Coming before the Committee
Despite knowing that the rules for the final exercise forbade collaboration, Kashmiri decided to help his friend.
“I crossed the line of permissible help: I showed him my [computer] codes,” Kashmiri said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. “Instead of just looking at the codes, he took [them] down.”
During their conversation, Kashmiri also asked his friend for a quick clarification of the programming language and syntax.
Three months later, Kashmiri was on his way home to Atlanta with a two-year suspension handed down by the University’s Committee on Discipline (COD). While the student-run Honor Committee hears cases involving cheating during in-class examinations, all other offenses fall within the jurisdiction of the COD.
In numerous interviews conducted over the past month, students and faculty members expressed serious concerns about the harsh penalties, even for seemingly minor violations, imposed by the COD and the lack of transparency of the University disciplinary procedures governing academic integrity — procedures which assume students are guilty until proven innocent. Administrators and students on disciplinary committees said, however, that they make every effort to give each student a fair hearing.
On a campus where 20 percent of students admitted to having violated the Honor Code in a recent survey conducted by the ‘Prince,’ Kashmiri was one of very few who self-reported his infraction.
“I wasn’t even thinking of consequences,” Kashmiri said of his decision to turn himself in to his engineering professor. “I just had to tell someone. It was gonna kill me if I didn’t report it.”
The professor who taught the course declined to comment for this article, citing concerns about student privacy.
Molecular biology lecturer Phil Felton — a longtime adviser of Kashmiri’s as well as an academic-athletic faculty fellow for the track team, to which Kashmiri belonged — criticized what he perceived as a discrepancy between the charges brought against Kashmiri and the nature of the violation.
“They have to lay a charge of plagiarism, even though Shafiq didn’t plagiarize in any normal sense of the word,” Felton said. “We should, I believe, have a much more nuanced set of charges and penalties.”
During the 2007-08 academic year, the COD suspended or expelled 22 students for academic integrity violations: Nineteen were suspended for one year, one was suspended for two years, and two were expelled.
One student who came before the COD but avoided punishment was Robert ’10, who was accused of photocopying a classmate's work and emailing it to someone else in his class PHI 218/ELE 218: Learning Theory and Epistemology. Robert’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.
Robert said that, on May 8, 2007, he left his laptop alone with a classmate for roughly 10 minutes. A few weeks later, he was called to the office of Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Maria Flores-Mills, who presented him with an e-mail sent from his account that implicated him in a current COD plagiarism hearing.
“When somebody shows you something that you’re supposed to have written and you’ve never seen that e-mail before in your entire life, all of a sudden what runs through your head is, ‘I haven’t seen this before, but I have no way of proving that,’ ” Robert said, adding that he was unsure how to formulate his defense before the COD.
“The obvious response to anybody that presents you [with] evidence is for the defendant to say, ‘I’ve never seen this in my entire life,’ ” he explained.
Robert and Kashmiri both expressed concerns that, when facing the COD, the burden of proof falls on the accused, not the accuser.
“[With] the COD, you are guilty until proven innocent,” Kashmiri said, adding that he believes this means the committee members are biased against accused students from the start. “I think trying to prove the innocence is always harder.”
But Dean of Undergraduate Students Kathleen Deignan, who serves as COD chair, said the committee requires a rigorous standard of proof of guilt in each case. “The evidence has to be clear, and we have to be persuaded that something is a violation,” she explained.
Deignan and other members of the committee declined to comment on specific cases citing confidentiality policies.
COD member Vishal Chanani ’11 said there was no presumption of guilt in the committee’s proceedings, especially considering the serious punishments it doles out for students convicted of violating University rules.
“I start out with giving the student the benefit of the doubt because I try to imagine what it would be like to be them,” Chanani said. “I can really understand as a Princeton student [that] being suspended would be crushing … [and that] being expelled would be debilitating. I like to be very, very sure before I do something of that magnitude.”
Felton said he believed the charges brought by the committee need to be more nuanced and better defined. “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities” lists four academic violations that fall within the COD’s jurisdiction — plagiarism, unauthorized multiple submission, false citation and false data — but the vast majority of cases that come before the committee involve plagiarism, Deignan said.
“Unlike places like Yale … [where] they have a more nuanced graduated scale of offenses … we only have plagiarism,” Felton explained.
Associate Dean for Undergraduate Students Hilary Herbold GS ’97, who serves as COD secretary, said the University’s definition of plagiarism encompasses a wide range of offenses beyond those traditionally associated with the term.
