I am currently teaching an upper level course, and have caught a student plagiarizing this semester. This course is required by our department for a degree. I have strict policy on my syllabus that states plagiarism will result in failing the course, a judicial review incident report, and refusing to accept them as part of future cohorts. Next semester however, I am the only instructor for this course, and possibly again for the following Spring.

I've been pushing my department to add more instructors, as I don't like being in a position where students who are incompatible with my teaching style are forced to take me over and over again, but they are having a difficult time finding someone.

Personally I do not want the student in my class again. They have been nothing but trouble the entire semester. From my interactions with the student, they don't have the required prerequisites at anywhere near a passable level, they are disruptive during class, and I had an inkling that they were trying to cheat off their neighbor during examinations. (I had ensured that every other test was different so I didn't pursue this)

Should I just grit my teeth and waive this policy since they have no other path to graduation?

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    Is it even in your power to refuse them as part of future cohorts? Was this ever confirmed / challenged by your department?
    – mirrormere
    Apr 20, 2020 at 10:21
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    Very interesting question. How did you come to have this policy? Apr 20, 2020 at 12:22
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    Since there are a bunch of answers here telling you your policy is invalid, maybe you should edit the question to let us know what your university thinks about that? Apr 20, 2020 at 23:32
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    they don't have the required prerequisites at anywhere near a passable level — This seems like a much more actionable attribute than their past dishonesty. Allowing a student to take a class that they are certain to fail (on the merits, not because of dishonesty) is arguably unethical. I strongly recommend a conversation with the department chair; bring your evidence that the student is unprepared.
    – JeffE
    Apr 21, 2020 at 7:53
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    @JBentley Not really. If a student that doesn't understand functions, can't work with basic polynomials and never saw a limit comes take a functional analysis course the fact they fail has little to do with the course. I personally think it's the students problem and not the instructors but that's not the general approach in the US. Generally students are viewed as children in most ways instead of adults. A thing I've always felt incredibly weird considering that at the same time the same society has no trouble sending them do die in wars on foreign soil.
    – DRF
    Apr 21, 2020 at 17:26

9 Answers 9


It's not up to you

It's reasonable for an instructor and syllabus to specify what happens in that course in certain circumstances. However, going beyond your particular course (including future semesters of it), any further academic punishments for plagiarism or cheating, including being restricted from taking or retaking certain courses, are up to the wider department, faculty, study program, or however your institution organizes things. There should be a universal (not made by and for a single course and instructor) policy on what are the wider consequences for certain acts of plagiarism. Perhaps that policy prescribes that being forbidden to retake that course (or some time limit) is an appropriate punishment, in which case your actions are valid. But if it does not prescribe that students will be prevented from taking future courses, then it's not up to the course syllabus or the instructor to unilaterally decide whether the student is eligible or not.

Note that I'm not saying that you should waive the policy just because it disrupts the path to graduation - there certainly can be academic dishonesty policies that may prevent students from graduating in case of plagiarism. But the question does not mention any specific wider policies, and if it eventually does come to a ad-hoc decision regarding a particular student, that still would not be your decision to make, this should be escalated to your superiors.


Maybe it’s worth remembering that “your class” is not actually “your” class. It is a university class that you were assigned to teach, and it is your job to teach it to whoever the university decided is authorized to enroll in it.

Professors sometimes have discretion to let people into a class when they lack some of the formal prerequisites. But there isn’t a university on Earth where a professor has blanket authority to prevent a student in good standing (assuming they have the formal prerequisites) from taking “their” class. A university could not function if it allowed professors such freedom.

I have strict policy on my syllabus that states plagiarism will result in failing the course, a judicial review incident report, and refusing to accept them as part of future cohorts.

This policy is not enforceable. You are overstepping your authority.

Personally I do not want the student in my class again.

We all have things that we “personally do not want”. That is completely reasonable. But having a job means you sometimes have to do things that you don’t want to.

Should I just grit my teeth ...

Probably. That is a good way to vent frustration about something you’re unhappy about.

... and waive this policy ...

Since the policy is not enforceable, it is meaningless to ask whether you should waive it. You not only should let the student into the class; you simply have no choice in the matter.

Is it ethical to refuse enrollment of a previously dishonest student if you are the sole instructor for a required course?

The ethics question is a red herring. Since you’re not allowed to refuse the student’s enrollment, it is meaningless to ask whether such an action is ethical.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Apr 23, 2020 at 7:56
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    “student in good standing” — but the student is allegedly not in good standing. They are apparently guilty of serious academic misconduct. Does this fact not negate this entire part of your answer? Apr 23, 2020 at 10:52
  • Cleared more comments due to flags.
    – eykanal
    Apr 23, 2020 at 14:17

To not allow a student to take a course (specially if it is a required course) is the same as not allowing to graduate. And that is definitely a decision reserved for higher powers, as it is the same as expulsion.

