Consequences of plagiarism
March 8, 2007 9:15 PM   Subscribe

My partner has just been caught for plagiarism. I don't know many details because she won't talk about it, but I want to know what effect this will have on her future.

Mrs. Anon is a fourth year student at a Canadian university, currently completing the very last courses of her degree. Although I feel the need to make excuses for her, I realize that there is no excuse for intellectual theft, so I won't. She doesn't want to talk about it, so all I know is this:

Today she got a registered letter from the university telling her that they recognize her plagiarism offense.
She wasn't surprised at the letter, so she must have known about it in advance.
I don't know if the offense is from this semester or last semester.
I just checked her transcript online and there are no notes on it, but it may still be too early. I assume that since she got a registered letter from the university it is a formal offense and will go on her record.

What does it mean to have a plagiarism offense on your record? Who can see it? For how long?
Does this mean her dreams of graduate school are crushed?
What about other careers - if she applies to work for the government (etc.) will they see it?
How do I talk to her about this?

If anyone has gone through this and doesn't want to be outed in-thread, I have set up a throwaway email account at askmeplagiarism (chez) gmail (dot) com
posted by anonymous to Education (35 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure about Canadian schools, but it's not uncommon here in the states for plagarism to be an expellable offense.
posted by dantekgeek at 10:04 PM on March 8, 2007

It really depends. You don't know enough - buying a paper is more serious than not attributing the work of others when it only makes up part of the paper - to know what will happen. It might mean an F in the course, it might mean expulsion.

If the offense is serious enough to generate a note on her transcript, then anyone who gets the transcript will know about it. I never needed a transcript to get a job, so unless she's looking for a high-security position that should not pose a problem. Her dreams of grad school will likely have to be put on hold. She could go to another school to get a 2nd degree, and use that time to rebuild her credibility.

Really though, there's no way for anyone to tell you what will happen.
posted by Salmonberry at 10:17 PM on March 8, 2007

I teach part time at a University in London, and we've also seen in recent years a sharp increase in this.

Most Universities have a process. Simple receipt of a letter doesn't conclusively prove plagiarism. Was there a hearing? At our University we must refer these cases to Academic Standards who then schedule a series of hearings to investigate the allegation.

Also all plagiarism isn't created equal. A complete dissertation copied will, as dantekgeek points out, get students expelled at my University as well.

Copying smaller portions without citing the source - technically plagiarism - may merit reduction to pass / fail (slap on the wrist) or fail with repeat necessary (kick in the ass).

Not being surprised may indicate when grades were due her professor broke the bad news (I've had to do that as well as it is nothing that I take pleasure in) or she's already been through the process.

If she was expelled from the University I teach at the Administration would advise her never to mention the school as , if asked, they'll tell whomever asked about the expulsion.
posted by Mutant at 10:20 PM on March 8, 2007

Penalties at the (American) colleges and universities I've taught at range from an F for the plagiarized assignment to an F for the course to expulsion from the school. Just exactly how it's noted in the student's permeant record at the school varies from institution to institution. Plagiarism is generally considered to be the most serious academic offense you commit at the college level.

The fact that the university is notifying your SO formally and in writing leads me to believe that the institution is planning to note the plagiarism on her transcript. She should look carefully into the university's judicial committee appeals process.
posted by buriedpaul at 10:20 PM on March 8, 2007

In my experience, universities tend to have a wealth of information on their websites about what consistutes plagiarism, the processes if a student is accused of this, and what action the student can take, from getting advice from the ombudsman (service), student union, equity office, etc.

For example, I thought of a Canadian University, University of Alberta, and entered plagiarism in the search box and this is just one of the results I came up with.

You and Mrs Anon have a couple of issues though. Obviously, you need information on what's going to happen, and what's the best possible outcome.

