One-minute synopsis
Academic integrity is a serious issue that affects professors, students, industry (as companies hire our graduates), and ultimately, our society. This is why the subject must be treated as a central concern to both universities and the broader public. Unfortunately, personal experience in this area at McGill University, echoed by various faculty members, teaching assistants, and a variety of students, strongly suggest that academic integrity is not being upheld at our institution. Higher grades are being awarded to undeserving students and those who blatantly cheat on their assignments are being rewarded, rather than punished. My own attempts to raise attention to these problems and seek redress internally were deliberately suppressed and undermined by the university administration for well over one year. I was thus left with two choices: keep my mouth shut, or speak out publicly. Out of conviction, I've chosen to do the latter.
This website therefore is an effort to accomplish the following:
  • document a series of violations of academic integrity this professor has encountered from the administration of McGill
  • advocate for new policies with respect to dealing with plagiarism and assessment of student learning that are transparent, keep the professor involved in the process, and treat all students fairly; ultimately, these changes may allow our university to take a leadership position in addressing two of the most serious problems of academia around the world: student cheating and grade inflation
  • prevent the administration from interfering in the process of grading students (and from punishing faculty who speak out)

Imagine an academic institution where a student caught cheating on his assignments, twice in a row, not only gets away with the offense, but is rewarded for it. Now imagine that the professor who raises attention to this breach of regulations is reprimanded and then secretly investigated. What if that institution were not a mail order degree college but considered the top Canadian university for the past three years? And what if the chancellor of that university was widely regarded as the individual at the fore of stamping out cheating in the Olympics? Welcome to McGill.

When I joined the McGill faculty in 1997, I did so as a proud new hire of a top Canadian university. In my first year, however, I was shocked by the handling of a case of plagiarism in my Operating Systems class. Two students, who were about to fail the course, stole the assignment of a third student, passing it off as their own work. Rather than face disciplinary procedures, the two were withdrawn from the course without penalty, ironically, by the same administrator instrumental in developing the Faculty of Engineering's Code of Ethics or Blueprint. This lax attitude toward violations of academic integrity seemed completely at odds with the standards I expected of a respected university. However, as a then-untenured professor, I expressed my concern with the process, and beyond that, kept my mouth shut.

Then, in 2004, and over my protest, the former Dean of Engineering overrode my grading scale and raised the letter grades for two graduate students in my Artificial Intelligence class, awarding them higher marks than were given to undergraduate students with the same numerical score.

However, what happened in 2007 in the same class was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. This course requires students to complete three individual assignments and one group project. Two students plagiarised by sharing program code for two successive assignments, collectively worth 30% of their final grade. The university administration continues to insist that "they didn't plagiarize... they were exonerated." (Yeah... right.) Here's our Department's definition of plagiarism (scrubbed from our web server, but fortunately preserved by the web archive):

If any part of a document you submit for credit towards your degree is not entirely your own work and you do not make it clear in the document that this is the case, then you have committed plagiarism and, if discovered, will be punished.
Is this really the case?

In one of these assignments, the plagiarism was indisputable -- even to someone not familiar with computer code.

Student 1
data = load('100encoding1.csv');

p = data(:,1:100)';
t = data(:,101:200)';

[x,ps1] = mapminmax(p,0,1);
[y,ps2] = mapminmax(t,0,1);

[trainV,valV,testV] = dividevec(x,y,0.20,0.20);

net = newff(minmax(p),[50 size(t,1)],

net.trainParam.epochs = 5000; = .2; = .2;

net = train(net,trainV.P,trainV.T,[],[],valV,testV);
Y = sim(net, testV.P, [], [], testV.T);
Y = mapminmax('reverse', Y, ps2);
testV.T = mapminmax('reverse', testV.T, ps2);

error = (testV.T - Y);
error = (error.^2)/size(t,1);
error = sqrt(error);

Student 2
data = load('adjCloseSet100.csv');

p = data(:,1:100)';
t = data(:,101:200)';

[x,ps1] = mapminmax(p,0,1);
[y,ps2] = mapminmax(t,0,1);

