Friday, March 7, 2014

CSI: My Office

I hope.
I read Rate Your Students for a while before writing to the moderators with a story.  But what a story it was.  Go here to read it.  The rest won't make sense unless you read that before continuing.

Yeah, this kid broke into my office.  That little shit.  My colleagues still joke about it.  A student once told me that she had heard that it happened but didn't believe such a legend.  That little shit and I are part of college lore. 

I knew that the kid lost his scholarship so he didn't come back to college.  Our administration couldn't bring itself to actually ban a student from campus.  When we say everybody gets to go to college, we mean everybody.  I was told it was no big deal since the guy didn't have enough money to attend.  Don't worry about it, OK?

Nobody considered that our financial aid office would give him another scholarship for his PhD.

How do I know this?  Because that little shit came to visit me.  This time it was different.  I was in my office and he entered through the door.  He apologized in person.  He gave me a letter he wrote with grammar and everything.  Now, in case the statute of limitations had not expired yet, the letter didn't give any specifics.  It just said that he was sorry for whatever it is that he did, which he admits was very, very bad.  I thanked him for having the stones to come see me and I accepted his apology.  He graduated a few days later.

At the time, I didn't know what to say to him, it was so unexpected.  I still don't quite know how I feel.  The break-in is a really old story (it happened a few years before I wrote to RYS in '08) so it doesn't really bother me.  On the other hand, just thinking about it...

That little shit actually broke into my office.  I spend more time there than I do at home.  He snooped through my computer.  Every single idea and fact that I have ever thought about (and a few pictures I hope nobody ever sees) is on that computer.  He changed grades.  However flawed of a rating system they might be, grades are at the heart of teaching college.

That little shit.

He got me my first post at RYS, so there is that.


  1. I often suspected that my department head and/or the ADH snooped through my desk from time to time.

  2. There are six years only since the article and you are not saying how long ago that really happened. How long did it take for him to get another scholarship? If it happened after a few years, that may have been longer than the maximum duration of suspension or expulsion with no permission to reapply that the worst offenders may get. Now, if it happened after a few months or so, that's different. I realize that a permanent ban may have been justified but if he was out for a few years, that's not too bad. At least he had the sense to stay away from you or he may have been required to do so.

    While that would not have been a wise decision and wouldn't necessarily have worked very well, legally, he probably had the right to reappear in your classes as well. After all, on paper, he may not even have been declared guilty of the offense, was he? At least he redeemed himself in the end.

    I understand your concern for your own safety but what would you have done if you knew about his return earlier, especially if he did not actually have to deal with you again? Was he in the same department or even in the same faculty, school or college of the university?

    1. Monica, you raise some good questions. I should clarify a few points here. The student was a freshman at the time. In order for him to come back to my school for his graduate degree, at least three years would have to pass. The student was in a completely different discipline than mine.

      I don't blame the student for coming back and I respect him for apologizing. I blame the school for its nonchalant attitude about the whole issue. I was never concerned for my safety, just pissed off about the invasion of privacy.

    2. So how did he complete his Bachelor's Degree? Was that at a different university? In a different school belonging to the same university?

      I can see the logic of simply letting a young, immature student go away and possibly try his luck somewhere else without having a criminal conviction or even a formal disciplinary dismissal on his record. Then, another university, perhaps less prestigious, would have given him some financial aid. After all, he was able to get it the first time. Maybe he even took some courses that were later transferred and returned as an undergraduate, but much later and not in your department. I don't know.

      After graduation or even as a returning undergraduate student after a long time, he may have been accepted on the basis of merit, almost as if he were a completely different person. If it was even considered in the first place, his disciplinary history would have seemed much less relevant, if at all, as long as there were no further incidents. After all, at that point, he may have had a proven history of several years as a student without getting into further trouble. Maybe he even had good references from his new university or department.

  3. So now he's got a Ph.D.?!? In what? This is one of the very few moments when I kinda hope somebody has graduated into a really, really bad market.

