The medical school at Dartmouth College has dropped sanctions against all students it had found guilty of cheating on exams, a stunning reversal that came after students vigorously maintained their innocence.
Duane Compton, dean of the Geisel School of Medicine, announced the development Wednesday in an e-mail to the medical school community, writing the decision came “upon further review and based on new information received from our learning management system provider.”
He apologized for the stress the accusations put on students and vowed to restore trust.
“We will learn from this and we will do better,” Compton wrote.
The cheating allegations, leveled this spring against more than a dozen first- and second-year students, engulfed the small, close-knit campus. They stemmed from questions raised by administrators about whether students accessed course materials while taking online exams this year. Exams were held remotely due to the pandemic.
The controversy comes amid a particularly difficult time at Dartmouth. On the undergraduate campus, three first-year students have died by suicide this year and the campus is grappling with questions over whether its mental health services adequately meet the needs of students.
Many of the accused medical students maintained they did not cheat and said the school simply did not understand the inner workings of the software program the school uses for course work. At the time, Dartmouth said it had electronic evidence that the students accessed online course materials while taking a test on a different software platform.
But the students said that the program that stores their course materials routinely pings their computers and smartphones, and that such pings do not indicate cheating.
Internet and student privacy watchdog groups asserted the medical school’s allegations were ill-informed and a violation of privacy.
Students also said they were pressured by administrators to admit to cheating and not given adequate time to defend themselves. The Dartmouth administration said it had an obligation to investigate any allegations of the school’s honor code.
A disciplinary committee in April imposed a range of penalties on students it deemed guilty, including course failures, remedial exams, suspensions, and, in the case of three students, expulsions, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation. At least seven students had their punishments rescinded this week, the person said, including the three who faced expulsion.
Some cases had already been dismissed after students produced data showing that the pings in question did not relate to material on the exams they were taking at the time.
The accused students had been waiting for the school to form a committee that would hear their appeals when they were caught off-guard last week by invitations to meet with Compton individually. In those meetings, which took place Wednesday, the person said, Compton informed students that the charges were dropped.
One accused student on Thursday described feeling a wave of relief.
“The weight of these last three months is finally lifted. I feel like I finally start living my life again. It’s going to take a long time to heal, but I’m so thankful I can finally start to put this behind me and just focus on learning medicine again,” the student said in a texted statement.
Another student who had been found guilty and received a punishment said he made it through several painful months thanks to support from other students, faculty, alumni, and the surrounding medical community, he said.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but the medical school is taking the right steps in dropping these cases and addressing the concerns raised by students. I am thankful for their recent actions,” he wrote in a text message.
A spokesman from the college said the institution will not comment further out of respect for the privacy of students.
In his e-mail, Compton said the academic transcripts of the students will not include any reference to the proceedings.
“I appreciate the concern expressed by many in the community for the welfare of the involved students and the complicated nature of these cases. This has been an incredibly difficult period for everyone, especially for the students, and I appreciate the support that many in our community have provided to them,” he wrote.
He also wrote that the school is providing students with a variety of resources to help them maintain their academic and professional progress, including the institution’s mental health counseling services.
The medical school leveled the accusations against the students at a time when many were studying for high-stakes exams that can have a significant impact on the trajectory of their medical career. Some students postponed those exams while they responded to the accusations, in effect delaying their studies. Many students said the episode severely damaged their mental health.
The allegations also came during a year when colleges and universities have been forced to rely more heavily than ever on technology and remote learning.
Compton said that in the future, the school must ensure fairness in the honor code process, especially in an academic environment that will include more remote learning.
He announced a series of policy changes and improvements based on feedback from the student body, including a review of a proposal for open-book exams and a return to in-person testing. He also said the school will create systems to ensure the administration follows up on student input.
“The measures outlined above and our commitment to improvement are the necessary first steps toward rebuilding the trust we recognize has been lost among some students during this process,” he wrote.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which had criticized the school for the accusations, applauded the move Thursday but said it will continue to monitor Dartmouth’s policies.
“Dartmouth’s fresh commitment to ‘rebuilding trust’ among the students it unfairly accused in this case should start with promising a fair process to all future students who may find themselves facing a similar misconduct allegation,” said the organization’s program officer, Alex Morey, in a statement.