7/16/2018 Collaboration Room

A room in the Mechanical Engineering building is designated as a space for collaboration. 

A University investigation that netted 20 people at its outset, all of South Asian descent, ended recently with the expulsion of three students.

One of the three students expelled at the end of the investigation, who reached out to The Exponent but asked to not be named in the digital version of the story, filed a complaint with the Office of Institutional Equity before his appeal of the decision was denied last week. His complaint was filed on the grounds of harassment and discrimination based on his nationality and ethnicity.

In a major as demanding as mechanical engineering, the man from India said students often band together. Group chats with hundreds of students are used for homework help, labs are often completed in pairs and collaboration rooms created by the University encourage group work. He wonders, though, why his use of those resources has resulted in expulsion, while nothing has been done to eliminate resources used by students that walk the line between collaboration and academic dishonesty.

The incident

A single lab report the student turned in with his lab partner following spring break is to blame for the investigation, he said. He and his lab partner told The Exponent they didn’t do the necessary work over break to have a lab assignment completed by the due date.

So they searched for an alternative.

His lab partner, who asked that his name not be published, found a completed version of the virtual instrument they were tasked with creating online, and the two modeled their own work after it. Similar methods are not uncommon among mechanical engineering students, they said, pointing to a GroupMe chat with assignment answers and a dropbox called the “Purdue Bible” with previous years’ work as examples. Not long after turning the assignment in, they received a request to meet from their teaching assistant.

At the meeting, the student and his partner said they were offered the chance to admit to cheating on the one lab report they’d just turned in. In exchange, the teaching assistant

the teaching assistant, who did not respond to a request for comment, told them they wouldn’t be reported to the dean of students.

The students said they agreed to the arrangement and accepted fault, which they don’t dispute even today.

Later, nearly all of their previously completed and graded labs in the course were retroactively changed to zeroes.

The investigation

On April 27 at 8 a.m., the two were sent an email from James Jones, associate professor and associate head of the School of Mechanical Engineering.

“It is imperative for us to meet today (Friday, April 27),” the email informing the two of the impending investigation into their past misconduct read.

The meeting was scheduled for noon and included Jones and Kara Latopolski, assistant dean of students in the office of Students Rights and Responsibilities, according to the student who contacted the Exponent and his lab partner. Roughly nine of the 20 students identified in the preliminary stage of the investigation met with Jones and Latopolski individually that day.

His lab partner said he waited in Schleman Hall for hours in silence — his phone, like the rest of his classmates, having been taken away — before meeting with the two administrators.

Both the student and his lab partner said the meeting was primarily to communicate to them the extent of the investigation, which had uncovered irregularities in the students’ coursework dating back to the spring of 2017.

Beyond merely informing him of the investigation started by the OSRR into his academic career, the student’s lab partner said he was shown a picture, which he provided to The Exponent, from a mechanical engineering 315 exam he took in the fall of 2017.

The photo was taken from the front of the classroom and showed students taking the exam. The version of the photo shown to the student’s lab partner had every person of South Asian descent circled. Jones and Latopolski, he said, used the photo to ask if he was aware of any cheating.

“This was one of the most difficult exams that I’ve ever taken, and my focus was solely on my exam,” he recalled telling the administrators. “So I don’t know if anyone moved toward me.”

The photo was the first time the two said they began to suspect bias at play.

“These two people are 4 or 5 inches apart,” the lab partner said, pointing to two uncircled white students in the foreground of the photo. “But they were not accused of copying. I don’t know why.”

Their suspicions deepened later when the lab partner showed Jones and Latopolski a GroupMe chat containing the answers to lab reports with 107 members, few of whom were of South Asian descent.

He said they responded by saying they would try to do their due diligence and look into the chat, but resources were limited.

Jones did not respond to a request for comment, and Latopolski directed The Exponent to a representative in the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities.

The student and his lab partner finished the semester and the class with their teacher's assistant. To ensure they wouldn’t add to their problems, the two said they began altering their work habits, sometimes even doing their homework individually in the teaching assitant's office hours.

On May 26, as the lab partner was readying to leave from the Indianapolis International Airport for India to tend to a family emergency and the first student settled into his summer routine, they received word that their hearing with the Community Standards Board had been scheduled.

According to Jeff Stefancic, associate dean of students in the OSRR, cases deemed serious enough to warrant suspension or expulsion are first heard by a community standards board, which then forwards its findings to the dean of students to make a final decision.

Stefancic said the board considers a student’s past conduct, even if it is outside the scope of the current investigation, when making a recommendation. The student who contacted The Exponent had previously been cited three times, albeit informally in the form of a conduct conference, prior to the current hearing.

His first two violations originated from coding assignments he submitted during his freshman year. He was reportedly not able to rectify the problems from the first violation prior to the second one being handed down because he said he had not received notice of the first one by the time he submitted the second assignment.

The third violation, he said, stemmed from an exam he took during his junior year. He said he knew the answer to the exam’s last question without having to do any calculations, but that violated the professor’s policy, which required calculations be done for all questions.

The fallout

The CSB recommended that the first student be expelled. And Katherine L. Sermersheim, the dean of students, agreed.

He appealed his decision on the grounds that the University didn’t follow established procedure, but last week he was notified that Jenna Rickus, vice provost for teaching and learning, upheld the ruling.

His lab partner’s consequences were less severe but still altered the direction of his future. He’ll have to wait until May 2019 to retrieve his degree, and a job he planned to start in July is now a lost opportunity, he said.

Unlike his lab partner, who has a green card, the first student is here on a student visa. A representative with the office of International Students and Scholars cautioned him after his expulsion decision was rendered about a new federal policy planned to take effect on Aug. 9.

The policy, created under the guidance of the administration of President Donald Trump, would invalidate a person’s student visa the day after a violation of their status. Previously, a person with a student visa would not accrue unlawful presence until being formally notified by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

Because the first violation the University cited was from January 2017, the student’s visa might be considered invalid dating back to that point under the new policy.

“The fault of the university is now unintentionally causing me to break federal law,” he said. “If they had notified me then (in January 2017), that would have been the first violation and I would have been expelled then and left the country.”

Now, he is uncertain as to whether he should leave the country as soon as possible or wait and pursue possible options until Aug. 9.

When he first spoke with The Exponent, he planned to leave for India yet this week. On Sunday, he said he will wait to meet with Christine Collins, director of international student services, before ultimately deciding what his next step is.

He acknowledged the uncertainties and obstacles he’s likely to encounter in the months to come, all without the substantive support from family abroad. Asked if he felt equipped to handle the road ahead, his reply was quick and certain.

“Not at all,” he muttered beneath a sigh.

When is it collaboration?

The two students maintain today that some of their conduct wasn’t inappropriate under the guidelines of ME 475’s course policies, as outlined on the syllabus.

Absent from the syllabus obtained by The Exponent was an academic integrity statement, which the OSRR highly recommends instructors include, Stefancic said, as it helps to snuff out any confusion.

Lab partners were required in the class, and the pair said collaboration is encouraged in the major generally speaking, pointing out there are even rooms designed to cater to that goal.

Even without the policy on the syllabus, however, Stefancic said students are still held to the standards set out by the overarching code of conduct.

To the student and his lab partner, however, the syllabus acts as a contract between instructors and students. If a policy isn’t listed in the policy section of a syllabus, they asked, how are students intended to know about it?

“I thought what I was doing was right,” the lab partner said, “until I was notified at the end of my four year term.”

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