    Okay, maybe he grew up in the interim. After all, he did apologize. And, leaving aside your perfectly-justified feelings at your space (office and computer) being violated, he seems to have been relatively non-malevolent (didn't do anything nasty to his fellow students). At least he didn't do what one of my students did: plagiarize his roommate (and supposed friend's) paper, leaving the innocent roommate/friend in a tizzy over being questioned about plagiarism in the middle of final exam period. But I'm still having trouble thinking of a field that I hope he's in, and/or a job that I hope he will be doing. I don't quite believe that someone who once took an unethical shortcut when he was 18 is necessarily going to do it again, in a context where the stakes are higher, but I'd still wonder. Give me a choice between this guy and the guy who flunked out honestly at 18, returned to school at 20, and graduated with a middling GPA, in almost any context, and I'll take the latter.

    One caveat: my resentment of people who manage to finish their Ph.D.s in less than a decade may be showing. Actually, I admire people who manage to do that honestly, and know it's entirely possible. Given this guy's history, I just find myself wondering.

  4. I am betting ithe PhD is in a Business field. or Education. He'd fit right in.

    This shit makes me mad because he was stupidly dishonest and did something clearly illegal. And he got a stern finger-shaking. Gee, shocking!

    Whose opportunity did he steal by getting funding instead of someone more deserving? And, yeah, someone else was WAY more deserving than he was or ever will be.

    1. If he was selected, that means that he deserved the opportunity. He didn't steal it from anybody. What you are really saying is that a perfectly qualified candidate who ended up finishing his degree should have been disqualified on moral grounds.

    2. I think the disturbing part would be (and it isn't quite clear whether or not this is the case) if there weren't some sort of indication on his transcript that he had been caught cheating once, so that graduate admissions committees could take that into account in deciding whether he was qualified. Institutions really do owe each other (and themselves, in the case of internal records) the courtesy of making it clear on transcripts when a student has been caught cheating.

      Mind you, I'm not saying that someone who cheated at 20 should never have another chance. But I think it would be wise to delay that chance, to give him more time to mature (and/or to show that his ethics aren't going to improve with age). There's a big difference between admitting a 21-year-old who cheated when he was 18 into a grad program, and admitting a 30-year-old, or even a 25-year-old, with a record of cheating at 18. It sounds like this student bounced back rather quickly, which raises the question of whether there was additional deception (at the very least, lies of omission about why he left Ben's institution) along the way. He may be well-qualified, or he may just have gotten better at covering his tracks. It's hard to tell. Either way, given how competitive admissions of all kinds are these days, it seems that he should have had to get in line behind equally or even somewhat less--qualified candidates who didn't cheat. If he really has matured (and we can all hope for that), then he would also have made the most of a Ph.D. program in his late 20s or early 30s (assuming that's still what he really wanted when he reached that age/stage).

      Bottom line: I wish the letter Ben received (or, rather, a more candid and complete version thereof) would have had to be attached to, or incorporated into, his personal statement on a grad admissions essay, rather than coming voluntarily at the end of his program. The letter might be an honest gesture from a now-mature student, or it might be an attempt to disarm a land mine that he fears might, if left alone, go off sometime in the future. Maybe he's genuinely trying to move on with a clear conscience, or maybe he picked his moment -- too late for Ben to do anything that might make his path through grad school less smooth, just in time to do everything he can to lessen the admittedly-small chances that, should he come up in casual conversation with a potential employer, Ben would issue a warning.

      Yes, I'm a bit cynical. But I've been lied to by some apparently very nice, very bright students, some of whom I'm not sure even entirely realized they were lying, because they'd become so accustomed to the practice.

    3. "a perfectly qualified candidate"

      I do not think that means what you seem to think it means. You are speaking as if "a proven history of several years as a student without getting into further trouble" is a given. It is not. Morals aside, he cheated and was caught; as a result, his qualification is a fair distance from perfect till proven otherwise.

    4. That might be the case to some extent if he actually passed the course even though he broke into the professor's office and changed his grade. I hadn't even thought of that unlikely possibility. Besides, that would only involve one course among many others. As for not getting into more trouble, the fact is that he was only a freshman when the incident happened and he later got a Bachelor's Degree. How else could that have happened if not by being a good student for a few years afterwards?

    5. He could have cheated any number of times at the first and the other institution and still gotten his bachelor's.

      We know he cheated at least once. Some people when caught change their direction; others improve their deception. We don't know which he is.