I think you also need to be able to talk about important issues as a couple. I assume she's not talking because she's ashamed or expects you might berate her. Perhaps you need to let her know that if it was a body, you'd help her hide it, because you're on her side (or whatever you genuinely feel under these circumstances - a hyperbole of unconditional love, if you like) and you want to do whatever it takes to help her through but you need to know what's going on, and what she thinks and feels about it.
posted by b33j at 10:22 PM on March 8, 2007

Depends on the university. Check the handbook/website for specific information on plagiarism offenses. At my university, there is a very defined process by which someone is convicted (or not convicted) of plagiarism, or cheating, or any other academic integrity offense. Depending on the flagrancy of the crime--as mentioned before, did she simply forget/neglect/decide not to cite a source? did she copy a passage from someone else without citation? did she use someone else's paper from the same class? did she buy a paper online? each of these is probably/usually considered more egregious than the ones before it--a conviction can warrant failure on the assignment, failure in the class, suspension or expulsion.

As for the transcript, I don't think that grad school is totally off-limits. If she has an otherwise-exemplary transcript with this one simple blip, many grad schools should be willing to overlook it given she has an explanation, an apology, and perhaps a letter from the teacher or administrator in question expressing their belief that she made a slip-up and this isn't an expression of her character.

Without more details, it's hard to give you much concrete evidence, but good luck to you and to her! Everyone has done something awful that they regret; the ones that are caught are unlucky and don't deserve our scorn heaped upon the punishment they will inevitably receive.
posted by jckll at 10:25 PM on March 8, 2007

I know A&M has a bunch of stuff that they do. They have all the info online as a "hey, Kids don't do this or else this might happen" Chances are her university will have the info online too.
posted by magikker at 10:29 PM on March 8, 2007

I'm American. At universities here she could be expelled. Practically what this means is that she would have to apply to a university that would accept her other course credits. I know someone who was caught inputting fake data into his thesis. He was expelled, but managed to find another school that would take him and some of his credits.

I wouldn't be too hard on your girlfriend. Shit happens. In the grand scheme of things this could mean another year or two of school, but it doesn't have to be the end of the world.
posted by xammerboy at 10:32 PM on March 8, 2007

Sometimes what happens is that the student in question is no longer allowed to continue in that major.
posted by lilithim at 10:38 PM on March 8, 2007

Please explain.
They make you switch to some OTHER major?
Doesn't seem fair to the student OR the department the student gets dumped into...
posted by Dizzy at 10:44 PM on March 8, 2007

"Students may be dismissed from a course for breach of ethical responsibilities. See current undergraduate catalog and the Handbook for Undergraduate Nursing Students. A student dismissed for such a violation will not be allowed to continue in any clinical nursing course that semester, will be dropped from the nursing major at the end of the semester, and will not be readmitted to the major." From Winona State University's Undergrad Nursing handbook, Winona MN , found here.
Seems pretty straightforward to me. I would imagine that you would want to transfer somewhere else to continue in that same major. Don't know anyone that it's happened to, but it comes up in handbooks from time to time.
posted by lilithim at 11:20 PM on March 8, 2007

If she gets financial aid, then it might get cut. That is something you and/or Ms. Anon will have to look into yourself. Find out if her financial aid has a rule about it and find out if the university is planning on informing the financial aid institution.

I went partway through the process when a really nasty teacher who didn't like me accused me of committing fraud on a dissertation. I mentioned financial aid before, because the first thing he did, even before telling me I was accused, was to tell them to cut off my scholarship.

Whether they put it on the transcript is up to them. If she goes in and tries to explain herself and express how sorry she is, it could possibly pull on the heartstrings of whoever is in charge of disciplinary action. Maybe she should talk to a lawyer before doing that, though.

One consequence I can definitely attest to is that Ms. Anon will most likely be filled with stress. You appear to be an extremely loyal boyfriend and I commend you for that. I'm sure you'll be there for her when she needs it, but be prepared for her to get very depressed and anxious.
posted by giggleknickers at 11:40 PM on March 8, 2007

I currently teach p/t at a well-known institute of technology in Vancouver, and I have taught in local universities as well. There is nothing as disappointing for a teacher as catching a student when they are copying without attribution (plagiarizing). I've caught a few of my university students ripping off paragraphs of text from books and articles. My heart sank as I failed their assignment, and reported them to the director of my program.

