Imagine an academic institution where a student caught cheating on his assignments, twice in a row, not only gets away with the offense, but is rewarded for it. Now imagine that the professor who raises attention to this breach of regulations is reprimanded and then secretly investigated. What if that institution were not a mail order degree college but considered the top Canadian university for the past three years? And what if the chancellor of that university was widely regarded as the individual at the fore of stamping out cheating in the Olympics? Welcome to McGill.
When I joined the McGill faculty in 1997, I did so as a proud new hire of a top Canadian university. In my first year, however, I was shocked by the handling of a case of plagiarism in my Operating Systems class. Two students, who were about to fail the course, stole the assignment of a third student, passing it off as their own work. Rather than face disciplinary procedures, the two were withdrawn from the course without penalty, ironically, by the same administrator instrumental in developing the Faculty of Engineering's Code of Ethics or Blueprint. This lax attitude toward violations of academic integrity seemed completely at odds with the standards I expected of a respected university. However, as a then-untenured professor, I expressed my concern with the process, and beyond that, kept my mouth shut.
Then, in 2004, and over my protest, the former Dean of Engineering overrode my grading scale and raised the letter grades for two graduate students in my Artificial Intelligence class, awarding them higher marks than were given to undergraduate students with the same numerical score.
However, what happened in 2007 in the same class was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. This course requires students to complete three individual assignments and one group project. Two students plagiarised by sharing program code for two successive assignments, collectively worth 30% of their final grade. The university administration continues to insist that "they didn't plagiarize... they were exonerated." (Yeah... right.) Here's our Department's definition of plagiarism (scrubbed from our web server, but fortunately preserved by the web archive):
If any part of a document you submit for credit towards your degree is not entirely your own work and you do not make it clear in the document that this is the case, then you have committed plagiarism and, if discovered, will be punished.
In one of these assignments, the plagiarism was indisputable -- even to someone not familiar with computer code.
Every piece of computer code submitted by other students in the class was entirely different. Even worse, one of the two submissions also contained an unintentional overwriting operation in the pre-processing of data (that had been commented out of the other student's code), and thus, produced corrupt data files, which were given inconsistent names from those expected by the actual assignment code. In short, the (modified version of the) code submitted could not possibly execute, and could not produce the output data submitted by the student. This goes beyond plagiarism, but constitutes scientific misconduct.
Considering the assignments as completed honestly and ignoring plagiarism, as I was asked to do by the administration, one of the students received an overall grade of 43%, failed the final examination, and failed the course. However, despite broken promises by a senior administrator of my department (Electrical and Computer Engineering), after the student threatened to sue the university over his grade, he was rewarded as follows:
- one faculty administrator raised the final examination mark 13% on a re-read, but refused to explain where these additional marks were warranted, and
- raised the mark on one of the plagiarized assignments by considering computer code that was not relevant to the assignment's grading scheme, while admitting to "some uneasiness at the time, as the submitted work was quite similar to the work of [the second student]. This similarity was almost complete in the Matlab part of the work, but less so in the data generation code" and agreeing that "Obviously the overall program did not work properly as submitted" (The same administrator is offended that I would call into his question his own integrity.) while
- another faculty administrator removed a penalty for late submission on one of the assignments.
These actions collectively raised the student's grade to 50% (or more) for a 'D' letter grade (marginal pass). Hence the "D-grading McGill" name of this website.
Both during and in the aftermath of these events, I attempted to raise attention to the problems I was encountering, as a professor attempting to uphold basic standards of academic integrity. I spoke with my departmental colleagues, I contacted my department chair, Associate Deans and the Dean of Engineering, the Dean of Students, the Deputy Provost for Student Life and Learning, and eventually, the Provost, of whom I requested the institution of four preventative measures to avoid a potential recurrence. These entailed both closing the feedback loop and requiring accountability for decisions, as follows:
- Mandating that the course instructor is kept informed of the outcome of each stage of the disciplinary process in a timely manner and is granted the right to participate in every stage of the process, including the initial "private interview" noted in Article 49 of the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures (Chapter 3 of the Handbook on Student Rights and Responsibilities),
- instituting a formal mechanism whereby Associate Deans or Deans, as disciplinary officers, are accountable for decisions to exonerate a student of an academic offense,
- prohibiting the use of pressure by Associate Chairs, Chairs, Associate Deans, and Deans, to coerce an instructor to raise a student's grade simply to allow the student to graduate, and
- publishing explicit guidelines as to the rights of administrative officers to obtain access to a faculty member's private computer files, whether stored on a McGill computer system or on a backup archive, and indicating the right of the faculty member to be informed of such access.
