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Jim Kenyon: In Dartmouth medical school cheating probe, the cure is worse than the disease

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/13/2021 9:37:36 PM
Modified: 4/13/2021 9:37:37 PM

In recent days, I’ve heard from students at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine who say they’re being falsely accused of cheating on exams administered remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I don’t know enough about the nuts and bolts of online testing technology to make the call. But since Valley News health care reporter Nora Doyle-Burr broke the story last week, it’s become apparent that Dartmouth doesn’t either.

What has become clear to me is that Dartmouth rushed to judgment behind closed doors without strong evidence to back up its allegations. Now that the cheating scandal has become public, the college is backtracking.

Upward of 20 first- and second-year medical school students accused last month of violating Geisel’s honor code were supposed to have known their fate by now.

But this week many of the students (Dartmouth isn’t saying how many) remained in limbo.

I suspect Dartmouth is delaying the verdicts to buy time. Students are under the impression the college is bringing in a third party to conduct an independent technical analysis and review data used to level cheating allegations.

At an April 5 virtual meeting with students, Geisel Dean Duane Compton said, “early this year we received information that indicated there was a possibility of academic misconduct during exams.”

An investigation was launched after it seemed that it wasn’t just an “isolated instance with one individual,” said Compton, who took questions from students during the hourlong session. (An online video of the meeting was originally publicly accessible on the web but was later removed.)

At the root of the scandal is an online platform that Geisel uses called the Canvas Learning Management System. Thousands of K-12 schools and colleges across the country use Canvas’ online tools, according to the educational-technology company’s website.

At Geisel, students can access professors’ video lectures and class notes through Canvas while studying.

They aren’t, however, supposed to use Canvas during closed-book exams.

After cheating allegations surfaced, Dartmouth put its IT department on the case. From the students’ standpoint, the college would have been better off bringing in Inspector Clouseau.

The way that Dartmouth went about determining who was logged onto Canvas when they shouldn’t have been was deeply flawed, students told me. It didn’t take into account that students have multiple electronic devices. A student’s smartphone, for instance, located in a different room from the test taker could be pinging or automatically refreshing without the student knowing about it. Students could appear to be accessing Canvas when they actually weren’t.

I talked with students individually with the understanding that I wouldn’t use their names because of the potential impact on their future medical careers.

Penalties for students found guilty range from having to retake exams to expulsion. Geisel also is threatening to put black marks on their academic records, which could prevent students from getting into choice residency programs — a potential career breaker, after four years of medical school.

Students learned last month that they’d have to appear before Geisel’s Committee on Student Performance and Conduct. Consisting of faculty, medical students and a community member, the committee investigates possible violations of the school’s honor code and determines outcomes.

In some cases, students say, they were given 48 hours or less to put together their defense. They could bring an advocate — just not a lawyer — to the Zoom meeting to offer emotional support, but that person couldn’t speak. Sometimes the hearings were over in a matter of minutes without committee members even raising questions.

Talk about a kangaroo court.

On Monday, Justin Anderson, Dartmouth’s vice president for communications, told me the college had little to say other than what came out last week when it limited comments “out of respect for student right to privacy.”

In an emailed statement last week, Anderson said, “All students received the opportunity to present relevant information and statements to the CSPC, and in multiple instances, students admitted to the conduct in question.”

Earlier this month, Geisel announced a revamped social media policy, which contained a not-so-subtle threat. “Remember that ‘anonymous’ posts may still be traced back to the original author,” the policy states.

In other words, Big Brother is watching.

Some students — and their families — have lawyered up. But others can’t afford legal help, leaving them at the college’s mercy.

Students tell me that some members of the Geisel faculty have offered words of support. From what I’ve seen, however, the faculty is unwilling to speak publicly, in fear of appearing critical of their employer.

Some students have reached out to Robin Allister, a former Geisel faculty member who is now an acute-care specialist at Miriam Hospital, a major teaching hospital in Providence, R.I.

The events taking shape at Geisel have left students feeling “isolated, silenced and powerless,” Allister, who left Geisel last year, wrote me in an email.

“I’m worried about their mental health and overall well-being,” she said. “They’re under immense pressure.”

Along with the cheating allegations hanging over them, second-year medical students are preparing this spring to take their initial national licensing exam.

To its credit, Geisel has recognized for a while that many of its 400 or so students could benefit from increased accessibility to free mental health care services. In November 2019, “Geisel Counseling,” an independent service, was launched to help students better cope with stress.

At least Dartmouth seems to be getting one thing right.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at

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