December 2018

This week and next, many of us around the world celebrate holidays, as well as several endings and beginnings, most notably the ending of 2018 and the beginning of 2019. In honor of these celebrations (and hopefully some time off!), the Integrity Matters Blog will be on hiatus this week and next. We will return with a new post on January 7th, 2019.

I did, however, want to take this moment to thank you for reading the first term of ICAI's Integrity Matters Blog. The Blog is part of the new ICAI, which is an independent non-profit organization dedicated to cultivating academic integrity cultures around the world. The goal of Integrity Matters is to advance this mission by stimulating conversations and advancing our collective knowledge of all aspects of academic integrity and culture cultivation. So, as a reminder, I welcome adding your voice to the Blog! Consider submitting a piece in the new year so we can share your knowledge and experience, and/or spotlight your program or educational institution for the benefit of others.

It is my fervent hope that Integrity Matters continues to add value to your life, whether you are a student, integrity practitioner, teacher, researcher, parent, employer, politician, or anyone else who cares about the integrity and quality of the world's educational credentials as well as our shared goal to graduate ethical citizens and professionals.

So,  thank you once again for your support of Integrity Matters. And if you are not yet a member of ICAI, consider joining ICAI in 2019, either as an individual or institution. Your membership will support this blog and all of the work that ICAI does to cultivate academic integrity cultures around the world. With your help, we can ensure that #integritymatters in all schools, colleges and universities around the world.

Thank you and cheers to a happy, productive, and integrous 2019!

Editors Note: Although this post is based on American law, I argue the post has international implications because the legal principles that Christian presents reflect ICAI’s own fundamental values - fairness, responsibility, trustworthiness, respect and honesty. While each institution must follow the laws and requirements of its own country when implementing their policy, ensuring that the fundamental values are reflected in Policy would generally be considered as good practice.


In this third edition of Academic Integrity Policy, I will discuss the due process that should be afforded to students going through a violation allegation process, and then the “standards of review” that should be considered in the implementation of an appeals process.

Due process is a relatively new phenomenon in the American education world, brought about largely as a result of a 1961 judicial case - Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education. Before that case, educational institutions operated  in loco parentis (in place of the parent), which gave sweeping discretion to institutions.  However, Dixon established that while higher education institutions have certain leeway in how we make decisions and treat students, we must do so with a consistent, documented process.  That is, of course, due process.

Due process is considered fundamental to ensuring fairness in the legal system. Due process can include such requirements as notice that a case can or will be brought against a student, that the student has the right to present witnesses at a hearing and can cross-examine witnesses against them, indication of whether they can bring an attorney to the hearing and what role that attorney may play, and ultimately what the possible sanctions can be (failure in the class, suspension, expulsion, etc.) given the context of the case.

Once an initial decision has been made by a body (e.g., the jury or judge in the legal world; an instructor or administrator in the education world), there should be an appeals process afforded to the student. This appeals process should have established “standards of review”, a legal term of art that describes the level of scrutiny that should be placed on the previous decision-maker (e.g., the jury or judge in the legal world).  In the context of plagiarism and cheating, this may mean to what degree an administrator or hearing body can override the academic decision of the instructor or a decision of another administrative body. In the legal world, this “standard of review” is intended to make certain the decisions made are not just right, but were only made after appropriate due process was granted to the impacted persons.

Below are some of the “standard of review” options used in the legal field that you may want to consider applying to the appeals process in your institutional policy:

1.) Arbitrary and capricious.  Commonly used in governmental agency decisions, this is the most deferential standard of review to the original decision-maker.  Those hearing the appeal will uphold the original decision unless the decision-maker decided in such a way that was inconsistently applied to other students or not following the prescribed process that is required.  Such examples can be failing one student completely in a class for plagiarism while only giving a zero on the assignment to other students despite committing the same illicit act, or not giving appropriate notice to a student that they did an alleged wrong and did not give them the opportunity to file an appeal.

2.) Clearly erroneous.  Used most often in reviewing the factual decisions of district courts, this standard is still relatively deferential, as it will only override the decision-maker should there be a definite showing that a mistake was made.  Such an example would be the student showed the appeal body that no possibility that they plagiarized or that no evidence exists to show that plagiarism occurred.

3.) Substantial evidence.  Considered a more beneficial standard of review for decisions of fact to the defendant (or for this discussion, the student), this requires that the appeal body evaluate all facts and evidence before them and that a reasonable person would agree on the previous conclusion given that evidence.  For academic integrity, this would ask the appeal body to uphold the instructor’s decision if they agree the evidence likely points towards alleged breaking of the rules, but overturn that decision should they feel in their own judgment that the act did not occur.

