by Hans Peterson,
AIM facilitator, UMinnesota
Last fall, I found myself seated in a small room at a set of tables arranged in a “U,” with a script in front of me, two University staff members to my left, and three slightly anxious-looking students to my right. I had recently agreed to serve as a facilitator for the new Academic Integrity Matters (AIM) program recently launched by the University’s Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity (OSCAI).
My role would be to facilitate a dialogue between these three students, each having been reported for an act of scholastic dishonesty, and the two staff members who had agreed to hear and respond to their stories. In the end, we would be expected to collectively develop a series of actions each student could take to learn more about academic integrity, repair any harm their actions had caused, and ultimately conclude the process with a clear disciplinary record.
As I formally welcomed all participants to the session, I was every bit as anxious as the students appeared to be. I was concerned a student might deny her responsibility. I was concerned a student might resist the options presented to him to repair the harm. I was concerned a community member might show anger or shame a student.
Having now facilitated four more AIM sessions, I realize that all of my fears were unfounded.
One by one, the students shared stories of how – buried in stress and anxiety, burdened by fear of failure, and in a moment of weakness – they had violated the principles of academic integrity. One had run out of time on a test and glanced at a neighbor’s paper to frantically fill out the final question. Another had struggled with an assignment and sought help from a friend, admittedly negligent in his adherence to syllabus instructions.
The staff members asked clarifying questions, they often expressed sympathy and understanding, but always punctuated their message with the critical importance of academic integrity at the University and the wide impact and harm such behavior could cause to fellow students, faculty members, advisors, and ultimately themselves.
At the conclusion of the session, as all of the students had signed off on the contracts that we had created for them to fulfill, one remarked that the session was not what she had expected. She had felt immense shame and regret in the time since the incident, and she stated that this experience would help her gain the closure she needed to move forward. It was a sentiment that has been echoed in the many post-session surveys we’ve collected from students indicating that the experience helped them let go of their guilt, did not feel criminalizing, and gave them knowledge of new resources.
One of the ongoing challenges that an Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity (OSCAI) faces is that of perception. The staff routinely encounters students, faculty, and student support staff who primarily associate this office with a punitive role or assume that primary responsibility of a Student Conduct office is managing intentional and deceptive violations of University policy or academic honesty.
Actually, the guiding principles from the University Student Conduct Code encompass more than this in promoting an environment of academic integrity, safety, and education. In most cases, students are referred to Conduct offices for isolated incidents, some unintentional, and the goal of OSCAI is to help them learn and develop in constructive ways.
AIM as a Restorative Justice Process
With this developmental purpose in mind, the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity launched the Academic Integrity Matters Program (AIM), which is informed by principles of restorative justice: inclusive decision making, active accountability, repairing harm, and rebuilding trust.
The program offers students an opportunity to learn and clear their records of disciplinary violations. Any student who is reported for scholastic dishonesty, who accepts responsibility for their actions, has no prior incidents of scholastic dishonesty, and is not subject to additional sanctions (such as probation, suspension, or expulsion) is eligible to participate in AIM.
Participating students attend a two-hour community meeting to discuss their actions, hear from students, faculty, and staff how scholastic dishonesty negatively impacts them, and agree on actions the student will take to repair harm and undergo positive development. Upon completion of this meeting and the agreed-upon actions, a student’s record becomes “non-disciplinary,” which essentially clears their record of any disciplinary violation.
AIM as a Resource for Faculty
In addition to their goals for enhanced student development, OSCAI hopes the AIM program will encourage instructors, to report incidents of dishonesty they encounter. Reporting is important, both to the University and instructors. In AIM and in OSCAI, we often tell our students about the potential impact on the University’s reputation were scholastic dishonesty to become commonplace or overlooked. Less frequently discussed, but no less important, is the preservation of the faculty members’ integrity.
An instructor with a reputation for overlooking cheating or plagiarism may only encounter more as time passes and word spreads. But we also know that reporting can feel difficult. Many instructors encounter scholastic dishonesty, but feel hesitant to report students to OSCAI due to fear of a long-term impact on the student’s record or a contested hearing process. Now, you can report an incident knowing that students who make an isolated mistake will have an opportunity to engage in an educational process that will develop their understanding of the importance of academic integrity without risk of any unforeseen future consequences. You may even want to tell your students about AIM when confronting them in an incident of cheating or plagiarism to help facilitate what can be a hard conversation.
OSCAI does not want faculty to have to weigh their desire to uphold integrity with the desire of not creating a harsher consequence for a student than seems appropriate. Hopefully AIM can alleviate that concern. Based on anecdotal evidence drawn from our sessions, we expected that many students would even categorize their experiences in AIM as positive ones; thus far, survey data suggests that expectation is being met:
- In its first year, 58 students participated in 9 AIM community meetings. On a scale of 4, where 4 represented “strongly agree,” these participating students had a mean response score of 3.87 to the prompt: “I had a positive experience participating in the AIM program”;
- a mean response score of 3.89 to the prompt: “Participation in AIM will positively impact my future”; and
- students report that AIM has helped them move forward from their mistakes with reduced shame, a restored sense of the University’s trust in them, and a greater understanding of resources that will help them succeed.
In working with instructors, the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity is as a partner in creating a safe, educational, and reputable learning environment at the University. In this, OSCAI staff are always grateful for instructor collaboration, engagement, and advocacy both on behalf of students and on behalf of academic honesty.
As a facilitator of the AIM groups, I hope that this program will also improve instructors’ experiences in fostering academic integrity, and that instructors will pro-actively contact OSCAI with questions, for consultation, or to make referrals. Staff are available by phone (612-624-6073), email. OSCAI’s web page also includes resources “For Faculty and Staff” on its website.
Hans Peterson is a Project Manager in the Office for Student Affairs and a regular AIM facilitator. He is also a doctoral student in the University’s Organizational Leadership and Policy Development program studying leadership competencies in higher education.
He thanks Sharon Dzik (OSCAI’s Director), and Jessica Kuecker Grotjohn (Assistant Director) for their input and contributions to this post.