April 16, 2003

Colleges Monitor Students' Academics

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Freshmen arrive at Cornell toting their high school straight As. Yet, if those As start to morph into letters further down the alphabet, Cornell’s colleges are quick to remind students to perform up to academic expectations. Still, in an academic atmosphere as intense as Cornell’s, academic advising officials say academic actions are relatively low.

Problems with academics can be split into two categories: academic performance and academic integrity. Performance has only to do with academic standing (the grades students receive in classes and credit hour requirements), while integrity typically involves issues such as plagiarism and cheating.

Neither academic performance nor academic integrity policies are fully centralized across the University. Although the Code of Academic Integrity is distributed to each of the seven colleges, it is “up to the college to decide how to implement, or even op-out of [using] the code,” said Judicial Codes Counselor Emanuel Tsourounis law.

Changes in content or procedure to the code need only to be submitted to the dean of the faculty, Tsourounis said. Tsourounis is the only individual outside of the Dean of the Faculty who ever sees cases of academic integrity from all seven colleges.

Conversely, there is no University document that suggests academic performance regulations. However, there are many similar trends among the colleges in terms of the minimum acceptable performance. Common across most colleges is the minimum of 12 credit hours to be taken each semester and a grade point average (GPA) of at least a 2.0.

Furthermore, similar early intervention policies are in place to help students who appear to be in trouble academically.

Because of the huge decentralization of academic integrity procedures, following a uniform and systematic course of action can be difficult.

Tsourounis also described the Code of Academic Integrity itself to be somewhat vague. According to Tsourounis, it gives faculty members lots of “discretion and deference” in procedures, so much that there are “some findings of guilt that are, I think, completely unwarranted.”

When a professor suspects a student of an academic integrity violation, the student, professor and an independent witness will meet. If following the outcome of this meeting an informal agreement cannot be reached, that student then has the opportunity to respond in a primary hearing during which the student can call on the Judicial Codes Counselor for guidance and support. After the hearing the hearing board decides based on “clear and convincing evidence”, which Tsourounis equates with a 75% belief that the accusation is valid.

Although the professor can only impose a lesser grade or fail the student from that particular class, the hearing board can make a recommendation to the dean to put a notation on the transcript or to suspend a student. Tsourounis was unable to quote the exact numbers of students who were suspended based on academic integrity, but he did say that he was “surprised at the numbers of students who have been expelled or suspended for academic integrity issues.”

He believes that in many of these cases the students “may not have intended to violate the code. Since it’s not centralized, no one can tell you you can’t [suspend a student].”

Other academic integrity issues deal with cases where there can be no direct meeting with a professor because they occurred outside the classroom setting. Examples of this may be if a student forged an advisors signature on an add/drop form, or if a school feels that you have misrepresented it publicly. In these instances, Tsourounis said that cases go directly to a hearing board.

Academic performance policies are much more structured. A worthwhile comparison can be made between the academic performance policies of the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering. Arts and Sciences Dean Ken Gabard explains that although more lenience is given to first year students, “even for all four years it is still a fairly liberal system.” He further emphasized that the college wants to encourage exploration in class choice and therefore does not want to enforce extremely strict grade requirements.

In contrast, Associate Director of Engineering Advising Kerwin-Michael Smith explained that the engineering school has a much more stringent policy towards academic slips partially because of its nature as a professional program. For example, a solid understanding of math is essential in pursuing an engineering degree and the engineering policy reflects this: if a student receives a C- or lower in any Math class, the student has one semester to improve upon the grade or they may be asked to withdraw from the college.

A sample course of events for a student doing poorly in the College Arts and Sciences could be as follows. If a student falls below 12 credit hours or receives either two Ds or one F, and that student has no previous history of poor performance, then that student will receive a warning letter. After receiving a Dean’s warning the student’s record will go before the Academic records committee (ARC). The ARC can then issue a stricter warning or impose a required leave of absence from Cornell.

Even in these cases, however, it is “always assumed that the student is coming back,” Gabard said. If upon return, a student “is truly just having a disastrous time at Cornell, they could be dismissed from the University. But it takes a lot,” Gabard said.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) also follows a similar system of opportunity to improve, said one CALS student who wished to remain anonymous. After a freshman year with a GPA that hovered around a 2.0, and failing one class second semester, he was placed on academic probation. After not fulfilling the requirements of the probation (which were essentially those required to remain in good standing) the student was given a leave of absence, at the end of which he returned on final term academic probation. During the time off he remained an extramural student at Cornell, taking less than 12 credits. The student’s return proved to be no more of a success and he was eventually expelled from the college, even after switching from a nutrition major to general studies, which has fewer requirements.

He said is currently “fighting the system again,” and trying to regain admittance into the arts college so that the remaining 24 credits towards the degree can be completed. The student said that there was about a 50 percent chance of getting readmitted.

Associate Dean for Undergraduate Admissions and Education and Chair of the Educational Policy and Academic Records Committees (ARC) for Arts and Sciences Lynne S. Abel spoke on the numbers of students who are reviewed for academic standing.

“Remembering that there are about 4,000 students in the College [of Arts and Sciences], the ARC usually reviews between 120 and 160 records at the end of each term — more in the fall than in the spring, when seniors have graduated. Of these, once the committee has learned the full story, usually between 25 and 35 (i.e. less than one per cent of the student body) are required to take a leave. The ARC dismisses only a handful of students — from 2 to 9 in each of the last 8 semesters,” Abel said in an e-mail.

With the exception of the math requirement, the engineering school seems to follow a similar pattern of action for its students who have yet to join a specific field. The Academic Standards, Petitions and Credits Committee (ASPAC) serves a similar function to that of arts’ ARC. Once students have entered into a field of study, however, they follow the guidelines imposed by that field. According to Smith, each field can vary, but mini
mum requirements for credit hours can be increased, as well as minimum GPA. Smith also approximated that of the 2,800 Engineering students, about 10 were required to take a leave of absence in the Fall ’02 semester.

For both academic integrity and academic performance students receive highly individualized programs of support or penalty. Gabard and Smith both emphasized the need for personal considerations when addressing a problem with grades. For students charged with academic integrity infractions most of the considerations are made with an individual professor, and individual circumstances are often apparent.

For the students who end up struggling academically, it most often is for personal reasons. The expelled CALS student explained that now he has become a “completely sober person,” alluding problems with drug and alcohol abuse that had kept him from studying and attending class.

Abel also commented on the reasons that most students seem are forced to withdraw from Cornell.

“Having advised A&S students for almost 30 years, I can say that I have met only one student who has persuaded me that he was working as hard and efficiently as possible and simply couldn’t do Cornell work,” she said.

Archived article by Liz Goulding