March 9, 2010

Letter to the Editor: Plagiarism code allows faculty more freedom

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To the Editor:

Re: “Confronting Plagiarism,” Opinion, March 9

As Judicial Codes Counselor, and advocate for students charged with Academic Integrity violations, I would like to respond to this recent  Sun guest column.

Certainly, many students charged with A.I. violations would agree with Ms. Mitnano’s assessment that the current system can be “unreasonable.” Accused students generally point to the vagueness of the A.I. Code as the primary problem with the system. However, the Code’s vagueness (I often find myself advising students) allows for teaching styles and requirements that vary from class to class and college to college.

The Code puts a burden on the teaching faculty to communicate clearly (in writing) to their students how the Code will apply in their classes. While this may contribute to the “heavy weight” placed on junior faculty and departments, the weight is rightly placed. It should be up to faculty to set the boundaries for their classes and to enforce those boundaries when they are breached; faculty should also be free to address those breaches as they see fit (subject to departmental policies). While I agree that some of the broader issues may need to be addressed at a more general level, the reality is that different classes (and professors) demand different standards and it must be the professors who enforce those standards.

I whole-heartedly agree that the system should be “calibrated” to distinguish between different violations and I believe that, by and large, it is. In my experience the “calibration” varies college to college, with some colleges preferring to deal with minor transgressions informally and other colleges dealing with any alleged offense, no matter how minor, with the upmost formality and process. While these differences in enforcement can cause confusion and heartache for accused students, if faculty express their individual requirements and policies clearly then much of the confusion can be avoided.

I agree that a comprehensive approach on the faculty side would create a system that is fairer and more predictable for both faculty and students. However, I believe that a more specific and broadly applied set of “rules of the academic road” could hinder the system and the teaching mission of the University. Teaching faculty must bear the burden of setting standards in their classrooms, communicating those standards clearly to their students, and enforcing those standards fairly and appropriately.

James L. Saeli ’10, judicial codes counselor