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Mechanical engineering professor says he was pressured to flunk Asian students after probe

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Rhitankar Saha Roy was a senior last spring, counting on graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering and moving on to a research position at a graduate school in Michigan.

Instead, the international student found himself facing expulsion when he and 23 other international mechanical engineering students were caught up in a cheating scandal. He and another student entangled in the situation began to record various meetings with professors and administrators who would control their futures.

Roy and two others, all from India, were expelled, despite successful grade appeals that reversed the F's they'd been given.

On one recording, one professor whose course was involved said he considered acquiring legal representation because he was being pressured to fail the students during the grade-appeal process.

The recordings given to The Exponent suggest there was a dispute among instructors and administrators about the severity of the alleged cheating. That friction became apparent when the students appealed the F's they received following the investigation.

Under pressure

Mechanical engineering professor Song Zhang told Roy in one of the recorded conversations that he faced pressure and resistance from administrators when he tried to process Roy's appeal.

Upon reviewing documents associated with the appeal, Zhang told Roy that, in his opinion, the alleged offenses did not warrant the F.

But upper-level administrators, he said in the recording, “came to my office to force me to fail all of you guys.”

The work being scrutinized involved only lab reports, and Zhang told Roy in a recording he didn’t see an abnormal amount of collaboration in the documents he reviewed. What he did find aligned with what he would expect from two lab partners.

Still, the pressure persisted.

“Whoever made the decision on that, they want to stick to it,” he said in the recording, explaining the pressure he was receiving. “They don’t want us to get involved. I said, ‘No, this is not legal.'”

Zhang spoke with ME administrators about his rights in this situation and ultimately discussed the issue with Trent Klingerman, a lawyer in Purdue’s Office of Legal Counsel. Klingerman advised Zhang to process the appeal as he would in any other situation, according to the recording.

Klingerman denied comment for this story, he said, because the conversation he had with Zhang was privileged.

Zhang confirmed that it was his voice on the recording but did not wish to elaborate.

“The way I treated you is the way I treat other students,” he assured Roy in the recorded conversation.

The investigation

The top-down investigation, reported by The Exponent in July, was led by the associate head of the mechanical engineering department, James Jones, and a teaching assistant who caught the first alleged offense of two students — or, as was the case, the students’ last offense at Purdue.

The TA tapped to do the legwork inspected much of the students’ current coursework in mechanical engineering classes. As the investigation progressed, the timeline in question lengthened, eventually involving courses the students took in the spring of 2017.

Instructors of courses in which the students allegedly cheated were told about the investigation at the end of the spring semester, according to one professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing Office of Institutional Equity investigation.

But that was reportedly the extent of their involvement.

That professor said he was informed over the summer while he was overseas that the investigation had concluded. Investigators recommended the students receive failing grades.

He agreed, but he would later call it his biggest mistake in the entire ordeal.

The first and last offense

In the instance that started it all, two students, one of whom declined to comment for this story, returned from Spring Break without having completed the necessary work to finish an assigned lab.

So they looked to the internet, according to one student who asked not to be named in the digital version of this story, and modeled their work after a virtual instrument they found online. Their TA noted the consistencies in their work and met with the two students to discuss the problem.

The student said he and his lab partner were told that if they admitted to cheating on that particular lab assignment, they would be given an F for the one assignment and not be reported to the dean of students.

The two agreed.

Not long after that meeting, the student and his lab partner noticed all of their previously completed and graded lab assignments were turned into F's.

A full investigation ensued, during which the students provided information about a GroupMe chat involving more than 100 people that contained assignment answers and pointed to a widely known "Purdue Bible" as examples of resources other students might use to cheat. 

Jones acknowledged the existence of those resources in one of the recorded conversations but said it is difficult to determine who is using them and where they are.

"You and I both know the Purdue Bible, drop boxes are floating around," he told the student. "They're all out there somewhere, but none of us can see that."

It's likely, Jones said in the recording, that other students also used the resource. But he said a lack of time and personnel limits the number of cases he can look into.

The inclusion of solely South Asian students in the investigation, however, led the student to believe there was a level of racial bias at play.

When the investigation came to a close, Jones and the TA directed their findings to the Community Standards Board in the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, which heard the case.

The CSB provided a recommendation of expulsion for one student to the dean of students, Katherine Sermersheim, a recommendation the dean upheld. Two others received recommendations for less severe sanctions.

The dean, however, decided to expel all three, according to Roy. 

Sermersheim did not return a request for comment earlier this week.

The grade appeal

Before the OSRR hearing, Jones sent the students an email informing them they would be given final grades of F's in the affected courses. They were also told they could appeal those grades through the pre-established process.

However, Jones further advised the students to disregard the first two informal steps of the process, which entail an informal discussion with instructors.

“Also, typically the first two steps of the appeal process involves speaking directly with your instructor and then to the Head (or his designee, typically myself),” Jones wrote in the email. “You can forgo these two steps as I can attest that these mediation steps won’t resolve your concerns.”

Jones cautioned the students that the grade appeal process likely would not be completed until this fall because of faculty availability — a point of concern for the international students who worried about their immigration statuses.

A policy created under the guidance of President Donald Trump invalidates a person’s visa the day after the first violation of their status. That policy went into effect Aug. 9. Previously, a person with a student visa would not accrue unlawful presence until they were formally notified by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

Because the first violation the University cited was from January 2017, the students' visas could be considered invalid under the policy dating back to that point.

The students have since left the country, which the student said has only made things more complicated.

"All of our Purdue accounts have been deactivated," he said in a Facebook message from India. "Our email is no longer active. Neither is Purdue Blackboard. ... Explaining everything to the family and friends back here has been a draining and stressful process because, according to them, THIS NEVER HAPPENS AT SUCH A BIG UNIVERSITY."

All of the students’ grade appeals were completed this summer, and not one of them received a single F after the appeals were processed.

Jones declined comment for this story after being asked about the recording, saying he was bound by a confidentiality requirement.

The preliminary report being produced by the OIE investigation was supposed to be released this week, according to the student first identified after Spring Break. But he said he received notification this week that the report's release has been pushed back to Sept. 5.

Instructors uneasy

Multiple instructors who spoke with The Exponent expressed reservations about the investigation.

Instructors ultimately have the final say in the outcome of individual cases, Jones told another involved student in a recorded conversation provided to The Exponent. But because he wasn’t involved in the initial probe, the instructor was forced to evaluate hundreds of documents at once when the grade appeals were filed this summer.

After the grade appeals were processed, each of the students' F's was reverted. The fact that many have all the credits they need to graduate, but their expulsion prevents them from being granted a degree, was a point of concern for multiple instructors.

Jeffery Stefancic, associate dean of students in the OSRR, said in an email that the credits a student earns are separate from sanctions rendered by the OSRR and the dean of students.

Once Zhang was able to see the scope of the investigation and the severity of the alleged offenses, he told Roy, according to the recording, he was deeply disappointed in how things unfolded.

“If my kids were treated the way you guys were treated," he told Roy in the recording, "I would not be happy."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article said professor Song Zhang denied comment on the situation. Zhang confirmed it was his voice on the recordings but did not wish to elaborate.

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