Some of my cheating students simply failed the course, others were asked to redo the course (and pay for it again) under closer watch by their new lecturer. Others never came back. Others continued on, somehow. It all depends on what happens between the program director's office and the student.

Personally, I see the desire to cheat as a character issue - a great lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. With a little more effort, the student could have paraphrased better and added a bibliographical note. But no. And I caught my pragiarizers easily - there was a bit of text in their essays that was quite different (longer words, longer paragraph, better spelling) than the rest of the paper - so I put that bit into Google and presto.

What are the SO's career alternatives? Her prospects for graduate school are inexistent at the school where she was caught. Government work? Likely not good either, esp if a clearance is involved. Private enterprise perhaps - but job interviews nowadays often have an important ethics and behaviour component.

What happens next? I think your SO should visit the program director and frankly discuss her alternatives within the program if there are any. And follow this with a long conversation with you - with a long moment of reflection as well.
posted by seawallrunner at 12:08 AM on March 9, 2007

australian universities fail the person for that subject and depending on the degree may or may not expel them. either way, they (the uni) can't really put anything on a transcript other than "fail" because they'd need a court case to prove it etc etc etc.

so i wouldn't worry tooooo much about her future.

and i'd help her hide the body too, and she's not even my other 'arf. sometimes people plagiarise because they're working really long hours to support their student loans/degree and they just can't see a way out.

it's dumb, but i can see why it happens. i feel sorry for plagiarists.

...shovel in hand
posted by taff at 12:48 AM on March 9, 2007

This is the kind of question where the specifics of the college/university really matters, because plagiarism is handled so differently at different places. And even then, you have on one hand the official policy, and on the other hand how it is administered, and the two can be at great odds. As has been mentioned, there is usually a difference in how borrowing a few paragraphs for a minor paper in a course is handled, compared to copying all your thesis data. And there is a difference between the person who is unrepentant, and the person who genuinely screwed up and feels terrible and has clearly learned from the experience.

In the US, many schools have some form of "due process," involving a panel of "judges," the possibility of bringing an advocate, etc. But others don't, and it is purely at the discretion of one or two administrators, with a very limited appeal possible. And there is a huge variation on how or if it makes an appearance on the transcript. How much variation there is in Canada, I don't know.

If it is on the transcript (which honestly would surprise me -- I would expect the transcript to just show an "F") she is pretty screwed for applying to grad school until she gets a BA/BS elsewhere. Without mitigating explanations, a plagiarism notation would be one of the bigger red flags out there. There is the possibility, as someone noted, that she will be able to stay at the university, but no longer be welcomed in her original department. That is difficult, and will add time until graduation, but in the long term might be a good outcome. Certainly any administrator or professor with first hand knowledge of the case is not someone you would want to ask for a letter of reference.

I would urge you to encourage her to make sure she is protecting her rights --- going to hearings, appealing as appropriate, etc. Too often people get depressed and embarrassed and just want the whole thing to go away. But this is serious, with serious consequences, and even if she is 100% guilty, she needs to make sure that the school is behaving appropriately, following due process, etc. It's not inconceivable that that could include hiring a lawyer, but probably there is sufficient internal support for her to be able to do this on her own.
posted by Forktine at 2:22 AM on March 9, 2007

At my large U.S. university, students who plagiarize significantly are the only ones the university would ever send a letter to or initiate proceedings against. In other words, your SO would have had to have purchased a paper or copied a published work of substantial length in order to receive such a letter here. Simple poor-attribution or directly copying leads to, at most, a failing grade in a class.

Grad school is right out. If that is noted on your SO's transcript there is no way in hell that an admissions committee is going to accept your SO to their program. It is more than likely that any academic letters of reference are going to prominently display the fact that your SO likely plagiarized, and news of really bad plagiarisms travel VERY fast, even at huge universities... you generally need at least one letter of reference from your major department, and it is almost certain that everyone in your SO's department knows about this at this point (and can deduce that it was your SO in some way).

