“Confession of errors is like a broom which sweeps away the dirt and leaves the surface brighter and clearer.” -That Gandhi Guy
After running CJC for the last 18 months, being the Chief Judicial Officer at MIT for over 4 years before that, and being involved in student misconduct for 5 years before that I know one thing to be true—almost all students are really good people. That doesn’t mean that these good people don’t do some really bad or really dumb things, but the fact that they do them does not turn them from individual symbols of hope and limitless potential to Jack the Ripper (or even John the Plagiarizer.)
Instead what happens is that once they mess up they find themselves at a place where they think they are totally screwed and their life is over if they get caught, and will be able to skate by if they do not. This isn’t a hard choice for most of them because the consequences of being caught are the monster under the bed, and not getting caught means they get to move on with their lives. Faculty and staff know that students are still developing as people (there’s even something called “student development theory,”) but people act shocked and disappointed when, despite the lack of almost any real-world examples, students don’t make the decisions we expect “fully developed” people to make. We punish them as if they have broken some rules of God and nature that make the university or the community what it is, and that their failures endangered everything good in the world. What we do not do is allow for the fact that, in a lot of cases, we have failed them by not giving them a third option.
Before you say what I know you’re thinking, let me be clear: most students are in similar places as the “bad actors” developmentally, face similar pressures, and yet act ethically and intelligently even when things get tough. There is definitely an obligation to the larger community to hold the “bad actors” accountable to reinforce the good decisions and support the majority of students who do the right thing. I get it. I believe it. I tell my clients that. However, that does not mean that we are not remiss by not offering any opportunities for students and student groups to come clean.
The way bad decisions work (and I speak from experience) is that they are made and there is a period of time between the bad decision and when you get caught (assuming you get caught, which is less likely than we pretend it is.) During that time, you worry about what will happen if someone finds out, envisions your dream career and life evaporating into nothing, and the people you love and respect being so disgusted by you that they abandon you completely. For many students the time after the bad decision is when things get worse-they drink to drown the guilt, they start skipping class to avoid the professor, they get angry at the pledge that “makes them” feel bad, etc. Even more tragic is that they occasionally spend so much time trying not to feel terrible that they start justifying what they did. They say things like “everyone does it” and “it’s not that big of a deal.” When we do not help students be reflective and learn the right lesson, they teach themselves the one that makes things better for them.
And that’s where we fail all students.
What are we trying to teach the next generation of leaders? If the lesson is “never make a mistake or bad decision” then we are simply fools. Nobody goes through life flawless (except for maybe one skinny bearded fellow, and I’m pretty sure even he hung around with whores and thieves.) We should be teaching people that it is not a bad act that defines them, but what they do about their bad decisions. In other words: character is not defined by perfection, but by identifying when your actions have hurt someone or something and doing what you have to do to make it right.
Schools must offer a way for a student to come forward before he or she is caught and admit the mistakes he or she made without facing the same (or similar enough) consequences that he or she would if he or she was caught. That avenue should allow them to escape the more common penalty and instead provide them with the opportunity to make amends. SOME schools offer restorative justice options for lessor misconduct, but I don’t know of (m)any that allow larger misconduct to be dealt with in this manner.
For example, If a student copies a solution on a homework, hands it in, and immediately regrets it there should be a clear path for her to confess and do whatever is necessary to atone for that decision. Otherwise students will remain in the situation they are now—covering up all misconduct because they believe (usually correctly) that admitting it will guarantee that they get suspended or that they will otherwise be stopped from pursuing their dreams, even temporarily.
I am not saying the restorative path should be easy, or that students will be willing to do what’s necessary to redeem them. However, there is value in developing the next generation of leaders to be people that admit when they make mistakes and are willing to do whatever is necessary to repair the damage they cause. If a student comes forward for academic misconduct before the act is discovered, a professor could give them an incomplete, make them complete a substantial assignment, and lower their final grade even if they complete the assignment. That’s a punishment, but it also provides an incentive to do the right thing in a way that either getting away with it or having a hearing does not. If the atoning student chooses not to do the restorative work, then that refusal can be used against him or her at a subsequent hearing because their lack of character will make the current sanctions that much more appropriate.
Without providing students a “safer” way to come clean we are teaching them that once they make a mistake they should do everything they can to not get caught. That failure to develop character is much more serious to me than someone copying question #4 on the third homework in their Physics I class. Once you create a culture where the people who make the worst decisions do what they can to get away with that bad decision, you are actively taking people who are fundamentally good and train them to be the next Ken Lay or CEO at Bank of America. Colleges should do better.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments or at DaveK@Collegejudicialconsultants.com.