Transcript of Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson's interview

CBC Daybreak, Thursday, September 4, 2008

MP3 version | (8 minute audio clip)

This is almost good enough to stand on its own without comment, but a few points (below) demand special attention.

Host, Mike Finnerty: We're going to return now to a story we brought you on Wednesday's Daybreak, and it's about McGill, Canada's most prestigious university. And a charge from a McGill professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering that students he says he has caught cheating not only ended up getting away with it, but ended up getting marks rising on appeal. Now here he is, Jeremy Cooperstock, he was on Daybreak, and he was speaking on Wednesday:

The students have already received the message loud and clear through many actions of the administration over the last few years that academic integrity, for all of McGill's bluster, is actually, just, you know, it's a slogan.

Finnerty: That's Jeremy Cooperstock speaking on Daybreak, Wednesday. Now we invited a McGill representative to speak live with him. Now at the time, no one was available to speak to the specifics of the case. We did have a general comment on cheating that despite some complaints, the system works "very well". Well this morning, Morton Mendelson, the senior administrator in charge of students at McGill is prepared to speak to the matter at hand. He's sitting right in front of me. Mr. Mendelson, good morning, welcome to Daybreak.

Deputy Provost Morton Mendelson: Good morning, Mike.

Finnerty: And your specific title, you're Deputy Provost for Student Life and Learning.

Mendelson: That's right.

Finnerty: Thanks for coming in. Now let's hear this charge from Jeremy Cooperstock, who explained in some detail, and I should say that he was challenged repeatedly by me on the program. But here he is saying why he remains convinced that the students in question cheated:

One of the students, again, who should have failed the course, actually saw his grade on this assignment that he cheated... he cheated on two assignments... on this particular assignment that we're discussing here, his grade was actually raised by the same professor who said that "I see that these are very similar" and he suspected plagiarism, but he nevertheless raised the grade on that assignment.

Finnerty: So I guess the first question, Mr. Mendelson, do you accept as Jeremy Coopersmith [sic] says, that this was a clear-cut case of students cheating?

Mendelson: I don't have the complete facts, so it would be impossible for me to say that.

Someone forgot to do his homework. Exactly one year ago, I provided a copy of all of the documentation regarding this matter to the Provost (Mendelson's superior) and made it very clear to the university that I was going to raise public attention to this issue. Even with his busy schedule putting out other fires, Mendelson had more than enough time to prepare for this interview, consult the documentation, speak with the Faculty's Disciplinary Officer, and find out "the context" in which the cheating occurred.

It's... I think it's worth explaining what happens when students are alleged to cheat by an instructor. The instructor brings the case to the Associate Dean or the Disciplinary Officer in the faculty and the student is called in for an interview, and the disciplinary officer gets all the facts. The professor may have some information but there may be additional information. The goal of the system is to make sure that the students have due process that their side of the story is heard. And then, based on the complete set of facts known to the Disciplinary Officer, a judgement is made.

Finnerty: Ok, you say you don't have the facts; the facts at this point are actually up on a website that Mr. Coopersmith [sic] has put up. He said, the way he put it to us, the metaphor he used, and it was a case of a formula. The whole formula is there on the website. It was the equivalent of submitting a "Shakespeare sonnet as your own" and he maintains that his colleague who re-marked the paper accepted that it was a case of plagiarism... that it was stolen work. A Shakespeare sonnet.

Mendelson: Ok. We have one instructor's side of the story. We have a supposed demonstration that there was some correspondence between the two texts. But that is not necessarily sufficient to demonstrate plagiarism. In the university, plagiarism is using someone else's work with the intent to deceive. We don't know the context in which this was... this occurred. We don't know the instructions that the students received from the...

How does the "context" in which a student passes off someone else's work as his own change whether or not this constitutes plagiarism?

Moreover, Mendelson should know full well the instructions the students received, as the assignment specifications have been public information since February 2007 and were linked fairly prominently just above the code comparison I provide on the main page of this website.