Also, by my experience, academic dishonesty and just plain-old run-of-the-mill general dishonesty go hand in hand. Be careful!

That said, your SO should protect their rights. In many cases a lawyer will get the university to back off -- though anyone who DID plagiarize and tries to strong-arm their way out of getting nabbed for it will be condemned to hell for all eternity. My experiences with university judicial boards is that they lack any kind of willpower to do anything difficult, even when faced with violent dorm residents and similar offenses...
posted by sablazo at 4:01 AM on March 9, 2007

If it is going to be on her transcript as a plagiarism incident, you can pretty much count on that being a deal-breaker for any good grad program. It's the single greatest offense to the academic community. If I catch a grad student plagiarizing anything, I toss her/him from our PhD program as immediately as possible (which has only happened once in more than a decade). I'm more lenient with undergrads, who sometimes deserve a chance to learn this lesson without career-changing consequences (and because the institution gives me less discretion with undergrad dishonesty cases), but I know my colleagues and I would not even consider admitting someone with a formal and serious plagiarism offense on her/his official record, or even someone we knew informally had plagiarized and thus failed a class. (We'd be unlikely to admit anyone with an F on a college transcript, anyway, unless the F were to be explained. And the natural inclination is to believe such an "F" expresses an academic dishonesty incident if a transcript is otherwise strong.) The same has been true in other grad programs (in various fields) I've been involved with.

So your friend would be well advised to fight this legally if there is any hope of a reduced penalty and if she seriously wants to go to grad school. On the other hand, if she really committed a major act of plagiarism, she shouldn't go to grad school unless and until she achieves complete understanding of why plagiarism is wrong, and goes through some sort of character building work that makes her confident it will never happen again. Harsh? Yeah, but that's because as bad as this episode may be, it ain't nothing like being kicked out of a grad program after you've invested 3 or 4 years of your life (and other peoples' time and money) in starting your career in a field you will thenceforth never work in again. And the humiliation factor is ten times worse in grad school, where everyone is supposed to be grown up enough to know better and your fellow students will feel betrayed by your plagiarism.

Sorry to be so brutal about this, but it's true. And kids, this is why you don't plagiarize even if you don't see it as wrong in an existential sense (which it is). These days, it happens a lot more (or so many think), but it's also a lot easier to catch. And if I know a student's writing even slightly, I almost always know when I'm reading someone else's writing under her/his name, as would any competent and experienced professor. We have high-tech tools and some of us are just as net-savvy as our students. I catch one case a year, usually, by simply googling a phrase I didn't think a student would write. Bingo.

If it stays on her transcript, and she is otherwise smart and talented and still plans to apply to grad school, she would be advised to explain it honestly and with remorse in her application.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:10 AM on March 9, 2007

I second Forktine's and Sabiazo's suggestions that this might not be the worst time in the world to consider talking to a lawyer.
posted by buriedpaul at 4:11 AM on March 9, 2007

You are owed an explanation for this. Intellectual dishonesty is not a nice trait but failing to explain this to you is worse. She should forget graduate school. Having to resort to plagiarism at undergraduate level should be a fairly strong indicator she is not cut out for academia, even if a school were prepared to accept her. She will probably be happier in the long run anyway.

Consulting a lawyer at this stage seems bizarre unless she is convinced that the accusation is false or the university have been dealing with the situation incorrectly (perhaps Canada is as litigious as the US now?).
posted by zemblamatic at 5:58 AM on March 9, 2007

I'm going to take a different tack than most of the posters: perhaps she's innocent, and is so thoroughly mortified by the whole affair that she hopes it will simply go away if she doesn't talk/think about it.

...I was accused of plagiarism by a professor -- not the simple "cut and paste" plagiarism, but the more complicated "you are not smart enough to write this, therefore you stole it from someone else" kind.

Since I had just finished three weeks of utter insanity (I skipped spring break for gods' sake!) writing possibly the best paper of my life to date, for a class I hated and a professor I despised, this destroyed me.

Fortunately for me, some other profs came to my defense, and I wasn't expelled, just given a lower grade. Rather than fight the matter, I just wanted to let it drop, and I took the lower grade even though I was provably innocent. This still rankles.

