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  • Writer's pictureKane Murdoch

Toothless tigers eating forbidden breakfast cereal.

Evening all,

Following on from Alix's problem statement from last week, tonight I'm going to consider why schools, faculty, academics, etc sometimes think central student conduct units are toothless tigers. Of course, considering that we are also unfeeling monsters, it's quite the bind we find ourselves in.

I can more easily see why central units are seen as unfeeling beasts than toothless tigers. Firstly, we are quite often lumped in with "administration", who are considered to be a particularly nasty species, foisting their "rules", and "processes" and "mostly sensible ways of working" onto academics, many of whom prefer their work to be guided by telekinetic vibes and the application of academic freedom (academic in training shown below).

However, to more seriously address the issue I can see there are elements here. First, there is a tension between the work that central unis conduct, which is more strongly bound by a basic imperative that students are provided with due process, and academic judgement. For example, if an academic reports something to the central unit, they usually provide an opinion about what happened, which they would consider authoritative. However, conduct units also consider what students tell them, as well as any other information which they might find in the course of an investigation. In other words, academics reporting conduct issues have a limited view of the entirety of a matter, and can get upset when the result doesn't accord with their views.

Toys then erupt out of prams. Of course, explaining the outcome to the academic and closing that loop, avoiding "negative backwash", can help reduce problems. Not always, but feedback to academics whether the cases is proven or not is important.

Another upset generator in the conduct process, and one that contributes directly to the "toothless tiger" impression is the outcomes of conduct matters. For some people anything less than severe punishment is a slap on the wrist. Now, I take issue with this. If we weigh up pros and cons for harsh penalties vs proportional ones, here's where I reckon we land:

Pros of harshness

  • We get to believe that "this'll scare em and they'll never do it again", a famously effective tactic.

  • we satisfy the urge to punish students.

  • underpants

  • profit?

Cons of harshness

  • Additional workload for investigators and decision makers- if a student knows that any penalty they are likely to receive will be harsh and disproportional, they will be more likely to dig in, to dissemble, and throw obstacles in your way. I mean, why wouldn't they? I've seen it played out hundreds of times.

  • More demand on other university resources- when students are facing extreme outcomes, they are more likely to respond in a highly emotional way, and this may mean great need for advocacy, wellbeing or legal resources.

  • A reduced understanding of what is happening, and why- when students are honest with us, we gain insight from what they tell us, helping us to shape our approach to future incidents of misconduct.

Essentially, there's a certain quid pro quo in issuing appropriate penalty outcomes, and it's one that I happily accept. The key immovable for me is that learning outcomes are either achieved, or they are not. If a student talked to their mates and got answers on a 3% quiz , and they lose that 3%, fine. But when an academic complains bitterly that we should have given the student zero for the whole subject, wtf? Come on man. That's not standards, that's bloodlust. I'm happy to point to failure to meet learning outcomes to justify my position.

It's also timely to remember that we are affected by other parts of the university. Even our core documents, policy and procedure, are heavily influenced by the governing bodies of the university, and the general level of maturity, or immaturity, of the university in relation to student conduct. The more immature an organisation, the more they distrust their staff to do the job they're paid to do. This is obviously wasteful and dumb, but there you go. Sometimes decisions are made in the face of advice that the central unit gives, and we all have to suck that up. Better yet, convince others that we are the best placed people to making good decisions in this space rather than well-meaning amateur sleuths. I mean, look how well the amateurs have done amidst the ongoing waves of cheating we're seeing.

As with any topic, I could go on. And I will, but not today. Too many cases you see!


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