“The definition [of plagiarism] is the use of any outside source — published or unpublished — by anyone other than the author without proper acknowledgement,” she explained. “So anyone else’s work falls under that category.”
Talking to another student about an assignment is equivalent to using an outside source, Herbold added.
“Sometimes people think there’s something called ‘impermissible collaboration’ or something, but there isn’t,” she said. “It’s actually plagiarism.”
Students charged with plagiarism said they were wrought with anxiety about how best to defend themselves in front of a body that presumed their guilt before any evidence was presented.
In his opening statement at his hearing before the committee, Robert said, “In the past few days, I have done everything in my power to give all information to this committee. I have spent the past five days in a paranoid state of mind, not knowing what I would be accused of doing next.”
Chanani said the committee makes an effort to make the process as comfortable as possible for accused students.
“If we feel like we’re pressuring them or making them feel bad, we’ll sort of back off,” Chanani explained. “The vast majority of students … are very, very emotional. If they’re not initially, usually they become so by the end of the hearing.”
Robert’s anxiety was assuaged when the committee’s investigation exonerated him of any wrongdoing, but for convicted students like Kashmiri, the repercussions can be quite severe.
Kashmiri, who also received a one-year suspension as a freshman for another violation, said he thought this previous sentence made it harder for him to defend himself.
“[The COD] was prejudiced,” he argued, noting that because of his previous violation, “they could not accept that I did not plagiarize.”
But Herbold said the committee is not informed of a student’s previous disciplinary record during its deliberations, adding that previous violations are only considered when determining penalties.
“If the student is found to have committed a violation, I will then disclose whether the student has any discipline records after that point,” she explained.
Felton said that though Kashmiri already had an academic violation on his record, the committee should have considered the fact that the second violation was self-reported.
“I think that should ameliorate things more than it did,” he said, adding that the inability of students and faculty advisers to access previous COD cases can hinder their preparation for the hearings, especially in light of how heavily the COD relies on precedent.
But COD member Joel Alicea ’10 said he did not believe this presented any obstacle to accused students.
“Students are fully informed of what they are facing when it comes to punishment by the secretaries of the committee,” Alicea said. “They have all the info they need to make a compelling defense. I cannot imagine how opening all the precedent books to students who are defending themselves would contribute to their defense.”
Still, several members of the University community said they did not think accused students stood a fair chance when brought before the committee.
“Not all hearings come out with an unfair outcome — it’s probably just bad luck for Shafiq,” said Sara Oon ’10, a friend of Kashmiri’s and another student in his engineering course. “But I don’t think the disciplinary process should be about luck. A greater effort should be made to create an objective system that eliminates the uncertainties of the case.”
Chanani said he thought some of the ambiguities surrounding the disciplinary system stemmed from students failing to educate themselves about it. “Students are expected to read ‘Rights, Rules, Responsibilities,’ ” he explained. “No one would be confused if they read it.”
Wilson School professor Stanley Katz has advised several students before the COD, though he was not associated with Kashmiri’s case. Based on his experience as a student adviser, Katz said he has noticed a pattern of unnecessarily harsh punishments for the offenses committed.
“Over the last couple of years, I’ve been involved in a couple of cases where I have to say that I just was bitterly disappointed in the outcomes, and it was really, I think, in both cases … about [the] penalty,” he said.
Kashmiri and Felton also raised concerns about how the committee initiates its investigations.
Documents provided by Kashmiri indicate that the COD investigation was not initiated by his engineering professor, who was contacted by the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students about the violation before he had completed an internal review of the situation.
Kashmiri and Felton said they found it disconcerting that the COD would start the investigation even before the professor completed his own review.
Felton said he believed that the opinions of Victoria Jueds, an assistant dean of undergraduate students and the COD assistant secretary, on Kashmiri’s case were “colored by the fact that she first learned about this by talking to the other student and not Shafiq.”
Herbold noted that though charges are “almost always” initiated by professors, “occasionally a student will report another student.”
Kashmiri, who said he did not initially want to discuss his case with the ‘Prince,’ explained that he felt compelled to do so to shed light on the “arbitrary and capricious nature of the adjudication process.”
Kashmiri and several other individuals affiliated with the process urged the University to provide greater transparency into the disciplinary procedures, describing them as highly secretive and needlessly punitive.
“I think it’s a black box,” Katz said.
This is the first article in a five-part series on the Honor Committee and the Committee on Discipline. Please click here for the rest of the "University Justice" series.