, "I have no idea what Princeton or Brown's case load is like. I have no idea about their policies."
Fifteen Dartmouth students of the 30 were suspended for violating the academic honor code, eight of whom were suspended for four terms, and 15 students were suspended for conduct violations such as drunk driving or fighting.
When students are brought under investigation for violations of the academic honor principle or the standards of conduct, they receive a package from Thompson. In many cases, the packages are delivered directly to the students' rooms or placed in the students' Hinman boxes. "The person then has a few days to admit or deny the accusations and provide a statement," Thompson said. If the students admit responsibility then they choose between a one-on-one hearing with a dean or a hearing with the Committee On Standards. When students deny responsibility, they automatically receive a COS hearing.
Thompson herself has no role in the verdicts that are reached, but instead gathers evidence for the hearings to make sure that nothing comes as a surprise. Instead, the verdict power belongs to the three senior deans, acting Dean of College Daniel Nelson, or COS. The COS is made up of six faculty, seven staff and 12 students, but for every individual hearing only two faculty, two students and one administrator are present. Many students, like Obaseki, choose to have a one-on-one hearing with a dean because they feel that it is easier to play upon the sympathies of one person. The downside: only one person is in charge of deciding a student's fate.
When Obaseki first received the fateful news, he read over his paper and realized that in his rush to send it in via BlitzMail, he had forgotten to add in his citations. "It was clear to anyone looking at the paper that it was a mistake," Obaseki said. "I had attributed statements throughout the paper to certain philosophers which clearly showed that I was intending to insert the citations."
According to Thompson, though, "regardless of the intent, a violation of the honor principle is a violation of the honor principle."
Dean Nelson compared unintentional plagiarism to exceeding the speed limit. "The college's book on sources makes it clear that plagiarism is an issue really independent of intention just like exceeding the speed limit is unintentional," Nelson said. "You may not have been intending to exceed the speed limit, but you still did. If you turn in a paper where you unintentionally made citation mistakes this is still an instance of plagiarism." Yet intentionality can potentially play a role in the length of suspension. "If there are two students who have been convicted of plagiarism, and one student's plagiarism was premeditated, the sanction for this individual might look different than a student who made citation mistakes," Nelson said.
For his evidence, Obaseki brought in his outline, notes, sources and printouts. "Along the margins of my notes were marks which indicated exactly where a certain quote or passage was going to be used in the paper," Obaseki said. "The dean who heard my case told me that she was not questioning my integrity and that she wished there were 4,000 kids like me at Dartmouth, but that she was going to have to get me on a technicality. If she was not questioning my integrity, the tenet on which the principle is founded, what was she questioning?"
Cole Springer '09 is also incredulous at the unforgiving nature of the suspension process. At the beginning of his freshman fall, Springer was accused of plagiarizing for incorrectly following the directions in the first of five drafts of a paper. He was suspended for three terms. "The process was extremely unfair," Springer said. "[The assignment] was basically a brainstorm of an eight-page essay. The dean told me that 'intent' did not factor in my current situation [or] the punishment for the case."
Emerson Curry '08 received a one term suspension for a conduct violation that occurred during sophomore summer when he attempted to ignite his lighter without realizing there was a hole in it. Fluid spilled out and the floor of his room lit on fire. Like Obaseki and Springer, Curry chose to do a dean hearing, but like both other men, failed to escape punishment.
Curry said that he felt lucky to get off with one term, considering the suspension lengths for people who had made citation mistakes. Curry finds the fact that Dartmouth doesn't punish as harshly for violations outside of the classroom "kind of ironic," considering that the College prides itself on producing leaders outside of the classroom as well as within.
"Dartmouth always says there is something beyond the academic institution," Curry said. Brittany Henry, who looked at many precedent cases as part of her training for COS, noted the difference in punishment lengths. "I do see a discrepancy between punishments for the academic honor code and conduct violation. Dartmouth's honor code principle is very much a priority here," she said. "If the administration is going to put so much pressure on a student to uphold academic standard, then they should put equal emphasis on the student's conduct."
Audrey Knutson '08 received a one-term conduct violation suspension for three public intoxications. She also chose to have a hearing with a dean. "I wish the dean who had conducted my hearing had listened more," Knutson said, "I feel that there is already a stigma against you when you walk into the hearing. I do not think what I had to say about my specific case was really acknowledged or taken in."
Henry also felt the presumed guilt that Knutson perceived. "The structure of a COS trial is that the defendant gives an opening statement and then the COS panelists ask any questions that they have," Henry said. "The student is allowed to have an advisor present, but the advisor cannot talk to the student and can only write notes. Basically the student is on their own. They are preceded with accusations. It is more like, 'You are guilty, prove us wrong.'"
Bart Van Veghel '06, who had a dean hearing last spring and managed to escape suspension, felt differently about the experience. "Aside from a meeting with April Thompson, this was the first time in the process I didn't feel guilty until proven innocent," Van Veghel said. "[The dean] truly seemed like an impartial third person who would hear the case and then make a decision. Do I think there are Dartmouth students who are currently suspended unjustly? Definitely. But I think that falls more on the rules that the administration is governed by, not the processes of which they carry these rules out."
Julie Clemons, general manager of the Dartmouth Outing Club and a member of COS, also feels that students get a fair say. "If people are very honest in front of the committee and show what they did was wrong and how they are trying to make reparations, then it makes a big difference," she said. "It is how much they are ready to change."
A preponderance of evidence, 51 percent, is necessary to determine a student guilty of the charges in a COS hearing. The number one recommendation from the COS Task Force, a group that was convened by Student Assembly last April with the goal of evaluating COS rules and regulations, was to change Dartmouth's standard of proof to "clear and convincing evidence." According to Adam Shpeen '07, Task Force Chair, "the current standard does not provide students with the procedural safeguard that ensures a correct verdict is reached." Shpeen found the current evidence standards especially alarming in rape cases. "I don't like the idea of an adjudicating committee at this school reaching a decision that might not be reached by the U.S. judicial system," Shpeen said.
Jacob Crumbine '07, a student panelist on COS, thinks that the advising system in preparation for hearings can be improved. Crumbine has often found students unprepared to present their cases. "A lot of students don't realize that we base our decisions solely on the words in the student handbook," Crumbine said. "Students often come into the hearings trying to base their cases on the fact that they are straight A students."
Crumbine acknowledged the vast differences between COS and the U.S. judicial system. "If anything, bringing in a lawyer is going to irritate the COS members. Instead students should prepare with their deans."
To receive his verdict, Obaseki was brought to the office of a dean who had not heard his case. He had never met her before. In the envelope that she handed him was a letter which found him guilty of plagiarism and told him that he was suspended for three terms.
"I went into shock mode," Obaseki said. "I gave the dean a look of incredulity and then left to call my parents and friends." In the envelope there was also a form for reapplication to Dartmouth which noted that students were not guaranteed readmission. Obaseki had 48 hours to pack his bags and leave campus.
Obaseki now makes up a group of students that he refers to as the "disenchanted and disenfranchised." One of the stipulations of suspension is that any classes a student takes outside of Dartmouth during the suspension period cannot count as transfer credits. Knutson complained about the lack of options for suspended students. "When felons get released from jail, the government will find them work," Knutson said. "I had no job or internship. I wasted an entire term."
Ultimately, Obaseki admits that he did make an error. "I made the careless and rushed mistake of forgetting to include my citations. However, to say that such a mistake warrants a year of my life is hard for me to accept," he said. "I have been in love with this school since I first heard about it in high school but I guess what they say is true -- unrequited love is a bitch."