Defining justice at Concordia

A CSU student advocate has brought forward allegations that a lack of training for adjudicators and cultural misunderstandings are seriously impairing both academic and non-academic hearings at the university.

“At this point in time I have no faith that any objective decisions can be made [by adjudicators],” said Jean-Marc Bouchard, an advocate at the school since 2001.

“We are not yet at a point where there is a possibility of systemic discrimination,” he continued. “But if things are not fixed that’s what will happen.”

According to Bouchard, who began at the university-run Office for Advocacy and Support Services but recently transferred to the CSU Advocacy Office, the university stopped training adjudicators, which includes undergraduate and graduate students as well as faculty members, two years ago. This has led to decisions being rendered based more upon personal opinion and feelings than upon evidence and objective reasoning, he alleged.

When contacted for comment, neither Director of Advocacy and Support services Ann Kerby nor university General Counsel Bram Freedman denied that formal training has ended. Both disagreed with Bouchard’s interpretation of how this affects the way tribunals are run, however.

According to Kerby, formal training is unnecessary, since adjudicators will learn better by experience, she said.

“We’ve run studies that show that people make almost as many mistakes after training,” she said. “The reason we keep it inside the school is to keep it informal and in front of [the accused’s] peers […] If we rely so much on formal training we might as well bring in lawyers.”

Freedman said it was lamentable that the training had stopped, but that he felt adjudicators were still able to perform their duties. He pointed to the fact that when training ended, a new policy was instated where a lawyer acts as chairperson. The lawyer, he said, serves as an impartial advisor who would help adjudicators with any procedural problems that came up during deliberations.

Neither explanation satisfies Bouchard, though, since an adjudicator learning by experience could potentially come to a wrong decision in their first case. If that case happens to be a student’s second trial for an academic infraction such as plagiarism they would be facing possible expulsion. To put a student in a position where the future of his or her academic career is being decided by individuals with no experience or training, said Bouchard, is unfair to the student and could possibly open up the university to legal action.

“The courts granted universities the right to handle these issues internally. But that’s on the condition that these are fair trials,” he said. Without appropriately trained adjudicators, Bouchard believes that a student could possibly take legal action against the school.

One newly appointed student adjudicator, who requested anonymity, told the Concordian that he found himself in the exact situation as Bouchard described.

“My training consisted of them handing me a book,” he said. “I did not feel prepared when I went in.” And, although he said he does not know the situation of all other adjudicators, he found that from those he has worked with only those who had served on cases before knew what to do.

Kerby dismissed the allegations, insisting that the best way for adjudicators to learn was by experience and that any lack of experience on the part of some adjudicators would be compensated for by the experience of others.

What worries Bouchard the most is not how this failure in the system will affect students who may be knowingly cheating, but rather those students who are new to North American academic institutions who do not necessarily understand western rules of research and may unwittingly commit infractions.

Bouchard said that the majority of cases he now receives are of students of either Middle Eastern or Oriental origins who are studying in North America for the first time. The most distressing aspect, he says, is the unwillingness of adjudicators to accept these cultural differences.

“In Japan,” he said, “students are expected to memorize, and all students memorize the same thing. Students are expected to know where a certain passage came from without references.” He said the same thing is true of Arabic students who must memorize the Koran. Very often the Koran will be quoted in a text with no references given because everyone is believed to know it already.

“The difference between Western and Eastern cultures,” said Mary O’Malley, coordinator of student learning services at Concordia, “is that in the West the responsibility is placed on the writer [to state where information is taken from] whereas in the East the responsibility is placed on the reader.”

O’Malley, who has a Masters degree in education with a specialization in reading and writing and has been working in Counseling and Development since 1988, said she often sees first hand the cultural differences in approaches to learning that Bouchard stresses in his cases. There are very distinct and documented differences, she said, when it comes to how different cultures approach education.

