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Honor Council removes undergraduates from graduate cases, violates constitution

By Tina Nazerian     8/28/14 7:39pm

The Faculty Senate approved the recommendations of the Working Group on the Honor Council and Graduate Students last April to form a graduate honor council separate from the undergraduate council, according to the chair of the working group Graham Bader.

“We didn’t make any changes at all,” Bader said. “We suggested some, and now, the Provost may put [the recommendations] into effect.”

Whether the Provost acts on the recommendations and forms the separate graduate honor council depends on the proposals of a newly-formed Faculty Senate Working Group, according to Speaker of the Faculty Senate James Weston.

“We hope that the [new] working group will report back to the senate by the end of the year with a proposal,” Weston said. “I want the working group to represent broad constituencies of stakeholder groups across the university.”

The Faculty Senate Working group will design the structure of the new body, which should be fully operational by fall 2015, according to Bader.

If the Provost decides to enact the Working Group’s recommendations and form a separate graduate honor council, which would also include faculty members, he would not be following procedures outlined in the current Honor Council Constitution.

According to Article XXIII of the Honor Council Constitution, proposed amendments to the Honor System must be approved by a three-fourths majority in both the Honor Council and the Graduate Student Association Council, as well as the senior Judicial Affairs officer, before being put to a vote by the undergraduate student body. However, no such undergraduate student body vote will take place if the Faculty Senate moves forward as planned.

“We didn’t think the amendment procedure as outlined by the constitution made much sense in this case,” Bader said. “The proposed changes solely concern graduate education, but the voting procedure as outlined requires a 3/4 majority of undergraduate votes to approve changes. This clearly doesn’t make much sense. Graduate education policy shouldn´t be under the sole control of undergraduates. Hence, we proposed that the provost put the proposed changes into effect.”

In spring 2014, the Working Group on the Honor Council and Graduate Students presented its findings and concluded that there is currently skepticism regarding how the existing Honor Council handles graduate student cases, and the integrity of the system needed to be restored.

Associate Dean of Undergraduates Donald Ostdiek said the splitting of the Honor Council does not change how the Honor Code applies to graduate and undergraduate students – rather, it just changes the adjudication process once there is an accusation.

“If you're a faculty member of a graduate program, and your student plagiarized in a graduate course, you'd view that differently than if you had an undergraduate who plagiarized,” Ostdiek said.

According to Ostdiek, the current Honor Council cannot have a different set of sanctions for graduate students versus undergraduate students.

Graduate student Suraya Khan, who is not on the Honor Council but represents the Graduate Student Association on the Working Group on the Honor Council and Graduate Students, said many professors were not sending cases to the Honor Council for adjudication because they felt the system was not working well enough.

“It seems like there were cases where lawyers were getting involved, and trying to say that [the Honor Council] will not hold up in a court of law – I don't know the full details of these cases,” Khan said. “It seems like there have been some issues, and a lot of professors have not felt that the system was working well enough and weren't sending cases to the Honor Council.”

Khan said there is often a power imbalance when undergraduates on the Honor Council must judge a very advanced student who might have had a career and has legal counsel that might come in and try to influence proceedings.

“I think there is an understanding that it would be a little bit better to have an Honor Council with more graduate students and even more faculty who are advanced and provide more of a backbone for proceeding,” Khan said.

Ostdiek said although graduate students are on the Honor Council, and there have even some graduate student chairs, for the most part, the Honor Council has been focused on undergraduate education.

“Historically, there would be cases that come in from graduate student programs, but there were so few that it wasn't really a big deal,” Ostdiek said.

According to Ostdiek, one of the faculty concerns was the Honor Council starting to get an increased amount of cases from graduate school.

“In some cases, the hearings became difficult and even traumatic for the Honor Council,” Ostdiek said. “After a particularly difficult set of cases a few years ago, the Honor Council leadership came to me and said, ‘Get us out of this, it doesn’t make sense for us to be deciding these penalties.’”

Honor Council Chair Hurst Williamson said he did not feel any imbalance in pressure or authority when he presided over a case with an older MBA student.

“Truthfully, there is no difference for me as chair or for council members in general,” Williamson, a Hanszen College senior, said. “Our system is designed to investigate and hear cases for students in a uniform and unbiased manner, and the system is designed so that it doesn't matter if the student is 18 or 40. I have heard cases for many graduate students, and I have never felt that they were any different from undergraduate cases.”

Ostdiek said he does not disagree with Williamson on the capabilities of the Council’s members, but that making a council specific to graduate students is not about the Council not being up to the task.

“Our Honor Council is very capable,” Ostdiek said. “In fact, I think it has been quite incredible over the years, and Rice should be very proud of it and the job the students on it do.”

Williamson said he is not in favor of splitting the Council since even though penalties levied by the Council could have heavier implications for graduate student than undergraduates, they signed the same honor code.

"The argument on their part is that anything less than a B for a graduate student is like an F, and that while the Honor Council is a great thing, that penalty structure is not fair to them, in that they could essentially lose their career based on something,” Williamson said.

Ostdiek said a separate honor council would not change what is expected of graduate students.

“Graduate students are still subject to the same honor code,” Ostdiek said. “You can't get unauthorized aid. It is not made more strict, it is not made less strict.”

Ostdiek said undergraduates knew this change was happening and had been part of the process.

“This is policy making by consensus of the people involved, with the major actors at all levels, including students,” Ostdiek said. “The Honor Council and the SA were both involved. They had representation.”

English graduate student Larry Butz said because graduate students have different institutional situations, it would make sense that the Honor Council adjudication process is different for them.

“I know that [graduate] students have received form letters that indicate procedures for undergraduates only, and it is very unclear who we are supposed to contact and how to go about resolving issues,” Butz said.

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