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  • Writer's pictureKane Murdoch

Decisions, decisions

Evening all,


I suspect that, for most people, the process by which misconduct decisions are made in universities is likely encapsulated by the following gif:

Now, there are certainly elements of that in some uni's processes. In particular I've noticed that some academics seem to enjoy being inquisitors, hellbent on extracting confessions from the sinners, but that's another story. Despite my almost-immediate tangent, today's post is about different models for reaching decisions in higher ed student misconduct.


While I'm sure there's a bunch of variations, there is usually a similar underlying process:

  • Initial concerns raised (allegation in more punitive language);

  • (Potentially a review- is there enough evidence?)

  • Concerns raised with student (a notice, email, etc)

  • An investigation report which is sent to;

  • A decision maker who decides the outcome of the matter.


I've worked under 5 variations of this last part at two different unis, and I'll walk you through them chronologically.


One- Investigation reports sent to a senior decision maker who decides all matters, irrespective of whether they are serious, not very serious, or whether a student has been found responsible. This approach led to enormous backlogs of matters sitting on the desk of the decision maker (because they're busy, natch). It was bad for students to wait, and not great for investigators because matters remained under their watch for weeks or months until it was finalised.


Two- As above, but with courageous conversations introduced to allow for investigators to issue determinations in the case where a student agrees to the concerns raised (admissions);


Three- As per two, but with all outcomes bar suspension or exclusion from studies determined by the investigators in the conduct unit. In my experience this model had significant issues. Primary among these for me was that a form of groupthink could be allowed to flourish, with the "decision maker" agreeing with the investigator, in no small part because they too are an investigator. In essence, there is no one to push back on lazy thinking, or insufficient technical or investigative skill. Not great. And while that part of me who loves efficiency thinks this is a good way to have timely resolution of cases, it doesn't mean shit if it isn't fair. In my mind the image below distills the concept of development in a conduct unit-- we can improve efficiency and efficacy, but never at the expense of fairness, which must remain the maximum possible at all times (and be checked by rigorous appeal processes as a further backstop).

Efficiency and efficacy will pull against each other- if an investigative team develops new techniques and finds more "stuff", this will put pressure on an existing decision-making apparatus. Gains in efficiency will create more time for development of detection techniques. This might mean a reconsideration (change policy or procedure) to gain efficiencies. But neither efficacy nor efficiency may be gained at the expense of fairness. Having observed the "investigators decide" model, I think there simply aren't enough safeguards in place to prevent groupthink, and hence fairness can decline over time. It's annoying to use a cliche, but it is indeed a slippery slope.


Four- A university conduct committee decides everything. From the most serious to the least, the committee must decide everything. In my view this is an even more inefficient version of 1 above, with the added cherry of variability and inconsistency in decision-making. I once made a calculation of how much it cost to run a meeting of this sort. Because it's not just a star chamber, but also has all of the bureaucratic overhead of a university committee, I calculated somewhere in the region of $5-7,000 AUD for one meeting. This didn't include the writing and circulating of minutes, nor any of the pre- work (agenda, reading of agenda, etc). This is an approach which will ensure little in the way of efficacy or efficiency.


Five- The last iteration I've worked under allows someone like myself to determine all matters (admission or no) up to a 0 Fail for a unit/subject, say up to half a dozen units. Suspension and exclusion remain the purview of the committee. I'm fully aware that this puts a lot of power in my hands, and I remain ever mindful of that fact. I want to be convinced of the correctness of my investigator's findings, and due to my own background (as a so-called "expert"), I have the technical, investigative (and to some extent legalistic) capacity to challenge weaknesses where they exist. I do worry that a lot rides on expertise in this model, but then again scientists conducting experiments with, oh let's say flamethrowers, relies on expertise too.


So universities belatedly discovering that to move conduct beyond what is directly in front of an academic's eyes should give serious consideration to what model of decision making they adopt, and not just continue as things have always been. I'm sure there are other models out there that could improve the one I work under, so if you've managed a marvelous bit of alchemy and created a procedure of purest green (look it up on youtube), please jump into the comments.

Until next time,


KM

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5 Comments


rmforsyth
2 days ago

I've had experience of a variant of 5 and 4 which felt pretty fair and efficient. Investigators could decide up to a certain level of seriousness, but students could appeal. An appeal panel had two or three experienced academics (not the same every time) with one chairing, one student rep, and evidence and advice provided by the investigator. It felt thorough and fair. Students could attend and could bring a rep and it was not adversarial. Process was regularly reviewed in partnership with students' Association, who also employed their own advisors to support students.

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Kane Murdoch
Kane Murdoch
2 days ago
Replying to

It's hard getting committee selection right, and it's also hard getting academic s to not bring their speciality with them- training is important rather than just throwing people in fresh and hoping for the best.

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Ian Hall
Ian Hall
3 days ago

I think there are a number of issues with all of the above - But not for the reasons stated..... The 1st problem with all of the misconduct cases I have seen is the time it takes for the academic to prepare any kind of referral and their willingness to do so - Add to that Module Leaders who don't want anyone to fail / be suspected of misconduct as it "doesn't look good on them, and people wont do the course" OR because their mental model of the Academic Misconduct process is distorted either by previous experience or by what they regard as acceptable in their discipline / university. If we want to be fair to students, we have to…

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amymilka
3 days ago

Interesting post, thank you! Can you comment on the role of discipline expertise in the investigative process, if you have a non-academic decision maker as per approach 5? I acknowledge that not every type of case hinges on discipline expertise.

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Kane Murdoch
Kane Murdoch
2 days ago
Replying to

Essentially the investigative process should, where required, incorporate expert academic opinion and work to provide that in both raw forms, and in summary forms that a non-expert can adjudge. Say for example DNA evidence in a court- as well as scientific outputs, a lawyers for one side or the other would have to understand enough to explain it sensibly to a judge. Having said that, taking only the opinion of the reporting academic is a trap that the sensibly skeptical should avoid.

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