Judge Rules Against UCSD in Academic Integrity Case

A superior court judge ruled in favor of former UCSD student Jonathan Dorfman on Sept. 30. Dorfman had been appealing the charges that he violated UCSD Policy on Integrity of Scholarship ever since he was accused five years ago. In 2015, a state appeals court ruled that UCSD officials obstructed Dorfman’s right to due process by withholding the identity of the student, known as “Student X,” from whom Dorfman allegedly cheated.

Dorfman’s attorney, Robert Ottilie, suggested that his client might sue UCSD for damages if investigators knew that Student X was not sitting near Dorfman during the exam but moved forward with the cheating charge regardless. However, Ottilie was pleased with the long-awaited ruling in favor of his client.

“This is a total victory for John, and he couldn’t be happier,” Ottilie told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “His record is cleared. Any mention of this is eliminated.”

According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, chemistry professor John Crowell noticed that Dorfman’s Scantron test had been altered. Crowell provided four different versions of the exam, labeled A, B, C or D, to 618 students who were also given corresponding Scantron sheets. If there was a discrepancy, students were asked to notify the instructor. Dorfman claimed that the test and his Scantron sheet were mismatched, so he changed one to pair with the other, asserting that he did not recall instructions prohibiting students from altering the tests, possibly because he arrived late.

Crowell reported that 24 of Dorfman’s 26 answers exactly matched that of Student X’s. After consulting another professor, he decided that the similarities between the two Scantrons were statistically improbable and notified Dorfman that he was suspected of cheating. Dorfman requested a hearing with the Academic Integrity Review Board to dispute the charge and asked for a seating chart of the students taking the exam, but Crowell had not made one.

Ottilie explained that the identity of Student X could have proven whether the two students were sitting near each other during the exam. In addition, the UCSD Policy on Integrity of Scholarship states, “The Instructor and the Student shall have the right to present Relevant Parties and question all Relevant Parties present at the [Academic Integrity Review],” which, according to Ottilie, Student X would have constituted in this particular case.

The university, however, argued that revealing the student’s identity would violate university policy and that Student X was not aware of the allegations, making them an irrelevant witness while exposing them to retaliation.

Gary Pavela, former president of the International Center for Academic Integrity, questioned the necessity for UCSD to withhold information that could change the outcome of the case.

“I think it’s reasonable for universities to have protective policies and to be concerned about retaliation, but if the court is saying there’s no evidence of threats to a witness, I would just reveal the name of that student,” Pavela told Inside Higher Ed. “I’m concerned about enforcing a policy without thinking through the reasons for the policy.”

Dorfman was expelled after the university ruled against him, noting that this was his second academic integrity offense. He appealed to UCSD’s Council of Provosts by arguing that changing a version letter on a Scantron was not in direct violation of the university’s policies, which would result in insufficient evidence of cheating. He was granted a second hearing after the Council decided that it was improper for Crowell to ask for another professor’s opinion, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. The court ruled in favor of UCSD.

The state court reviewed the case in 2012 and stated that “the university had failed to provide any evidence to show the matching exams were more than a statistical anomaly” but rejected Dorfman’s claim of having received an unfair process, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Director of Student Legal Services Jon Carlos Senour described to the UCSD Guardian the requirements to pursue an academic integrity charge.

“The Policy [on Integrity of Scholarship] identifies the responsibilities of students, but does not specify what the evidentiary requirements are for bringing a charge, [except that] an instructor may submit a formal charge to the Academic Integrity Office when an instructor ‘has reason to believe that a student has violated the policy,’” Senour said.

However, this contrasts with the UCSD Student Conduct Code, which states that “The Office of Student Conduct will … determine whether there is a reasonable cause to process” a report alleging violation of the Code.

When Dorfman appealed in Sept. 2015, the state appellate court ordered that the university reverse its decision.

UCSD’s Academic Integrity Official was unable comment on the case by press time