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I sit on my department's academic misconduct committee. When students are suspected of academic misconduct they are invited to a meeting with the academic misconduct committee. The university polices are pretty clear that students not only can, but should, have an advocate attend the meeting. The policy also states that the advocate cannot be a lawyer providing legal representation, but can be a friend/family member who happens to be a lawyer. The university student services provides an advocates if students request it. At our last meeting we had a case of suspect collusion by two students. Both students had been assigned the same university advocate.

These collusion type meetings tend to be messy and involve bringing one student in and hearing that side of the story, sending that student out and bringing the other student in and hearing the other side of the story, and then often iterating a number of times. We attempt to keep the students isolated so they do not hear each other's side of the story. In the case of the same advocate representing both students there is obviously a confidentiality issue.

Based on the evidence we had it was clear student A had copied/worked with student B and produced a "joint work product" and turned it as her own. This expressly prohibited and constitutes academic misconduct. We did not have evidence that student B had knowingly colluded with student A and therefore were going to let student B off.

We called student B and the advocate in for a final meeting and began explaining to the student that they had not done anything wrong and no penalty would be applied, when the advocate proverbially threw student B under the bus and said that student B had colluded with student A. The end result was that both student A and student B were penalized. It is not clear if we applied a lighter penalty to student A because of admission of wrong doing by student B. I walked away from the incident feeling dirty.

We have not referred the case to the central university committee because of "procedural irregularities" because the central committee is consistently harsher than us and we are confident the central committee would have penalized both students (even without the admission of student B) harsher than we did. Should that matter or should we just report it to the central committee?

This incident has raised a number of related questions for me. Should the advocate be reported? Do we need to convince the university to change its advocacy policies for claims of joint work? Is there a fundamental conflict of interest of the university advocate and should students be encouraged to get their own independent advocate?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 20 down vote accepted

It seems to be that the overall process is working well. The problem is that Student B was denied the opportunity to have an advocate truly being a proper advocate.

In absence of any university regulations which require you to bump it up higher, I would recommend handling it locally if you can. There seems not benefit to engage higher ups if not needed.

I would, however, have someone examine the entire advocacy system used. The fact that two students were given the same advocate on a case where they are basically claimant and defendant comes off as wildly unfair. Of course, the advocate is not a lawyer but still, the system simply should never allow that to happen. When you saw it happened, it would have been better (if it is allowed) to stop the proceeding immediately and sort out the advocacy issue.

In short, the problem is with the advocacy system, perhaps not with the advocate. Someone should dig into and fix that so that such problems never happen in the future.

As for the current two students, if Student B (not the advocate) did admit, then it seems clear that blame should be shared (it was not theft but rather collusion).

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This may be a bit over the top, but I think it's pretty unethical to have one advocate represent two students who may be in opposition to each other. US states, at the very least, have ethical rules for attorneys that are designed to prevent this sort of thing and are taken pretty seriously. The fact that your University has its own procedures for dealing with academic misconduct that attempt to mimic the legal system (a "trial", "advocates", etc) without some of those ethical safeguards is troubling.

Without discussing the case at hand, I would recommend raising the issue up through the chain of command or committees that sets the rules for these proceedings. The process clearly needs to change. If your school is a state entity in the US, it has left itself open to lawsuits claiming lack of due process. If it is a private school in the US, it may also open itself to legal claims of another nature.

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Indeed, the only way forward I can see that doesn't have significant legal implications would be be retract all decisions made by the first committee and rerun it with all new staff. –  Richard Tingle Jun 28 at 19:28

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