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Queen's University
 

Mohamed v University of Saskatchewan [2006] No. 39

When is it reasonable not to consider mental disability as a mitigating factor in cases involving students with mental disability accused of academic dishonesty?  

Facts:

Mr. Ausama Mohamed was a high achieving Arts and Sciences undergraduate who transferred from the University of Regina to the University of Saskatchewan for his third year of studies. His career goal was to become a dentist.  Believing he had all the necessary prerequisites, Mr Mohamed began applying to various dentistry schools while taking what he considered to be “easy” courses at the University. These courses included three geography classes, a geology class and a health sciences class. Soon after sending out his applications to dentistry school, the student began receiving rejection notices from various dentistry schools which informed him that he did not, in fact, have all the prerequisite science courses.  These letters arrived in the weeks before his final exams. Anxious and depressed, he made a series of bad choices:

  • He asked for and received permission to defer three geography exams (Geography 113.3, 114 and 101.3) scheduled on three different dates (April 12th, 22nd and 23rd) by informing each of the three professors that he had been delayed in Halifax.  This was not true.  In fact he wrote his geology exam, at the University, on April 21st.    
  • He cheated on one of his geography exams (101.3). When the final exam was given to the class, one copy went missing. On the day of the make-up exam for Mohamed and another student, the professor became suspicious when Mr. Mohamed began asking questions from that exam just minutes before the exam was due to start.  The professor quickly changed several questions on his computer and printed off two new versions of the original final exam which she gave to two students. The first handed in the modified exam whereas Mr. Mohammed handed in the original.
  • Mr. Mohamed was also accused of falsifying the facts he presented to appeal his heath sciences professor’s decision not to allow him to defer his final exam

On May 10, 2004, Mr. Mohamed received a letter from the University notifying him that his three geography professors were charging him with academic dishonesty.  This was followed, four days later, with another letter notifying him that his health sciences professor was also filing charges against him.

The student wrote a memo addressed to the hearing committee denying all charged and expressing anger, hurt and indignation. At the hearing on June 23, when faced with evidence concerning the Halifax detour alibi, Mr. Mohamed admitted that his requests for deferral of his three geography exams were falsified.  He claimed that his dishonest requests for referral arose from a mental disability; he had been very stressed about the rejection letters from dentistry schools. The committee found that on a balance of probabilities, the student had cheated on the exam, even though he strongly denied having committed this offense. Due to insufficient evidence, he was not found responsible for academic dishonesty in the health sciences class.

In the end, the committee found that Mr. Mohammed had violated three rules of academic integrity:

 

Article 12 (m)

Providing false or misleading information with the intent to avoid or delay writing an examination or fulfilling any other academic requirement

Article 12 (j)

Seeking to acquire or acquiring prior knowledge of the contents of any examination question or paper with the intention of gaining an unfair advantage

Article 12 (k)  

Possessing or using notes or other sources of information or devices in an examination not permitted by the course instructors

His penalty for the infractions under 12 (m), he was suspended for four years and given 0 in each of the geography classes. For the infractions under 12 (j) and (k), he was expelled from University.  The committee stated, in its reasons, that it had not considered the student’s report of “severe stress” as a mitigating factor because he could have sought accommodation through legitimate routes: “seeking extensions from the instructor, deferred examinations, appeals on medical or compassionate grounds” (para 21)

In an Appeals hearing in September 2004, Mr. Mohamed brought a psychiatrist who stated that the student had been suffering from depression at the time he committed offences of academic dishonesty. The appeal committee upheld the decision of the hearing committee, reiterated the penalty and recommended that the student seek counselling to come to terms with what he had done and the consequences of his misconduct. It did not offer reasons, nor did it refer to the evidence of the psychiatrist.

Arguments

Mr. Mohammed appealed this decision to the University visitor, who chose to have the Courts deal with the issue. The student argued that the appeals committee should have provided reasons in its ruling. And that the university should have considered the student’s depression as a mitigating factor in its decisions?

Issues

  1. Should the appeals committee have provided reasons?
  2. Was it reasonable for the appeals committee not to consider the student’s mental disability as a mitigating factor in its deliberations?
  3. Should hearing committees ever take into account personal attributes or circumstances (such as mental disability) in hearings about academic dishonesty?

Decision

  1. Yes
  2. Yes
  3. Yes

Reasoning

  1. The appeals committee is obligated by common law to provide reasons or recite evidence upon which it came to its decision. It failed to do so.  The Court found, however, that in this case “nothing would be gained in requiring the appeal board to provide additional reason on the issue of academic dishonesty”. It also found that the student should have requested reasons rather than seeking to set aside the decision based on lack of reasons.
  2. The Court found that the Appeals committee had not considered the students mental disability as a mitigating factor. It also found that this was reasonable for four reasons

                                 I.             the time that it would take to assess the psychiatric evidence would interfere with what is supposed to be an expeditious process

                                II.            Committee members are not trained to analyse expert evidence

                              III.            The quality of psychiatric evidence depends on the credibility of the subject

                              IV.            Most students do not have the means to access expert evidence.

  1. Yes. “The foregoing is not intended to suggest that a hearing committee should never take into account the personal attributes or circumstances of the person who committed the act of academic dishonesty. As noted on the university website at para 28 above, when a student readily admits the mistake, and cooperates with the hearing committee, thereby accepting responsibility, different considerations may arise.

 

COMMENT

The implication here is that had Mr. Mohamed admitted his mistake, cooperated with the committee, accepted responsibility for his misconduct, they may have taken his mental disability into consideration

Kingston, Ontario, Canada. K7L 3N6. 613.533.2000