The point being, I still don't like to talk about it, even with longterm friends. It pisses me off to this day -- pisses me off because I still hate that professor, and pisses me off because I accepted the lower grade rather than kick him in the balls and go for full exoneration.
posted by aramaic at 6:33 AM on March 9, 2007

There was a study on academic dishonesty done at Guelph that found really high rates of various kinds of cheating. Part of the problem with cheating is that the line is not always clear. I definitely struggled as an undergrad trying to figure out whether something was "common knowledge" and how to distinguish effectively (in my papers) between my ideas and those of others.

I think the leap from "she's getting a letter" to "she has a fundamental character flaw" is completely unjustified, given what we know. Profs and TAs have different tolerances for these things, and we have no idea what her infraction actually was. According to the Guelph study, 45% of undergrads admit to activities that are considered cheating by some profs or TAs.

anonymous, if you want to talk to her about this, then the non-judgemental approach is best. Tell her that you are worried about her, and that you want to help and be supportive. Tell her that you want to understand what happened. If you feel like it is a deal-breaker, then press her, but otherwise, tell her that your main concern is for her, and she doesn't have to talk about it unless she wants to, and that you will always be there for her if she does want to talk about it.
posted by carmen at 6:49 AM on March 9, 2007

First off, let me say I do not condone this kind of activity, nor do I feel those you commit it deserve any leniency, but I do feel the above posters are being way too doom and gloom.

At $Large_State_University where I work, this has come up a few times, but NEVER have I known a student to be expelled. For the most part, a university wants you in school and learning and they also want you to learn from your mistakes (they also want your money, but we'll take the high road here and ignore that). If you approach this in a humble I'm-sorry-I-made-a-mistake, they're going to give you every option to correct your mistake. This isn't to say you'll get off scott free, but there's very little reason for it to be the end of one's academic career.

I can't speak for every university on the face of the earth (nor really even for my own) but please don't assume the worst until they actually throw the book at you. Universities have their own brand of justice, and it very rarely comes down hard on anyone who is otherwise progressing well.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:49 AM on March 9, 2007

Forktine: This is the kind of question where the specifics of the college/university really matters, because plagiarism is handled so differently at different places. And even then, you have on one hand the official policy, and on the other hand how it is administered, and the two can be at great odds.

Exactly. But I will say that is this gets on her transcript or finds its way into any of her other application materials, no graduate school will accept her.
posted by LarryC at 8:04 AM on March 9, 2007

Mod note: A bunch of personal-relationship back-and-forth pruned. Please stick to the question.
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:07 AM on March 9, 2007

I'm pretty sure that the student legal clinic at U of T represents students accused of academic offences -- if your university has a law school, maybe encourage her to see if they do as well? She could get some help to deal with (and possibly reduce) the consequences, if any...
posted by girlpublisher at 9:36 AM on March 9, 2007

The answers to all your questions depend entirely on how seriously the university views your wife's offense and what specific penalties the university has for her level of offense. Unfortunately, the letter from the school means that the penalty will likely be something more than a stern talking-to, which is the default for an 'unofficially recognized' offense. Official penalties can range from getting a 0 on the assignment (not very significant) to getting expelled and having notice of her offense appended to official transcripts (her degree will basically be worthless as collateral for further studies). Her case will be exacerbated by the fact that she is a mature fourth year student - universities typically are more lenient towards freshman and sophomore plagiarists.

As for how you should talk to her about it, I suggest adopting a completely non-judgmental tone and seeing if you can help her address whatever underlying cause led to her feeling like she needed to resort to plagiarism. Of course, there is also the possibility that she did not plagiarize anything and that the university is mistaken, in which case you need to find out from her how you can best support her as she fights the allegations. Even allegations of plagiarism can be a huge black mark on an academic, and it's important that you be there to support her through this process. I honestly believe that good, otherwise upstanding people can resort to plagiarism when under extreme circumstances. I'm taken aback by some of the suggestions given here. Although plagiarism can be a symptom of a deep character flaw, I believe it can be committed by good folks who are in a pickle and feel like they have no other choice.
posted by sid at 9:37 AM on March 9, 2007

But with the pressures of high-level education today, if we are not prepared to forgive one transgression from an otherwise-honest student

No, dude. If someone cannot handle the pressures of high-level education today -- he should not get a degree. A degree is the piece of paper that means "[Your name here] was able to handle the pressures of high-level education." If that is not true, you should not get the paper. That would devalue it for others who worked for it, and that is not fair.

