CS50 Introduces New Integrity Policy, Bypassing Ad Board

Students who violate academic honesty standards in Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I” may no longer be referred to the Administrative Board for investigation, according to a newly formalized “regret clause” in the course’s syllabus.

Instead, students who commit what course staff consider “unreasonable” acts, such as sharing problem set answers, plagiarizing, or cheating on a quiz, can report the violation within 72 hours and will likely face only local course sanctions. Those sanctions are determined on a case-by-case basis and could include receiving a failing or unsatisfactory grade, according to the syllabus. It stipulates that a case resolved in local sanctions would not be referred to the Ad Board, though other cases may be.

First Day of CS50
Hundreds of students crowd Sanders Theatre for the first meeting of CS 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I.”

This regret policy appears to be a deviation from long-standing Ad Board procedures, which since 2010 have allowed for “local sanctions” to be imposed by course staff only in conjunction with the Board and the chair of the department in question.

The policy is the second exception of standard Ad Board regulations made for CS50 this academic year. The other was allowing students in the course—the College’s highest enrolled offering in five years—to simultaneously enroll without meeting requirements mandated by the policy.

Course instructor David J. Malan ’99 pointed to the nature of the course, which often sees students making “poor decisions” “late at night” when submitting assignments, as a reason to introduce the policy. He said that if a student is proactive enough to approach the course staff about his or her breach in academic integrity, the course instructors should use the incident to inspire students to reflect on and discuss academic integrity.

“All that is new this year is the course's explicit encouragement of students to approach the course's heads proactively if, upon some sleep and reflection, they regret having taken some action that the course might consider not reasonable,” Malan, who said he was too busy to be interviewed, wrote in an email.

Malan did not answer questions, however, about the policy’s origins or whether the Ad Board is aware of it. Interim Secretary of the Ad Board Brett Flehinger declined to comment on the matter, as well. Several other members of the body either declined to comment or referred the matter to Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris, who also did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

But in an unrelated interview in April, former Ad Board Secretary John “Jay” L. Ellison said that all cases of academic dishonesty must come before the Ad Board, saying that leaving disciplinary action under the sole authority of a course’s instructors would lead to inconsistency across the College.

"Faculty members are not allowed to take action against a student for an unproved case of academic integrity violation,” said Ellison. “It has to come to the Ad Board, 100 percent."

He added later in the interview: "The faculty members in the FAS are not allowed to—they don't have the discretion to do this themselves, at all, currently, and never have."

In practice, though, faculty members ultimately decide which incidents to report.

According to Malan, CS50 refers as many as five percent of enrolled students to the Administrative Board each fall. To his knowledge, the course refers more cases—20 last fall alone—of academic dishonesty than any other at the College. Malan said he is unsure if those numbers will change given the formal implementation of the “regret clause.”

“[Those numbers are] not because students in CS50 are any less honest than students in other courses but because CS50 looks for transgressions and because, as a CS course with electronic submissions, we have tools that facilitate detection,” Malan wrote

—Crimson staff writers Madeline R. Conway and Steven S. Lee contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at meg.bernhard@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.

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