Free speech organizations are accusing Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine of silencing students who say they were coerced into confessing to misconduct, even as the school is using questionable data to pursue the cases. Administrators are threatening students with expulsion if they disparage members of the medical school community, including on social media.
Alex Morey, program officer for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said Geisel’s April 6 social media policy issued to students as complaints about the cheating investigation were coming to the surface is having a chilling effect.
“Whether it was intended to chill student critics of its administration is beside the point, as it will have exactly that chilling effect,” Morey said. “And it already has chilled student speech, given that at least one anonymous student Instagram account was deleted soon after the policy was implemented.”
FIRE, a Philadelphia-based organization with a mission to defend the civil rights of students and faculty members in colleges and universities, says it is concerned about the policy. Morey sent a letter this week to Geisel’s Dean, Duane Compton, stating the new policy violates New Hampshire law and Dartmouth’s own policies.
“Given that this policy—which tells students to ‘[r]emember that ‘anonymous’ posts may still be tracked to their original author’—follows swiftly on the heels of anonymous student criticism of Geisel School, it raises the appearance that it has been implemented in order to chill the speech of Geisel students who have voiced concerns that their rights are being violated,” Morey wrote to Compton this week.
Morey told NHJournal Friday Compton has responded by taking FIRE’s concerns under consideration. Dartmouth’s Vice President for Communications, Justin Anderson, did not respond to an email with several questions about this story.
FIRE earlier teamed up with the EFF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in raising serious concerns about the digital evidence Geisel is using to bring discipline cases against the students. A joint letter states EFF technicians found the school’s data that allegedly prove cheating is faulty, at best.
“Dartmouth has likely turned false positives into accusations of academic misconduct, taking enforcement action against those innocent students based on faulty technical evidence rather than relying on dispositive evidence that the students were making active use of any external materials,” the joint letter states.
Dartmouth’s Committee on Student Performance and Conduct began an investigation into the matter after an “eyewitness” allegedly observed students cheating during remote exams taken this year, according to Duane Compton, dean of the medical school.
The school uses an app called Canvas to store lectures and other study materials students frequently access. When students were taking remote tests this year, the exam program was supposed to lock the students out of other applications. However, Geisel’s “eyewitness” reportedly found evidence that students were accessing Canvas during the exams. According to the EEF and FIRE joint letter, this is a misunderstanding of the data, as the Canvas app will operate in the background even if it is not in active use.
“EFF’s research indicates any device through which a student is logged into the e-curriculum platform will continue to make connections to that platform using automatic synching (also known as AJAX) even if that device is locked and not in use,” the joint letter states.
Compton addressed the cheating investigation in a video town hall with students earlier this month. That video has since been pulled from the Geisel website, though copies are circulating among the student body. In the video, Compton is challenged by students who questioned the evidence. Compton said it was really the Committee on Student Performance and Conduct, and not Geisel, that reviewed the evidence.
“The committee really reviewed every piece of data very carefully,” Compton said.
He also denied the suggestion that students who allegedly confessed to cheating felt coerced.
“I’m not currently investigating if there was coercion. I don’t believe there was coercion involved,” Compton said.
But sources tell NHJournal students absolutely do feel coerced and bullied into admitting wrongdoing. One student told NHJournal they were told by school administration that confessing would result in a better outcome for their case, and this was confirmed by two other sources. Students started discussing the alleged coercion on social media, and some started to discuss feeling suicidal over the allegations.
That’s when Geisel issued the new social media policy and at least one social media account was taken down.
Morey plans to continue monitoring the situation and looking for ways FIRE can assist the students. She also said the school should do more than take FIRE’s concerns under advisement.
“If Dartmouth is serious about its commitment to freedom of expression, it should suspend enforcement of the policy pending its review,” Morey said,
In the video town hall, Compton acknowledged trust needs to be rebuilt among the student body and the Geisel administration. But, he indicated students must do their part.
“I’ll open the door, but you need to be willing to walk through that door with me,” Compton said.