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    I don't think this argument is sound. There are cases where giving a student an F is the same as not allowing the student to graduate, but I don't think you would say that the decision to give an F is "reserved for higher powers".
    – ruakh
    Apr 20, 2020 at 20:37
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    @ruakh But that's not his decision; it's fundamentally up to the student (or at least down to how able he is) rather than his personal choice as a lecturer. So at least it's meritocratic, in theory. I mean, with one student, the he the lecturer could set the grade boundaries somewhat arbitrarily (assuming the marking is objective), but then it's pretty clear in most cases whether the lecturer is being spiteful in his choice of grade boundaries. So that analogy doesn't really work, for me.
    – Noldorin
    Apr 20, 2020 at 21:07
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    @Noldorin: The OP's course has a "strict policy", noted in the syllabus, whereby plagiarism results in both an F and a ban on taking further courses from this instructor. So in that respect they are both the result of applying the instructor's rules to the student's actions. (To be clear: I'm not arguing that the OP has a right to ban this student, either ethically or officially or in practice. But the OP is asking whether (s)he has this right, and this answer's argument to the contrary only works if you think that the OP doesn't even have the right to fail this student.)
    – ruakh
    Apr 20, 2020 at 21:19
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    @ruakh That's the policy he sets though. It's not university policy, so at the end of the day (and rightly) he has to do what the university says -- it's not enforceable. Anyway, I still think you're missing the point that grading is meant to be done according to the student's answers, which is within the student's control, whereas refusing to admit the student to his course would be outside of the student's control.
    – Noldorin
    Apr 20, 2020 at 22:06
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    I'm just elaborating on the likely reasoning behind this answer, and trying to show how the analogy you've suggested (while I see where you're coming from) is not the most apt... that is, there's only a surface parallel between failing a student and not allowing a student to take a course to begin with. Unless, of course, the motivation is spite, which I think is another matter entirely. We can all likely agree that whether you like a student taking your course or not, once he's on it, failing him on the basis of past transgressions would be unethical. Anyway, agree to disagree on the above.
    – Noldorin
    Apr 20, 2020 at 22:39

In my view, preventing a student from graduating is not ethical when done by yourself (instead of when mandated by the university administration, dean etc.) If you do believe that the student should not take your course, talk to your superior (dean etc). Maybe they find a solution (like the student taking another course), maybe they tell you that you have to take the student, maybe they are allowed to remove the student from the programm alltogether, maybe they pay a mediator who mediates between the two of you. While I do understand your policy, it seens slighly unreasonable to me for exactly this reason (and the case that more profs have this policy and students could take no course). Have you talked to your superiours if this polciy is allowed?


If your student had got caught stealing money from a neighbour, had been sent to jail, served their sentence, and now returned to take the course again, would you accept them? Or would you say that a convicted criminal has no right to finish a university course?

And if you had been that neighbour, that obviously might affect your decision, but should it? Would it be ethical?

That’s basically your decision. Do you think this person should never, ever be allowed to get a degree? The fact that they were caught in your course earlier should not make a difference.

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    Rhetorical questions are not answers. Also, a better metaphor would be: I lent someone money and they did not pay me back as agreed. Now they need money for an important purpose. I must decide if I will lend money to them again. Apr 20, 2020 at 23:38
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: your metaphor would be accurate if you were the teller at the bank. And no, it's not up to the teller to decide not to give money or not to a client in good standing. Apr 21, 2020 at 1:42
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    @AnonymousPhysicist Since we're bringing money into the equation, keep in mind that the student has likely already spent a considerable sum of it for their education, even if they're going about receiving that education in an extremely poor way. The student is, of course, not buying a diploma unless they earn it, but the student is buying a fair chance at one, and denying that chance requires more fairness than this decision implies. If the student is going to have no real path to graduation, there's a university process to follow to produce that outcome. Apr 21, 2020 at 4:06

No, holding a grudge against a student isn't ethical. The job is to help the students. Much of that is collective -- avoiding disruptions of class time, and making an example out of students who break the rules -- but it's also individual. The student failed the class, and that's that. If they retake, it's your job to see how they can pass this time.

You don't think the student has the background to pass? Check on that. Maybe they got a D- on some earlier crucial class and should retake it. Talk to the advisor (or other instructors, depending on how large the program is). Otherwise, the student may be happy to have a conversation about how they can keep their head down the next time and pass with a C-. They may be just as apprehensive that you're the only person teaching it. Maybe encourage them to get a study partner. Any way it goes, it's not a contest -- you're an instructor doing your job, and they're a student.

The rule about not allowing plagiarists(?) to take the class from you again -- that's showmanship, "plagiarism is so bad I can't even stand to look at you any more!" But lesser things can get the job done -- often being written up and going to the Dean is scary enough.

