A Dartmouth medical student was halfway through a timed practice test for a high-stakes board exam last month when an e-mail flashed on her phone. She was startled to find a formal message on her medical school’s letterhead.
The e-mail accused her — and, she later learned, more than a dozen other students — of cheating by accessing online course materials while taking a test on a different software platform. The school said that it had electronic evidence of misconduct, and that she was invited to make a brief statement defending herself at a tribunal to be held over Zoom in a week.
“I sat there for a few minutes, just looking at it completely in shock,” said the student, who, like the other students who spoke for this story, maintains her innocence. “It was just like, ‘Here is this infallible data. You could face expulsion if it’s verified.’”
For the past month the cheating allegations have engulfed the medical school, a small, close-knit community on an Ivy League campus in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley. At least nine of the accused say that they are innocent, and that Dartmouth doesn’t understand how its own software platforms work. Medical school officials say the situation is unfortunate but the ongoing investigation is necessary to preserve academic integrity.
“This is not something that we sought, this is something that arose and we had to address it,” Duane Compton, dean of the medical school, said in an interview.
Whatever the outcome, the situation underscores the extent to which the pandemic has left students feeling isolated, fragile, and at the mercy of technology to an unprecedented degree.
Even in the best of times, medical school is a high-pressure environment. This year, students have been unusually isolated from family, friends, and classmates, and first-year students have not been able to form the in-person camaraderie that older students said has been their saving grace. And now, with careers hanging in the balance, they’ve had to defend themselves via Zoom.
“My self-confidence and my belief in my spot in the medical community has been shaken to the deepest foundations,” said a second accused student.
A third student said: “It’s not easy trying to navigate the challenges of medical school alone in the past month, also knowing in the back of my head that the rest of my life and everything that I have worked for could crumble.”
The students said Dartmouth has been unnecessarily harsh and insensitive to their emotional health at a difficult time. Just as the cheating allegations surfaced, the medical school released a new social media policy that warned students against disparaging members of the medical school, adding that anonymous posters could be identified. This prompted a student to shut down an Instagram account that had helped the accused support one another and realize they were not alone.
“It shook so many of us,” the first accused student said.
Compton, the dean, said administrators and the judicial committee appreciate the gravity of the situation and its effect on students.
“I feel terrible about the impact on the students and how unsettling this has all been, but the honor code is there for a reason,” he said.
Dartmouth also said it has made students aware of free mental health resources available to them during this episode. But in interviews, some of the accused students said they would feel uncomfortable speaking with university employees under the circumstances.
The allegations, first reported by the Valley News, involve two software programs students use for their remote studies, one to take exams and the other, Canvas, to store course materials like PowerPoint slides. The university says it has data from Canvas that show some students looked at course material while taking exams, a violation of the honor code.
But a number of students have argued that their laptops, phones, and tablets routinely ping Canvas even when they are not using it, so the access was automated and random, not intentional. The administration was convinced in at least three of the cases and dismissed the allegations; 10 others are pending. Students maintain that at least 17 were originally accused.
The situation has led some outside advocacy groups to question whether Dartmouth moved too hastily to accuse the students.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit focused on free speech on college campuses, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit that advocates for digital privacy, wrote a joint letter to Dartmouth raising concerns about the fairness of the process.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a separate statement, said the episode raises questions about whether higher education institutions like Dartmouth are sufficiently well-versed in the complexities of the technology they’ve deployed.
“Proctoring tools and investigations like this one at Dartmouth flag students based on flawed metrics and misunderstandings of technical processes, rather than concrete evidence of misconduct,” the foundation said.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education also sent a letter to Dartmouth criticizing the medical school’s new social media policy, and the timing of its release, saying it stifles free speech and seems intended to deter further criticism of the administration.
University officials, who say they’ve regularly used the testing software for exams since 2014, say they are following the facts and are determined to arrive at a fair outcome in each case.
“We are being extremely careful about this because we understand the impact of this on students,” Compton said.
The review began earlier this year after a faculty member noticed students were accessing course materials on Canvas during an exam, the administration said in a statement.
Based on those concerns, the school conducted a review that identified “multiple students engaging in such activity during the exam time period, using data sources that were not created by passive activity,” the school said.
Following that, the school decided to review all exams from this academic year for such activity, to “ensure fairness for all students, including those not suspected of violations but whose grades could be affected by any changes to their peers’ scores.”
The school eliminated cases where students had been allowed to access course material, the school said. The others were forwarded to the school’s judicial board to determine whether the data “showed evidence of deliberate access of course materials during exams.”
The board reviewed the data on a case-by-case basis, the school said, and focused on whether the data indicated that a student deliberately accessed material that was relevant to the subject of the ongoing exam. Ten cases remain, the school said, including “multiple instances in which students admitted to the conduct in question.”
Several students, however, said they felt coerced into admitting wrongdoing at their judicial hearing because they were told it would help them secure a more favorable outcome with the committee.
Accused students were invited to meet, one by one, with campus administrators in advance of their hearings, conducted entirely over Zoom. An administrator, they said, told them ahead of time that the board responds well to remorse and urged them to apologize. She did not ask whether they were guilty, they said.
Compton, the dean, denied that the committee sought admissions or created “any sense of a quid pro quo.” A spokesman for the school said accusations of improper conduct against administrators were taken seriously “and they will receive a full and fair review.”
On the day of the hearing, the student who received the letter while taking the practice exam was given 90 seconds to defend herself. She read a prepared statement from her bedroom as the committee stared back at her from their Zoom squares.
“The gist of my statement was basically, ‘I take responsibility,’ ” the student said. “I thought this was the most responsible professional way to handle it. I thought I was acting with as much as integrity that I could, to just trust the process.”
Now, as she awaits the committee’s decision on her fate, she regrets apologizing.
Students said awaiting a resolution has been more difficult ever since the closure of the anonymous Instagram account, run by a fellow Dartmouth student, that had been an important forum all year, but especially since the cheating allegations arose. The student started the page last year after the death of George Floyd and it quickly became a place where students felt comfortable airing grievances about the school, particularly regarding institutional racism. After the cheating accusations, students began submitting posts about experiencing severe psychological distress and, in some cases, thoughts of self-harm.
“For the last month I have felt so lost and scared and alone. I haven’t been sleeping or eating much. I have even had many moments where I thought about and planned on killing myself,” one student wrote.
Another wrote: “I feel so coerced. I am so devastated and feel absolutely alone.”
But the page came down last week, shortly after the school released the new social media policy.
The school has said the policy was not meant to target any particular account and had been in the works for a long time, but the student who ran the account deleted it late one night, deeming it too risky to their own future at the school.
“I still feel like I let them down and I wish that I could do more,” the student said, “but I’m really trying to just protect myself at this point.”
Decisions in the case are due any day.