Finnerty: Surely you do know all of these things. You personally may not know it, but someone in the university...

Mendelson: This is what I'm saying. You and I don't know this. The public doesn't know this.

Well, actually the public does know this. And so would he had he read the web page or the documentation I provided to his superior last year.

Finnerty: But you're speaking for McGill University.

Mendelson: I'm speaking for McGill University.

And therein lies the problem. When McGill University selects representatives to speak on behalf of the institution, it should seek individuals with honesty and integrity, rather than the members of our current administration, to set the example for our student population

But it is based on those facts that the Disciplinary Officer would have made a judgement.

Finnerty: At the very least, it's significant doubt as to whether this was cheating. Why not ask the student to redo the work in isolation instead of reviewing, re-marking the same paper and raising the mark?

Mendelson: The... I think there's a conflation of two different processes at McGill here. One is the disciplinary process, in which case, the charge is made and then an adjudication is made, whether or not the charge is valid and then the other is a student's right to a review of any assessment, and those two processes are independent. The goal of our polices and procedures are to make sure that students have access to due process, are able to defend themselves if a charge is made, are able to have an impartial review of a grade, if that is what they feel is necessary.

Finnerty: One of the problems that Prof. Cooperstock has with the due process you're talking about there is that he was shut out of what happens after his initial finding that the students involved cheated. Why shut that original professor out when they have the first-hand experience of the coursework and the students?

Mendelson: Yes, the professor makes the initial presentation to the Disciplinary Officer and then the professor gives the information to him or her describing the context, answering questions, but in the interview with the students there may be information that is confidential, that is private, that the professor has... does not have a right to have access to.

Finnerty: But shouldn't he be involved in some way? Doesn't that just make sense as the process continues?

Mendelson: There are some people at McGill who claim that... who believe that. There are others who see the benefit of having an independent party review the case. The idea is not to set up an adversarial situation between the student and the professor.

Finnerty: Ok, the larger charge that Prof. Cooperstock puts goes something like this. And here he is again, from Daybreak:

What we're seeing over the past few years is that cheating is on the rise, markedly so. Student attitudes towards academic integrity is on the decline. Students are showing far less regard for the integrity of their work. There is a blatant attempt to subvert the system in terms of students feeling that if they're not happy with a final grade assigned, they just have to badger the professor until the professor agrees to inflate their grade. Because if not, there will be so much paperwork, as the student... for the professor, as the student goes through all of the channels the university provides them, in terms of Ombudsman, student support, Associate Deans, Chairs, and so on, who will pressure and coerce the professor to find some way to raise that student's mark to an acceptable level to the student.

Finnerty: Professor Cooperstock there. And Mr. Mendelson, as a last question, Jeremy Cooperstock sees himself very much as a whistle-blower, someone who's set up a website, because he thinks by blowing the whistle, he'll force your institution to clean out those people at the higher levels who are facilitating cheats, in his words, and diminishing your reputation. So he's a whistle-blower in his own mind. How do you see him?

Mendelson: Well, I see him as not reflective of what's actually going on at McGill. McGill has been very active in the area of academic integrity. We take a four-pillered approach if you will. We have a number of initiatives in the university to promote academic integrity, such as facilitating conversations between faculty and their students. We prevent cheating and plagiarism in a number of ways, for example, in careful administration of exams and in advising professors how to construct assignments that are not plagiarizable. We monitor what students do in terms of invigilating exams and in terms of text-matching software...

Finnerty: Do you think you have a problem here?

Mendelson: No, I don't think we have a problem. I think that what we have is a social context in which cheating is on the rise, where students have access to information on the Internet for example and where every year we have a new batch of students who come in and we have to do our best to socialize them to what it means to do honest academic work. And I think we're succeeding at that.

Last update: September 6, 2008
by Jeremy Cooperstock