One such difference is the approach students take when questioning teachers. Many students from the Middle East and Asian countries, she said, are taught not to question their professors, because it would be considered an insult. Often, she said, international students taking writing workshops will at first say they do understand, but they are unable to explain it back. The result is that students who do not take the optional workshops do not always understand what is meant by plagiarism when a professor explains it briefly at the beginning of class or when they read it in course syllabi. When giving faculty workshops, O’Malley said she always stresses the importance of going over exactly what constitutes plagiarism. At times she meets resistance, with one professor asking her, “How far do you expect us to go with [these students]?”

“Some people just don’t know about these differences,” she said. Because of this, she believes it is entirely possible that Bouchard meets some resistance from adjudicators when he bases a student’s defence on cultural differences.

Kerby denies that panelists refuse to accept cultural arguments, saying they have always been very understanding. But Bouchard, who worked under Kerby for about two years, feels that she has no way of knowing this in her position as director since she does not personally attend hearings. No advocates currently working for the university were available for comment.

One reason for the lack of resources that all parties point to is a significant increase in the number of cases of plagiarism brought forward over the past two years.

Dr. Frances Shaffer, who served as vice-dean of arts and sciences until June 2001, said she usually received about 30 cases of academic misconduct a year. Last year alone, Dr. Robert Kilgour, her replacement, said he received 141 formal complaints.

During her tenure, Shaffer was able to individualize each sanction she brought forward, including taking the time to establish community service work for students instead of simply penalizing them academically.

The rise in the number of cases, though, has caused Kilgour to take a more academic approach, mainly using the most common sanction of pass/fail with extra credits to be made up later.

“Right now, we don’t have either the time or the staff [to set up a community service bank],” he said. Each case is still dealt with individually, he said, event though at times this can lead to a delay in the judgment being mailed to the accused. “If I’m dealing with a case of group plagiarism, I will interview each student individually,” he said, “but I will only send out the ruling once I have spoken to all of them.”

Surprisingly enough, all parties also point to the same solution: a first year course for new students that would emphasize the workings of western academia. Currently, some students are required to take English second language courses, but often these simply focus on dialogue or the very basics of writing, said O’Malley, and not necessarily the nuances of academic processes.

There are resources at hand for international students, said O’Malley, such as the writing workshops she and student counselors provide every week, and other orientation workshops provided by the office for international students. Even with those resources, she said, a course for first year students would go a long way to help the situation even more.

Bouchard for his part pointed to a program offered at the University of Manitoba. There they have a program called U1 specifically geared towards first year students. Also provided is a first year course for students who have completed 12 credits or less called “Introduction to University.” According to Bouchard this is exactly what Concordia needs in order to improve the situation for international students.

To both O’Malley and Bouchard, the situation is all the more concerning since Concordia has begun heavily recruiting international students.

“I believe it is the university’s responsibility, our responsibility, to help the students we take in be successful,” said O’Malley.

According to Bouchard, the problem doesn’t end at the academic hearings, though. Students, faculty and staff charged with other infractions such as assault and harassment could also face unfair hearings due to the lack of training of adjudicators. Bouchard says he has had some new adjudicators who did not go through formal training tell him that the nervousness of the accused played a factor in their decision. This evaluation of body language and not simply of facts, said Bouchard, highlights just how subjective rulings can be.

And the lack of training not only affects the original hearings, he said, but can have an impact on the appeals process as well. If a student does appeal the panel’s ruling, they may file an appeal with the university senate.

“We have a situation where the [panelists] are not trained, and you’re appealing to [senators] who are not trained either,” he said.

The fact Bouchard will be representing students in the upcoming hearings over the violent protests of Sept. 9 played a role in his coming forward with these complaints now, he said. Since these students are facing the stiffest sanctions possible – suspension and expulsion – he feels that the concerns must be voiced before the cases are heard.

Even if no changes are made before the hearings, which are slated to begin Jan. 20, Bouchard feels that in the long run changes must be made.

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