Students caught up in the alleged cheating scandal at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine say they were bullied and coerced into confessing to something they didn’t do, and some have reported contemplating suicide in the fallout.
“I’m really concerned about the health and wellbeing of my fellow students,” said a student accused of cheating who agreed to speak with NHJournal.
Dartmouth has said several students admitted to wrongdoing during the investigation. But the student and other sources said more than 20 students have been caught up in the scandal, and many who confessed felt pressured to admit wrongdoing in a rushed process. Documents obtained by NHJournal show the school’s proof of alleged cheating is considered flawed, however, and school officials are now trying to clamp down on students coming forward with their stories.
“I was told by the school that confessing would somehow lead to a better outcome for myself,” the student said.
The student said there is a culture of fear at Geisel since the cheating scandal broke earlier this month. Students are afraid they will be expelled for speaking out about what they feel is unjust treatment by the medical school. The student, as well as other sources close to other students at Geisel, said they were blindsided by the cheating accusations, not given relevant information on their cases before a meeting with Dartmouth’s disciplinary panel, the Committee on Student Performance and Conduct (CSPC). They also said the students have not been told that students who refused to confess and challenged the evidence had their cases dismissed.
The investigation reportedly started last academic year when Geisel administrators noticed anomalies in some testing data. The school uses an application called Canvas to store video lectures and other class notes for medical school students. Students frequently access this program on their digital devices for studying. When Geisel students have been taking remote exams, the exam program takes over the device and students are unable to use any other tab or app while the exam is being given.
However, administrators reportedly started seeing students access Canvas during the exams, according to sources who spoke with NHJournal. This kicked off an investigation in which the school looked at data for past exams. Sources said the suspicions go back months, but Justin Anderson, Dartmouth’s vice president for communications, said the issue was first noticed earlier this month.
“The extent of the potential infractions prompted the CSPC to conduct a review spanning the entire academic year. Past exam activity was included in the review to ensure fairness for all students, including those not suspected of violations but whose grades could be affected by any changes to scores of their peers,” Anderson said via email.
Students started getting letters from the CSPC informing them of the charges, and giving them 48 hours to gather any counter-evidence they wanted and any character witness to support them.
“It all felt a little bit rushed,” the student said.
The student was not allowed to speak to the character witness prior to appearing before the committee. The student was also contacted by the Office of Student Affairs at one point and was advised to confess to the charges.
“Overall, looking back. I’m angered by the advice that Student Affairs gave,” the student said.
The evidence against the student who spoke to NHJournal boiled down to three incidents over three different tests in which the student took the exam on a laptop computer, and another device in the home was active on Canvas at the same time. In each incident, the Canvas activity for the student lasted for 30 seconds or less. The student said that would not have been enough time to scroll through hours of lectures or notes files to find an answer.
“You would have been better off using Google,” the student added.
Still, when before the committee, the student who spoke to NHJournal admitted that a device had accessed Canvas during the times shown, after being told that would be for the best. The student also did not know at the time that the data the committee used is considered faulty and that at least two students have had their cases dropped when they challenged the cases.
NHJournal has obtained a letter sent to the committee from UCLA Adjunct Health Policy and Management Professor William McCarthy stating the data used to find the Geisel student guilty of cheating is flawed and based on a statistical fallacy. According to McCarthy, the Canvas app runs in the background of other apps, including the exam app. While students were taking their exams and locked out of using other tabs and apps, Canvas and other apps run in the background.
“Because each student used their respective devices differently the night before each exam, some students had repeated automatic downloads that had nothing to do with the test while other equally-innocent students’ rouge devices happened to engage in spontaneous downloading of information that coincided with information pertinent to one or two questions,” McCarthy wrote.
Sources say McCarthy’s letter helped one student get the charges of cheating dropped. Another student had someone do a data analysis proving the Canvas data is faulty and had their case dropped. The student who spoke to NHJournal said it doesn’t make sense to pursue charges of cheating against some students using the same data that was considered too weak to support the charges when challenged.
“I don’t think it would be upheld in a court of law,” the student said.
As students started to vent about their experiences online, the school moved to silence them, according to the sources. Geisel students started sharing to an Instagram account what happened during the committee meetings, including that some of them felt forced into confessing, and some were experiencing suicidal thoughts afterward.
“Some people weren’t eating or sleeping. One student lost 15 pounds,” the student said.
Medical school is notoriously stressful and it takes a serious toll on the students. According to the American Medical Student Association, 10 percent of medical students and residents report having suicidal thoughts, and 30 percent report experiencing depression.
On April 5, Geisel administrators sent out a new policy warning that students who did not maintain “professional” standards on social media could face discipline, including expulsion. The student who agreed to speak with NHJournal said the term “professionalism” is a catchall at Geisel used to quash any dissenting thought.
“The more I’m engrossed in this environment, it seems like a gatekeeping technique,” the student said.
The Instagram account was shut down soon after the policy was issued, though there are other accounts where students are again sharing information. Students have been warned not to speak with the media or face expulsion, according to sources.
Geisel administrators held a town hall meeting with students earlier this month to try and rebuild trust with the students, but the meeting left many with hard feelings. The student who spoke to NHJournal said the whole process has been dehumanizing and draconian, and representative of the way students are treated. The Geisel students have spent most of this academic year in isolation because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cheating investigation has left them feeling further alienated.
The committee is still working on possible punishments for the students who confessed to cheating. Some could still be expelled.
“Even if somebody did cheat, it must have come from a sense of desperation,” the student said.