At every stage, I was either given the run-around, brush-off, lied to, patronized, or stonewalled, in the hopes that I would keep quiet and let this matter die. At a later point, a senior administrator in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering attempted to silence me.
I would have preferred to see these concerns addressed internally, and indeed, spared little effort to communicate with every level within McGill, hoping the university administration would demonstrate some integrity. Sadly, their refusal to treat these matters seriously compelled me to speak out. When I contacted the media about the most recent incident, rather than give me an opportunity to explain my concerns to him first-hand, a senior administrator of the Faculty of Engineering first called me to a disciplinary meeting and subsequently formally reprimanded me for an inadvertent breach of university regulations.
It was not until a few months later that the university finally approved a policy on Safe Disclosure (whistleblowing), in theory, to provide individuals such as myself protection from reprisals. However, given that the university office to whom whisteblowing reports are supposed to be filed simply referred me back to the original administrators who had deliberately turned a deaf ear to my appeals, I have little confidence that the situation would be any different if the same events transpired today.
When that same Faculty of Engineering administrator was contacted by a second reporter for an interview to discuss my allegations, he learned that I had communicated a summary of these events to the reporter. Again, rather than give me an opportunity to explain my concerns to him first-hand or ask me for a copy of this correspondence, he simply ordered my systems manager to retrieve the contents of the communication from backup tapes and turn these over, all in total secrecy, even from the systems manager's own director. When some concern was expressed with the process (not to mention that the systems manager's salary is being paid by tax dollars to support research projects, rather than to serve the whims of a petty administrator intent on showing who's boss) the administrator threatened disciplinary action if the systems manager did not comply immediately. A grievance committee later decided that these actions of the administrator were completely justified and consistent with McGill policy, a decision the Principal subsequently endorsed as her own.
First, it sends some chilling messages to faculty:
- in a clear-cut case of plagiarism, if you follow the university regulations by reporting these to the relevant faculty administrator, the students may face no consequences, or in fact, be rewarded (no wonder so many colleagues ignore the regulations)
- students have greater rights than are accorded to professors
- the university administration operates non-transparently and excludes faculty from its decision-making processes
- private computer files can be accessed not only "at will" by the administration, but in total secrecy, with no notice provided after the fact
Second, it conveys rather disturbing messages to students:
- all students are not treated equally
- threats against faculty and the administration can be highly effective
- university policy regarding plagiarism is not enforced, at least not consistently
- Codes of Ethics, such as those taught in medicine and engineering, are not practiced by the academic institution itself
Third, it devalues the McGill degree:
- students might be passing courses or obtaining higher marks than are otherwise warranted because professors don't want the trouble of defending their assessments of a low (or failing) grade
- as the university continues catering obsequiously to its weakest students, those of us who (attempt to) maintain high standards of grading are witnessing longer lines of increasingly belligerent students at the end of term, all demanding higher marks; instructors wishing to avoid extending their semester with the additional workload that ensues are encouraged to inflate grades accordingly
- the administration, rather than course instructors, are the actual deciders of student grades
- students who cheat, even if caught, may be at an advantage in terms of grades compared to peers who do their work honestly
- in turns, McGill graduates are at risk of being perceived as unreliable by possible employers -- see this note as an example
Fourth, it poses a very real risk to companies who trust our evaluation process when hiring our graduates, and ultimately, this risk is passed on to society:
- a McGill graduate may appear, on paper, to posess the skills necessary to accomplish a particular task, for example, designing a computer component for an aircraft flight control system or a medical diagnostics system, when in fact, the transcript contains "pass" (or otherwise inflated) grades for courses where the student did not demonstrate a passing knowledge of the associated material
- this, in turn, potentially leads to higher costs for the companies in terms of additional training time, debugging of computer systems, re-design of faulty systems, or new hiring expenses; these added costs reduce competitiveness