[trainV,valV,testV] = dividevec(x,y,0.25,0.25);

net = newff(minmax(p),[150 size(t,1)],

net.trainParam.epochs = 5000; = 0.3; = 0.2;

net = train(net,trainV.P,trainV.T,[],[],valV,testV);
[Y,Pf,Af,E,perf] = sim(net,testV.P,[],[],testV.T);
Y = mapminmax('reverse', Y, ps2);
testV.T = mapminmax('reverse', testV.T, ps2);

err = (testV.T - Y);
err = (err.^2)*(1/size(t, 1));
err = sqrt(err);

Every piece of computer code submitted by other students in the class was entirely different. Even worse, one of the two submissions also contained an unintentional overwriting operation in the pre-processing of data (that had been commented out of the other student's code), and thus, produced corrupt data files, which were given inconsistent names from those expected by the actual assignment code. In short, the (modified version of the) code submitted could not possibly execute, and could not produce the output data submitted by the student. This goes beyond plagiarism, but constitutes scientific misconduct.

That is... except at McGill.

Considering the assignments as completed honestly and ignoring plagiarism, as I was asked to do by the administration, one of the students received an overall grade of 43%, failed the final examination, and failed the course. However, despite broken promises by a senior administrator of my department (Electrical and Computer Engineering), after the student threatened to sue the university over his grade, he was rewarded as follows:

These actions collectively raised the student's grade to 50% (or more) for a 'D' letter grade (marginal pass). Hence the "D-grading McGill" name of this website.

Both during and in the aftermath of these events, I attempted to raise attention to the problems I was encountering, as a professor attempting to uphold basic standards of academic integrity. I spoke with my departmental colleagues, I contacted my department chair, Associate Deans and the Dean of Engineering, the Dean of Students, the Deputy Provost for Student Life and Learning, and eventually, the Provost, of whom I requested the institution of four preventative measures to avoid a potential recurrence. These entailed both closing the feedback loop and requiring accountability for decisions, as follows:

  1. Mandating that the course instructor is kept informed of the outcome of each stage of the disciplinary process in a timely manner and is granted the right to participate in every stage of the process, including the initial "private interview" noted in Article 49 of the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures (Chapter 3 of the Handbook on Student Rights and Responsibilities),
  2. instituting a formal mechanism whereby Associate Deans or Deans, as disciplinary officers, are accountable for decisions to exonerate a student of an academic offense,
  3. prohibiting the use of pressure by Associate Chairs, Chairs, Associate Deans, and Deans, to coerce an instructor to raise a student's grade simply to allow the student to graduate, and
  4. publishing explicit guidelines as to the rights of administrative officers to obtain access to a faculty member's private computer files, whether stored on a McGill computer system or on a backup archive, and indicating the right of the faculty member to be informed of such access.
Results and Consequences

At every stage, I was either given the run-around, brush-off, lied to, patronized, or stonewalled, in the hopes that I would keep quiet and let this matter die. At a later point, a senior administrator in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering attempted to silence me.

I would have preferred to see these concerns addressed internally, and indeed, spared little effort to communicate with every level within McGill, hoping the university administration would demonstrate some integrity. Sadly, their refusal to treat these matters seriously compelled me to speak out. When I contacted the media about the most recent incident, rather than give me an opportunity to explain my concerns to him first-hand, a senior administrator of the Faculty of Engineering first called me to a disciplinary meeting and subsequently formally reprimanded me for an inadvertent breach of university regulations.

It was not until a few months later that the university finally approved a policy on Safe Disclosure (whistleblowing), in theory, to provide individuals such as myself protection from reprisals. However, given that the university office to whom whisteblowing reports are supposed to be filed simply referred me back to the original administrators who had deliberately turned a deaf ear to my appeals, I have little confidence that the situation would be any different if the same events transpired today.

When that same Faculty of Engineering administrator was contacted by a second reporter for an interview to discuss my allegations, he learned that I had communicated a summary of these events to the reporter. Again, rather than give me an opportunity to explain my concerns to him first-hand or ask me for a copy of this correspondence, he simply ordered my systems manager to retrieve the contents of the communication from backup tapes and turn these over, all in total secrecy, even from the systems manager's own director. When some concern was expressed with the process (not to mention that the systems manager's salary is being paid by tax dollars to support research projects, rather than to serve the whims of a petty administrator intent on showing who's boss) the administrator threatened disciplinary action if the systems manager did not comply immediately. A grievance committee later decided that these actions of the administrator were completely justified and consistent with McGill policy, a decision the Principal subsequently endorsed as her own.

