Friday, October 8, 2010

A Difficult Decision

Did you guess which one was the real situation?  It was number 3, which I've reproduced below:

Beth is an assistant professor and has an undergraduate student worker (a senior) who is discovered to have been falsifying his time sheets.  Let's say that Beth's lab technician has reported this to her.  Beth contacts the head of student affairs for guidance.  She is told that the student's actions, if guilty, are considered by the university to be a crime and will be turned over to the campus police; the student will also be expelled.  Let's say Beth is reasonably certain that at least a portion of the time he claimed has been falsified.  Reporting this student will lead to his possible arrest and prosecution and definitely terminate his academic pursuit.  She is hesitant to cause this student to be arrested and expelled.  What if she just fires the student, but does not report him to authorities?  Is that ethical or unethical? What would you do?

I won't reveal what my role was (except to say that I wasn't the student!).  Here is what actually transpired and the reasoning behind the decisions.  Beth went to great effort to document the falsified time claimed by the student.  She compared all work hours against the student's course schedule, and found many instances in which he was in class (confirmed by the course instructors) when he claimed to have been working.  She also found that work hours were claimed for times when the lab was closed (for holidays, etc.) and determined that the student could not have been there (confirmed by graduate students who were working after hours).  All of this information was carefully documented.  Beth also determined that the approval signatures on some of the time sheets were forged.

Beth and the technician decided to confront the student, who confessed to them when shown the evidence (to both the falsified time and the forgeries).  Although Beth felt some reluctance about turning in the student (because of the severe consequences), she ultimately decided that she had no choice.  She turned over her documentation, including signed statements by her and the technician as to what had transpired in their confrontation with the student, to the university business affairs office and to student affairs.  The case was given to the campus police who proceeded to arrest the student.  Beth had advised the student to pay back the funds, which he did; the prosecutor consequently decided not to pursue the case and the criminal charges were dropped.  However, the student was expelled in his senior year.

If Beth had failed to report the student's theft (that's what it was), she could have found herself in trouble with the authorities.  Once she was informed about the theft by the technician, she had no choice but to investigate and then act on her findings.  In fact, the funding that paid the student came from a Federal grant, a situation that might have triggered an even bigger investigation if there had been any attempt at a cover-up.  Regardless of the funding source, Beth was obligated to report the misuse of funds and to try to recover them.  Beth may have felt sympathy for the student, but the student was solely responsible for his actions and, moreover, was clearly aware that what he was doing was wrong (the forgeries).  Furthermore, if Beth had simply fired him, he would have likely gone on to work for someone else at the university or elsewhere, possibly repeating this crime.  Reporting the student to authorities may have been painful for Beth, but failing to do so and stopping him from doing further harm would have been unethical.

Image Credit (Modified from and

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