The standard most commonly applied in higher education is arbitrary and capricious, which is often the standard courts take in reviewing institutional decisions.  This means that as long as the rules are being followed consistently, in a non-discriminatory fashion, and not irrational, the instructor and the institution may make relatively sweeping discretionary decisions.  This regime protects academic freedom of the instructor by allowing them to make individual decisions on what is and is not cheating within their own academic capacities and expertise.

But with academic freedom also comes academic responsibility.  It seems that the majority of the time the arbitrary and capricious standard works.  However, this standard can preclude a student from winning an appeal when they are ostensibly correct on the merits.  As long as the instructor is consistent in punishing students in the same way for the same action, the instructor wins, whether or not the student actually plagiarized or cheated.

Due to this, there is an argument to be made that the standard of review should be raised, either to clearly erroneous or substantial evidence.  It is uncommon, but cases of instructors levying borderline plagiarism cases and winning despite a lack of considerable proof is not unheard of. This can also protect students who inadvertently commit academic integrity violations or those that are truly ignorant to the rules of citation.  However, it can also lead to true cases of plagiarism not being punished and risks students filing and winning otherwise sham appeals based on a lack of evidence or not convincing the appeals body sufficiently. Ultimately, this can risk academic freedom by second-guessing the decisions of qualified, degreed experts.

In the grand scheme of things, it is not particularly required by law that an institution pick a specific standard.  If a lawsuit is filed against the institution, the court would not second-guess the standard being used, but whether it is applied fully and fairly in every case.  If you feel your institution is appropriately equipped to handle a legalistic process, you may want to consider a higher standard, while noting the potential negative impacts on academic freedom.

I am writing this blog post as I sit in a hotel in Budva, Montenegro attending a meeting sponsored by the European Union and the Council of Europe and implemented by the Council of Europe. I was invited as an academic integrity expert by the Council of Europe to speak at a meeting organized for Montenegro universities so they could learn about and discuss how they can strengthen integrity and combat corruption in higher education. Based on what I’ve learned thus far about the efforts over here, I decided that the Council of Europe’s program and Montenegro’s efforts on academic integrity deserved a spotlight post in this blog.

According to the Council of Europe’s website, their efforts in Montenegro stem from the mission of their Platform on Ethics, Transparency, and Integrity in Education (or ETINED), which is to (in direct verbiage from their website):

    • Share information and good practices in the field of transparency and integrity in education;


    • Contribute to the development of adequate answers to challenges that corruption poses to the sector of education and higher education;


    • Create a virtuous cycle in education, whereby all actors commit to fundamental positive ethical principles;


    • Develop capacity-building for all actors.

The premise behind this mission is that quality education can only be achieved if integrity and ethics are front and center.

While not a unique premise, it is also not common. In many countries and universities, there is a failure of political and institutional leadership to see that a direct line can be drawn between academic integrity and educational quality. Typically, in such countries and universities, quality is measured by things such as graduate rates, access, time to degree, grades, faculty publication rates, and so on. Unfortunately, such measures of "quality" can be easily obtained without integrity. All countries and universities should be attending to the quality that can only be obtained with integrity - the achievement of learning outcomes and the mastery of knowledge and skills. 

The Council of Europe’s efforts in Montenegro are intended to help the country’s universities develop ethical standards, promote best quality education practices, and prevent and address corruption. This means that ETINED is focused on every actor in the educational institution, not just the student. Unlike many universities in the west, which tend to separate student integrity from faculty and administrator integrity, the Council of Europe and its ETINED program understand that for our educational institutions to have integrity, all actors must be involved and standards for integrity must be applied to all. Not only does this make practical sense, but such an approach upholds our ICAI fundamental values of fairness, respect, responsibility and trustworthiness.

In other words, we should only ask of our students what we are willing to do ourselves.

In Montenegro, I’m finding what I find in many non-western countries but seldom in places like the US, Canada, and the UK - national attention to academic integrity, national commitment to combatting corruption, and a willingness to admit that things could be done better and with more integrity. While the UK is starting to also acknowledge the need to tackle academic corruption at the national level (especially through the Quality Assurance Agency), not every country is demonstrating the courage to do just that. It's been a long time since we've had a university president in the United States, for example, stand up and publicly admit that their institution has a cheating problem and to announce the efforts that will be taken to combat cheating and encourage integrity.

Thus, I applaud the Council of Europe and Montenegro in their courage to speak up and out for integrity and against corruption, and I especially applaud the universities who are extending resources to follow-through on this commitment once the Council of Europe’s funding is exhausted.

Their actions exemplify the power and importance of institutional leadership in ensuring institutional and academic integrity. As I summarized in my piece on “Leveraging Institutional Integrity” for the Handbook for Academic Integrity - "institutional members will follow the lead of those in positions of leadership and authority, the integrity of an institution is, in part, shaped by the actions of leaders, especially on what they spend their time, attention, and resources” (pg. 4)

So, thank you to the Council of Europe and our Montenegro colleagues for demonstrating what courage for the sake of integrity looks like.