What does this all of this say about our university?

First, it sends some chilling messages to faculty:

Second, it conveys rather disturbing messages to students:

Third, it devalues the McGill degree:

Fourth, it poses a very real risk to companies who trust our evaluation process when hiring our graduates, and ultimately, this risk is passed on to society:

The problem begins...

The problem perhaps begins with the university's current policies. These allow a single individual, a faculty administrator, to dismiss a charge of plagiarism after a private meeting with the student. The professor, nominally responsible for assessing student work in the course, is excluded from this meeting, and generally not informed of the outcome. Ironically, I was recently called as an expert witness in a Quebec Superior Court case to evaluate the merits of an accusation of software piracy. Apparently, my opinion in such matters counts for something, but not at McGill, where an administrator, quite possibly unfamiliar with computer software, knows better, and has the power to make an unchallengeble decision, in a private meeting with the student (Articles 49 and 54 of the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures). Once the charge has been dismissed, the matter is closed with no appeals permitted. On the other hand, if the administrator decides to proceed to a formal hearing, there are numerous stages at which the student may appeal (Part IV of the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures). I am fully in favour of a system designed to protect students from false accusations, but not one that subverts academic integrity.

Similarly, the university, faced with the realities of declining admissions standards (at least, in the Faculty of Engineering), has trampled over faculty to raise student grades, for example, urging an instructor of one course with a low pass rate to substitute a different formula for calculating letter grades (provided that nobody's mark dropped in the process) and coercing others to "find a way to pass" more of their students. Certain instructors who don't comply have found that their submitted grades are simply modified without notice.

Of course, problems of cheating are not unique to McGill. Macleans ran a feature in February 2007, The great university cheating scandal, citing figures of 53% "of Canadian students engaging in serious cheating on written work." While it is a depressing indictment of student values that the situation has become so dire, the blatant disregard for academic integrity demonstrated in this instance by our university is appalling.

It is inexcusable for the administration to dismiss so obvious a case, turning a blind eye to the overwhelming evidence of cheating. And it is deplorable to reward a student for plagiarism, simply because he makes enough noise and threats.

So why am I speaking out only now?

Far from it. I spoke out in 2004 and the incident was reported in the press. I spoke out again last year, but on that occasion, the university somehow prevailed in keeping two separate reporters from two different newspapers in running this story. And now, with more administrators demonstrating similar attitudes and making up new rules in blatant contradiction of stated policy this year, I feel compelled to speak out once more. Indeed, it is an obligation to speak up against such injustice, and it would be a lapse of ethics to remain silent.

I note that it is now more than a year since the senior administration of the university was apprised of the plagiarism incidents outlined above, and, in an effort to quiet me down for a while, assured me the matter was being taken seriously. Of course, nothing has been done to remedy the problems I identified.

While paying lip service to my right to criticize the university for its mishandling of such an important matter, a certain apologist for (and member of) the administration has suggested that if I were the employee of a company, instead, I might have faced more serious consequences. Quite possibly. But then again, that same administrator is also fully aware of why I had to communicate externally, given that he was part of the university's attempt to silence me internally. So much for freedom of expression.

Moreover, if I were an employee of a (public) company, rather than the university, the shareholders would likely be calling for the heads of all those higher-ups who share responsibility for the debasing of our fundamental mission: "the advancement of learning through teaching, scholarship and service to society."

Sadly, my case is far from the first of such instances at McGill. In fact, incidents recounted by other members of the university community are even more serious, including, in my own department, mass cheating on final examinations, issuing death threats against faculty (for which the student faced no consequences), and, in another faculty, implied threats of violence resulting in the awarding of a doctorate degree to an undeserving candidate.

Our administration needs to decide: either we're here to educate students and assess their learning according to consistent and fair standards, or we're here to put a rubber stamp on a questionable quality of education, at the demand of the students. The name and reputation of our university deserve better. It's time to stop degrading McGill.