August 12, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Behind Closed Doors: The Issues with Academic Integrity Hearings at Cornell

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We believe that academic integrity at Cornell is important. We also believe that students have the right to learn about academic integrity violations, to have their voices heard during hearings, and to face justice that is fair, consistent and restorative, providing opportunities for growth. Unfortunately, this is far from the reality of the current Academic Integrity Hearing process. 

As student members of Cornell’s Academic Integrity Hearing Boards (AIHB), we are deeply disappointed, both by the hearing process following a professor’s accusation of academic misconduct and by the administration’s lack of response to our serious concerns. 

In the academic integrity process, if a professor finds a student guilty of academic misconduct, there is a preliminary hearing between the student and professor, after which an outcome is decided. The student has the right to appeal the finding of guilt or the penalty imposed to their college’s AIHB. This is where we step in. Here, after hearing both sides, a board of two to three students and two to three faculty members can make recommendations regarding the case, which the professor is generally expected to follow. Despite these clear regulations, the process is ridden with issues.

For starters, as members of the College of Arts and Sciences’ AIHB, we were expected to make recommendations that could potentially influence the trajectory of a student’s life (including expulsion, suspension, and permanent marks on a student’s transcript) –– but were given absolutely no training to do so. We walked into cases not knowing how other similar cases had been adjudicated, or what possible remedies we could recommend. The default has consistently been to refer to the accusing professor’s judgement –– but that in and of itself is inconsistent and unfair. It means that similar violations can be punished vastly differently depending on the class (for example, failing a paper to failing the entire course) and also that the board rarely recommends remedies geared more towards rehabilitation and learning as opposed to solely punitive measures, even if they are more case-appropriate than the professor’s punishment. This detracts from Cornell’s commitment to educate its students and means that the board becomes functionally ineffectual. Furthermore, we have noticed inconsistencies within hearings regarding the role of intention and burden of proof –– meaning that a student could receive a different outcome depending on who happens to be sitting on the board on their given day and what considerations that board gives. These practices also vary across colleges, exacerbating the arbitrariness of the process.

Moreover, we have persistently felt that certain professors on the board have adopted a “guilty until proven innocent” mentality. Because of this, by the time that the board votes, members who would otherwise have dissented are either intimidated into siding with the majority or feel that their dissenting vote will be ineffectual because the board does not tell the accused student whether the vote was unanimous or split in some way. Disclosing voting statistics would provide external oversight, urging members to vote their conscience, and would also allow accused students to incorporate the existence of dissenting voices into further appeals or into explanations for graduate school applications. When we urged the Arts and Sciences Board to change this policy, after months of radio silence they decided that the board could decide whether or not to declare votes on a hearing-by-hearing basis, continuing the inconsistencies that are characteristic of this process––and forcing students on the board to campaign the other members to support disclosure of voting numbers, not always successfully. In an environment with no standardized procedure, transparency or oversight, and in which members are sworn to secrecy, individual biases can easily translate into discrimination in how different students are treated –– and this is something we cannot continue to allow.

Further, we are disheartened by the lack of active outreach and education on the issue of academic integrity within the Cornell space. A violation, even an accidental one, can have serious consequences for a student. Last fall, in order to address these issues, we wrote a detailed list of concerns and made four urgent recommendations to the faculty senate regarding procedural reforms. First, a training program for new board members, both students and faculty, that specifies how hearings are run, the total range of remedies available and case studies to demonstrate the totality of the process and important considerations of precedent. This recommendation would help to better equip board members and standardize the case-outcomes for students with similar violations. Second, a mandate for the board’s initial votes to occur anonymously in order to prevent majoritarian sway and for voting numbers to be made available to the accused student in order to allow them to better advocate for themselves. Third, we recommended a system for comprehensive internal record keeping so that patterns (e.g. are minority students being treated differently; are professors consistently voting to uphold punishments; etc.) can be identified and future improvements can be made. The general lack of racial diversity on the board makes these types of checks even more crucial. And fourth, we asked Cornell to endorse an Academic Integrity Peer Education Program. Inspired by the one at the University of California San Diego, responsibilities of a peer education program would include academic integrity presentations in classes explaining common violations, advisory services for students facing academic integrity violations, and ad-hoc student support around academic integrity policy. The only mechanism at the moment is the Judicial Codes Counselor, which we believe is not sufficient in providing the course-specific advice and support that an accused student often needs. This organization would not only help to uphold a culture of integrity on campus through active guidance, but it would also allow students who have been accused in the past to become advisors to their fellow students, providing opportunities to demonstrate growth and development. We believe restorative justice mechanisms such as this one should be an important part of a process which, thus far, has mainly been retributive.

Unfortunately, our demands have been sidelined by the faculty senate. While we receive the occasional email that our matter will be voted on or that we will hear news “today,” it has now been over a semester and we have not heard anything. Our requests to receive the names of student representatives on other boards in order to hear their experiences have either been ignored or explicitly denied, both by the Arts and Sciences Board as well as the faculty senate. This gives us the impression that our concerns and demands are not being taken seriously by a change-resistant administration –– despite the fact that this process can have long-term negative consequences for a student’s life.

As a top-tier academic institution, instead of arbitrary punishments shouldn’t we strive for fair and consistent processes that prioritize learning, ensuring a long-term understanding and commitment to our values? We hope that by informing the greater student body about these issues, the administration will be encouraged to investigate and implement improvements to the process allowing for a fair, accessible and transparent process for all. 

Sukhmani Kaur ’21 and Juliana Clejan ’21 are alumnae of the College of Arts & Sciences where they served as elected student members of the College of Arts & Sciences’ Academic Integrity Hearing Board. Atif Akhter ’22 is a senior in the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences where he serves as an elected student member of the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences’ Academic Integrity Hearing Board. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.