- in the most serious of consequences, improper certification of our engineers can cost lives (a notable example as it involved software errors introduced by a single programmer working for a major Canadian employer)
The problem perhaps begins with the university's current policies. These allow a single individual, a faculty administrator, to dismiss a charge of plagiarism after a private meeting with the student. The professor, nominally responsible for assessing student work in the course, is excluded from this meeting, and generally not informed of the outcome. Ironically, I was recently called as an expert witness in a Quebec Superior Court case to evaluate the merits of an accusation of software piracy. Apparently, my opinion in such matters counts for something, but not at McGill, where an administrator, quite possibly unfamiliar with computer software, knows better, and has the power to make an unchallengeble decision, in a private meeting with the student (Articles 49 and 54 of the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures). Once the charge has been dismissed, the matter is closed with no appeals permitted. On the other hand, if the administrator decides to proceed to a formal hearing, there are numerous stages at which the student may appeal (Part IV of the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures). I am fully in favour of a system designed to protect students from false accusations, but not one that subverts academic integrity.
Similarly, the university, faced with the realities of declining admissions standards (at least, in the Faculty of Engineering), has trampled over faculty to raise student grades, for example, urging an instructor of one course with a low pass rate to substitute a different formula for calculating letter grades (provided that nobody's mark dropped in the process) and coercing others to "find a way to pass" more of their students. Certain instructors who don't comply have found that their submitted grades are simply modified without notice.
Of course, problems of cheating are not unique to McGill. Macleans ran a feature in February 2007, The great university cheating scandal, citing figures of 53% "of Canadian students engaging in serious cheating on written work." While it is a depressing indictment of student values that the situation has become so dire, the blatant disregard for academic integrity demonstrated in this instance by our university is appalling.
It is inexcusable for the administration to dismiss so obvious a case, turning a blind eye to the overwhelming evidence of cheating. And it is deplorable to reward a student for plagiarism, simply because he makes enough noise and threats.
Far from it. I spoke out in 2004 and the incident was reported in the press. I spoke out again last year, but on that occasion, the university somehow prevailed in keeping two separate reporters from two different newspapers in running this story. And now, with more administrators demonstrating similar attitudes and making up new rules in blatant contradiction of stated policy this year, I feel compelled to speak out once more. Indeed, it is an obligation to speak up against such injustice, and it would be a lapse of ethics to remain silent.
I note that it is now more than a year since the senior administration of the university was apprised of the plagiarism incidents outlined above, and, in an effort to quiet me down for a while, assured me the matter was being taken seriously. Of course, nothing has been done to remedy the problems I identified.
While paying lip service to my right to criticize the university for its mishandling of such an important matter, a certain apologist for (and member of) the administration has suggested that if I were the employee of a company, instead, I might have faced more serious consequences. Quite possibly. But then again, that same administrator is also fully aware of why I had to communicate externally, given that he was part of the university's attempt to silence me internally. So much for freedom of expression.
Moreover, if I were an employee of a (public) company, rather than the university, the shareholders would likely be calling for the heads of all those higher-ups who share responsibility for the debasing of our fundamental mission: "the advancement of learning through teaching, scholarship and service to society."
Sadly, my case is far from the first of such instances at McGill. In fact, incidents recounted by other members of the university community are even more serious, including, in my own department, mass cheating on final examinations, issuing death threats against faculty (for which the student faced no consequences), and, in another faculty, implied threats of violence resulting in the awarding of a doctorate degree to an undeserving candidate.
Our administration needs to decide: either we're here to educate students and assess their learning according to consistent and fair standards, or we're here to put a rubber stamp on a questionable quality of education, at the demand of the students. The name and reputation of our university deserve better. It's time to stop degrading McGill.