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    There's nothing in the question about a grudge or the student's background. Apr 20, 2020 at 23:39
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    "Personally I do not want the student in my class again" -- grudge seems like a good word for making it personal, carrying over feelings over something which has been resolved. And "they don't have the required prerequisites". They probably have the prereq courses, but don't understand them. The phrase for that is "lacking background", right? Apr 21, 2020 at 1:43
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    Not wanting a student because they're disruptive is not having a grudge. It can be a sign of a grudge (if that disruptiveness exists just in the professor's mind), obviously; I see some signs of that, but then the one sign against that assumption is that the professor asked here.
    – toolforger
    Apr 22, 2020 at 6:27
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    +1 for mentioning the obligation to students individually.
    – einpoklum
    Apr 22, 2020 at 14:23

To add to a somewhat full discussion, my experience on Academic Honesty Boards has taught me that the process of sanction for academic dishonesty is, in part, to encourage students to learn from their mistakes.

There are, of course, situations where we find, after repeated offenses, that there are students who don't learn from such mistakes, and these students are usually separated from the university to keep our academic playing field level and to maintain the integrity and reputation of our degree.

As a professor who taught a student in one previous course, you are not in a situation where you can make that determination, so you should not be allowed to. A panel with access to that student's full history on dishonesty findings is. Further, the current situation is such that you are (or at least consider yourself to be) in a situation where, by denying the student access to your course, you can separate that student (or delay the student) from a degree. You don't have the knowledge you need to justify this, and you should not do this.

Now, you'll be getting a second look at that student. This is awkward for you, and awkward for the student. There's no reason to make believe the student has no history with you, but also no reason to carry over the previous incident as a negative grade for the student on entering the course. I suggest a very early meeting with the student, with as friendly a tone as you can manage, to help lay out expectations for the coming course, and to encourage the student to come to you for clarification on honesty before handing in assignments, if the student remains unclear. I suspect that if you don't do this, you will later wish you did.


Just to introduce a twist in the scenario: Suppose the student, instead of plagiarism, had commited repeated unwanted sexual advances on you (the teacher); wouldn't you be justified in not wanting that student anywhere near you again? You essentially say that, for you, plagiarism is a grave enough offence that you also don't want anything to do with the student again, and you even state so explicitly in your course syllabus which is available for every student's perusal from before classes start.

The way i see it, you're fully entitled to make that qualification (regarding the severity of plagiarism, with which i agree), and you shouldn't let the university override you on this, much as you wouldn't if they tried to force you to accept a sexual harasser into your class. Regarding the lack of alternatives for the student, that's not your problem: What if you fell ill and couldn't teach? Would the university not have to provide accordingly? As you put it, there should be 'redundant' faculty in any case, for various reasons, and your present issue is not a minor one.

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    The problem with this analogy is that the university as the professor’s employer is required by law to protect the professor from sexual harassment. But it is not required, either by law or ethically, to protect him from the supposed mental stress of contact with plagiarizing students. So while the professor would indeed be justified in refusing to teach someone who sexually harassed them, that doesn’t mean what you claim it means for the current situation.
    – Dan Romik
    Apr 23, 2020 at 8:15

I have strict policy on my syllabus that states plagiarism will result in ... refusing to accept them as part of future cohorts.

The other answers seem to mostly comment on the ethics of this policy. But my interpretation of the question is, what is the ethical thing to do assuming you have established the policy in your syllabus? I also assume you are not breaking any other rules or laws, because I don't know where you are located.

The most common advice in recent years is that the syllabus is a contract between all the students and the instructor. Therefore, you must follow the syllabus and refuse the student future enrollment. The syllabus could be overridden by university policy, but not by your discretion. We do not know that policy. Any time you use discretion, instead of following the syllabus, it could create the appearance of discrimination or unfairness.

That said, this is a weird policy to have in your syllabus, and you should definitely discuss the situation with your chair or dean.

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    Some contracts are actually illegal. "Enforcing" an illegal contract is also illegal. This is poor advice that could get the OP in trouble. A professor isn't a king. "L'course, c'est moi".
    – Buffy
    Apr 20, 2020 at 12:53
  • @Buffy Question isn't about the validity of the policy. It's about the validity of violating the policy. See my edit. Apr 20, 2020 at 23:26
  • Also, I'd guess the OP is potentially in trouble no matter what they do. Apr 20, 2020 at 23:27
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    "A review of the legal precedents reveals that syllabi are not considered contracts because the courts refuse thus far to recognize educational malpractice or breach of contract as a cause of action." Rumore, et. al. 2016: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5289733 Apr 21, 2020 at 1:49
  • @DanielR.Collins Your own reference says "For several decades the literature has referred to syllabi as legal documents and/or contracts between students and professors" and "Syllabi do, however, represent a triggering agent for instructional dissent and grade appeals, may be binding in student appeal proceedings, and are used in judicial hearings." My answers are based on my understanding of academia, not my understanding of law. What courts think isn't necessarily most important. Apr 21, 2020 at 2:03

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