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The Cooperstock controversy: professor’s allegations cast doubt on academic integrity

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A McGill professor’s broadcast last week of the University’s questionable exoneration of two students who he charged with plagiarism has ignited skepticism about McGill’s investment in academic integrity.

Jeremy Cooperstock, associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, accused two students in his 2007 Artificial Intelligence course of collaborating on two independent computer programming assignments, which violates departmental and University policies on academic integrity. Cooperstock failed both students for the assignments and the course and forwarded the matter to a disciplinary officer – as per University policy. Each student met individually with the disciplinary officer, who reversed Cooperstock’s assessment and awarded the students passing marks.

Outraged by the decision, Cooperstock accused McGill’s system for academic discipline as being a bureaucratic organization that excludes professors from the disciplinary process.

“The malevolence and incompetence of our administration [caused them]…to usurp what should be the professor’s role in the University,” Cooperstock said.

But according to Morton Mendelson, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning), professorial involvement in discipline cases is problematic, and McGill’s disciplinary structures shield both students and professors from what can become a highly adversarial process.

“The professor is not a prosecutor,” Mendelson said. “The instructor or the professor has no recourse, because that’s where the matter ends,” he added.

According to the University’s academic discipline system, a disciplinary officer will cease to interact with the professor upon receiving their report, provided there are no follow-up questions. The officer considers the context and mitigating factors, meets with the student and allows them to present his or her side of the story.

In rare instances, the issue is referred to a disciplinary committee, where the professor may be called to participate. According to a Senate report, over 99 per cent of academic offences in 2006-2007 were resolved by a sole disciplinary officer.

Cooperstock – threatened with legal action by one of the accused students, who has since graduated – said that he finds small comfort in the protective measures that remove the professor from the process. He argued that bureaucratic roadblocks actually exacerbate adversarial situations.

“The professor and the student can no longer have a one-on-one discussion, as I’ve done in the past,” Cooperstock said.

On a CBC radio broadcast last Thursday, Mendelson defended the University’s policy, upholding the disciplinary officer’s decision to pass the students.

“Someone is given the authority to make a decision, the decision is made, and that’s the end of it,” Mendelson said.

He refused to comment specifically on Cooperstock’s case.

According to Cooperstock, McGill’s behaviour with plagiarism cases is a chronic problem that may have grave effects on the University’s reputation. On his web site Degrading McGill that he launched this year, Cooperstock chronicles a history of what he deems unfairly handled cases of academic integrity at the University. Citing two cases in 1997 and 2004 when the University too lightly handled cases of academic integrity, Cooperstock questioned how lenient repercussions for academic offenses will influence McGill’s reputation as a leading Canadian university.

In each case, Cooperstock claimed that the administration was too lenient with students, and undercut its professors’ decisions.

“What the administration has done is develop this large infrastructure of rules and regulations that create a system that is more than a court,” said Cooperstock. “Yet here, the accuser is shutout of the process so that I do not know whether my assessment of plagiarism is being upheld by the administration.”

Cooperstock said that he has received overwhelming support for his critique of the disciplinary system from other faculty members and is moving forward with proposals to overhaul the process, despite a hostile administration that has repeatedly brushed him off.

“I think openness and transparency are mandatory in order to restore some credibility and faith in the system. These things, if not addressed soon, are going to result in McGill losing its prestigious reputation as a top university,” Cooperstock said.

“I agree with my colleagues who say that the only real solution to fix this is to go revolution-style. Not necessarily Louis XIV days with the guillotine, but certain people should be pushed out the door.”