People are single mothers, people work two jobs, people are dyslexic, people are not as smart as you, and they work hard and make it happen. Other people, like me, find they cannot make it happen, so they drop out and try again later. Like I said, Mrs. Anon may have extenuating circumstances -- even, like Aramaic, innocence -- but this is not some paperwork hassle. This is about Mrs. Anon's character, and Mr. Anon has a right to expect some explanation.

I don't say all this to condemn you partner and say she's terrible, Anon -- everyone does wrong things and things they regret. Everybody's human and these things are part of who we are. But I get the feeling that you didn't know before that, well, this is who Mrs. Anon is. You can't love someone if he won't let you know who he is. Don't let her pretend that your role in this is to be supportive, if she refuses to let you know what you are supporting.
posted by Methylviolet at 9:41 AM on March 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Don't call a lawyer. Oy.

The answers here depend on what the university's procedure is. She should talk to someone who understands the reality of HER university's procedures. Look through the campus directory for "student advocates" or something along those lines, and if all else fails, call the dean of students' office to ask who she should be talking to.

Typically, there will be a hearing if there's going to be any kind of lasting penalty (in front of the Academic Honor Board or a similar panel consisting of administrators, faculty, sometimes students). The best she can do is cooperate fully, express deep remorse, be open about whether she understood what she was doing (sometimes students are confused about citation rules, but this is more plausible in first-years), and ask what she can do to make it right. Can she write a new paper from scratch? Ask what will show up on her record. Sometimes different things are visible to administrators within the school than are on the transcript they send out into the world. Ask if she will be allowed to graduate.

The grad school issue probably depends on her relationship with faculty members. She will need recommendations to get in. Has she poisoned her chances of getting them? The only way to find out is to ask the people involved -- along with expressing deep remorse, lesson learned, wanting to continue in the field, and is there anything I can do to make this better?

As for jobs after university, many/most of them don't need to see a transcript at all. So all that will matter is whether she graduates.

The best thing you can do is to help her be active in tackling this problem -- to act like a contrite adult, show up to the meetings, take it seriously, etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:25 AM on March 9, 2007

Should add: if she plagiarized in a class in the discipline she wants to go to grad school in, any professor will be ethically required to mention it in their letter. That will be a serious barrier to getting in. The best she can do for herself on this score would be to explain as fully as possible, and be as remorseful as possible -- that way, the professor can write in their letter about how remorseful, how adult, she is, and how they believe it was a one-time thing.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:29 AM on March 9, 2007

(I worked for several years as an administrative assistant for a dean of a graduate school and saw a great deal of plagiarism being dealt with).

This question is really unanswerable, because it depends entirely on the gravity of the offense, how she deals with it, and the policies of the university. Consequences could be as little as having to rewrite something with minimal impact on her academic standing or as serious as being expelled and seriously impacting her ability to enter graduate school, with a detrimental impact on her future employment prospects.
posted by nanojath at 10:40 AM on March 9, 2007

I can't believe how harsh some people are being on your SO. Plagiarizing is stupid and wrong, but it can happen for all sorts of reasons - pressure etc. - and for crying out loud, people make mistakes. They should have the chance to redeem themselves. It certainly doesn't mean that she's "not cut out for academia," or that she's generally dishonest, or some such nonsense - it probably just means she had a lapse for some reason or another. It will probably force her to change her strategies for applying to grad school, and she may have more trouble finding a department that will be willing to give her a second chance. But I doubt it's impossible.

