So you’ve been accused of academic misconduct. Here’s what you need to know.
If you or your child is accused of engaging in academic misconduct, you’ll get a crash course in how the college or university bureaucracy works to process these cases and sanction students. Before that happens, you should be aware of a few key points.
#1: Academic misconduct is a big category
In a previous post I explained how colleges define plagiarism, probably the most common form of academic misconduct. Colleges will sanction students for plagiarism if the student intentionally or accidentally copies, quotes without proper attribution, or incorporates language or ideas from some other person into his or her work. Colleges also deem it plagiarism if students work together on an assignment but do not list their co-collaborators on the work they turn in.
Research misconduct is another form of academic misconduct we frequently address. Research misconduct arises mostly in the hard sciences, and according to federal regulations is defined as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.”
Other forms of academic misconduct include misrepresenting yourself to your school, professors, or others. For example, misstating your GPA, prior degrees you have obtained, awards or honors you have received, or research or jobs you have held can be seen by your school as a form of academic misconduct. Even if the representation is made to someone outside the school, for example, to a company to which you are applying for an internship or job, it may violate the school’s policies and the school may have authority to discipline you for that misrepresentation.
#2: Stop, listen, and think
When you are accused of academic misconduct, just as if you are accused of other forms of misconduct or criminal activity, your first instinct might be to start defending yourself. But jumping right in and trying to provide your side of the story before you have all the information about the accusation rarely helps you. If you are called in to a meeting with a professor or administrator, and are told that you have been accused of misconduct, your job is to listen, ask questions about the procedures that will be followed, and wait to provide a statement until you’ve had time to think about the accusations against you, any evidence presented to you, and your memory of what happened and what evidence you might have to use in your defense.
# 3: Colleges have broad authority over academic discipline
When you enroll in a college or university, particularly a private one, you agree to be bound by its rules. While you do not lose all legal protection by enrolling in school, courts are even more hesitant to interfere with college’s determinations about academic matters than they are about other disciplinary issues. As the respondent in an academic misconduct case, you must understand that unless you attend a public university, you are not entitled to any particular procedures beyond what is included in the school’s policies. If you attend a public school you are entitled to “due process,” but courts give colleges significantly more leeway in determining how to handle academic misconduct than they do other forms of discipline. The first thing you should do if you are told you are accused of academic misconduct is read the student handbook to understand how the case will be processed. In contrast to the requirements for Title IX cases, colleges generally do not allow lawyers to directly participate in academic disciplinary matters. Your school may, however, allow you to have an advisor from within the school community, and if you want an advisor it is generally your responsibility to find one for yourself. You may also benefit from having a lawyer to advise you and prepare you for any meetings, hearings, or appeals.
#4: If you have a disability, make sure your school’s disability office is aware
Many students suffer from learning disabilities and mental health disorders (some studies indicate up to 25% of college students have a mental health condition). While students with learning disabilities may be aware of the steps they need to take to register those disabilities and obtain necessary accommodations, students suffering from anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or other mental health conditions may not realize that those are disabilities that schools may have to accommodate. If you have sought accommodations for a disability, and you believe the academic misconduct accusation relates to your disability, it is important to consider, and discuss with a lawyer, whether you have any legal claims related to your disability. If you have not notified the school of your disability, but you believe you have a disability that is implicated in the misconduct charge against you, you should seek assistance from your school’s disability office to obtain necessary accommodations (possibly including alterations to the school’s procedures for deciding your case) and again consider whether your alleged misconduct and your disability are related.
If there is one take-away for dealing with academic misconduct cases (which holds true for other kinds of misconduct) it is this: it is in your best interest to listen carefully to what you are accused of, read all applicable school policies and understand what you are being charged with and what the school must prove to find you responsible, and wait to respond to the accusation until you are confident you understand the accusation, the policies, and the evidence you have to support your case.
And of course, you will always benefit from speaking to a lawyer familiar with university disciplinary proceedings, particularly if you have disability, discrimination, or other legal issues that may relate to the charge.