      We have an outcome explainable by several causes. You seem to have wedged yourself into considering only one.

    6. In the end, it's the outcome that matters. He proved that he deserved a scholarship for a PhD by actually earning that PhD. At that point, his Bachelor's Degree would have been fully deserved, or made irrelevant, by virtue of having subsequently acquired even more learning than it takes for a mere Bachelor's Degree. It's a little like cheating or poor grades in elementary school. The issue becomes irrelevant after a few more years of education. Besides, if he wasn't caught cheating again, one has to assume that it didn't happen.

    7. Up to your last sentence, I think you finally reached a point I can agree with. Notice how different your argument is from "If he was selected, that means that he deserved the opportunity."

      As to your last point, I really wish I could have your rosy outlook. If he wasn't caught cheating again, one has to assume that he wasn't caught cheating again. Again, an outcome with several possible causes, and you assume but one. That he wasn't caught is at best consistent with his redemption, not proof of it.

    8. Sadly, work on Ph.D. is often considerably less well-supervised than work on a B.A. Experiences vary by discipline, and even more so by advisor, but I'm sure I'm not the only holder of a Ph.D. here who is pretty sure that she's the only person who ever read her dissertation all the way through. Cases of plagiarism, fudged data, etc., etc. on long-filed dissertations come up on a pretty regular basis.

      Even more than earning a B.A., the process of earning a Ph.D. is often what the student makes of it. As Chiltepin's post below and the comments that follow make clear, people who pursue the Ph.D. are atypical, and one of the ways in which they're atypical is that they tend to get caught up in their work whether anyone is checking up on them or not. This is usually a good thing, since professors at R1s are often caught up in their own work, but it does leave room for trouble if someone who's more interested in the degree than the education is admitted to the pool.

      Once again, I hope that's not the case with Ben's former student. But the fact that he now holds a Ph.D. could, as Ogre PH points out, be evidence of several different underlying situations, only one of which is that the student straightened out, worked hard, and earned several degrees thanks to those efforts.

    9. Regarding Ogre Proctor Hep's comment: It's just that you are seeing it from a scientific perspective (i.e. what is not demonstrated is not necessarily false in reality) whereas I was seeing it more from a legalistic perspective (i.e. what is suspected, or actually known, is not legally true unless discovered and documented). Depending on how the case was settled on paper, even his known act of cheating may be deemed to never have been clearly proven even though it was in reality.

      Regarding cheating while earning a Ph.D.: if it happens, the penalties are usually supposed to be more severe and, most importantly, there is a very serious risk of being found out later. Most undergraduate degrees do not require a thesis or dissertation that may prove plagiarized many years later, when the degree will be revoked.

  5. That's it: I'm setting up a hidden nanny cam in my office. That said, my computer is a laptop that I cart around with me, so he'd have to break into my home, most likely, if he wanted to do anything that drastic. Bring it on!

    That does take some level of awareness to at least apologize.

    1. This is the one upside to the fact that there appear to be wasps living in the drop ceiling of the building in which my office is located. I don't think anyone will be using that path into my office anytime soon (and, if they do, they'll realize that I keep my grading files on my flash drive, and I know that I've got multiple backups, both at home and in the cloud).

      I do worry a bit that we now use the same password for everything: LMS, registration/final grade software, email, etc. A really intent student might be able to pick up my password just by watching me sign on to the LMS in class. I'm sure that cyberhacking is far more of a threat to the integrity of grade records than drop ceilings these days.

    2. When p()rn showed up in my office computer's browser history, I put a password on my computer's BIOS. (This may have predated secure Windows logins.) The timestamp indicated it was likely one of the cleaning crew. I didn't care so much about figuring it out beyond that. I simply didn't want any of it to trace back to me, and I didn't want any of my data accidentally (or otherwise) wiped.

      Two decades later, now that I have grades and stuff in there, it takes three passwords to get at any of that. Physical access to the hard drive would get you past only two of them. A distant colleague didn't think he needed to be so hardcore about it, but after the "hardcore" appeared on his laptop, he got to revise his thinking at a new institution.