I don't know what her university will do, but it sounds like from you she needs understanding and support.
posted by walla at 10:55 AM on March 9, 2007

Consulting a lawyer at this stage seems bizarre unless she is convinced that the accusation is false or the university have been dealing with the situation incorrectly (perhaps Canada is as litigious as the US now?).

So if I get caught red-handed robbing a bank, I shouldn't call a lawyer, either?

Even if you're 100% guilty, a lawyer can still help reduce the punishment, or even get you off. No sense rolling over, and making it easy for the university to destroy your future.
posted by ewiar at 12:21 PM on March 9, 2007

Oh baloney. If you get caught robbing a bank, you'll be facing the court system. That is what lawyers are for. It's a different system than internal disciplinary hearings at a university. Universities generally have internal student advocates for exactly this reason.

If she lawyers up, it's possible that it would reduce the punishment. But I wouldn't want to give odds on that -- universities rarely bring formal charges (ie do more than fail you in a class) without pretty clear evidence, for exactly this reason.

And think about what a lawyer's going to say to the administration -- all she can say is "if you impose this penalty, we will sue you for damages". Anecdotally, lawyering up and trying to bully your way out of an academic penalty is seen as an admission of guilt without remorse. This is exactly the wrong impression if she wants to salvage any hope of continuing on the grad school.

Obviously she should keep paper records of everything that happens, and she should insist on having a witness present at any meetings. Then if the university treats her unfairly, she can lawyer up later. But for now she should try to work with the university to see if there's a way to get an okay outcome.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:49 PM on March 9, 2007

Ok, let me amend that. She should talk to the dean or student advocates and find out what exactly she's charged with, and what the likely penalties are. If they're going to expel her, then it might be lawyer time, because she's got nothing to lose by hiring a lawyer. But short of that, I still say don't go in with a lawyer to begin with.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:54 PM on March 9, 2007

About a year ago I failed a student for plagiarism. He had very obviously used a paper from a student who had taken a similar course (not from me) a few years earlier.

I failed the student. He emailed me and asked me why, for which I asked that he discuss the matter with me in person. He never showed. I think if he had shown up and been truly remorseful and honest about his paper, I might have simply failed that single paper and he would have passed the course.

Before I did anything, however, I spoke with the program director. We looked over the paper together to ensure that I wasn't misinterpreting. We agreed that it was a pretty straightforward case.

We had a choice at that point. University policy was that this should be reported to the administration, and it would be recorded on an internal student file. Until a second offense, however, the student would not be punished by the school; it was entirely up to me. At the second offense, however, they administration might consider expulsion and a transcript notation.

If this is your SO's first offense, the letter might be the extent of the punishment. She could be safe for now, and as long as she avoids future misconduct.

After talking with her, you have nothing to lose by calling the folks who sent the letter (was it the administration or the department? It matters.) and asking about consequences and possible remedies. They sent the letter; they know already. Calling and asking shows that you are concerned and want to resolve the problem. Concern is good.

Finally, sometimes a registered letter from a university, on official letterhead, might be from a single professor. When I was a Freshman way back in the 80s, I turned in a final exam where, instead of answering the questions, I wrote a lengthy screed criticizing the professor. I was mean.

In those days before the magic of the internet, grades were sent in the mail. Because my folks were paying for my education at that point, I was terrified that they'd see my failure (I was sure I would fail the course; I deserved to fail the course) and that I'd get punished. So I checked the mail every day to try to intercept the letter with my grades.

When the official-looking letter finally did arrive, I quickly shoved it under my shirt and casually locked myself in the bathroom to see it. Lo and behold, it wasn't my grades. It was a letter from Dr. Doofus, apologizing for any offense he might have given me and wishing me the best of luck with my education in the future. (Yes, he was a true gentleman in the face of my obnoxious 18-year-old-ness.)

I failed the class, and learned a huge lesson. Thank heavens for educators who actually care about education, and not just their own narrow research.

The point is that this might be a terrifying, valuable, and positive experience for both of you. Deal with the consequences, act like grown-ups, and don't make similar mistakes in the future.
posted by terceiro at 10:49 AM on March 10, 2007

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