Sigh. It is hard to get through a week without reading about a university student somewhere suing their university. Some cases are unabashed, and ridiculous, in the sense of entitlement demonstrated by the suing student. The University of Winnipeg was once brought to court by a student who was angling for an A in one class, over the B+ he was actually assigned. Other cases demonstrate clear misconduct on the part of the university. In Sept 2008, Laurentian University was found liable after it was concluded to have mislead students over whether they could transfer their Laurentian courses elsewhere.
The case of Chris Avenir, who has filed a $10 million class action lawsuit against Ryerson University over an academic misconduct hearing he faced in 2008, on first blush appears to fall into the category of just another self-entitled student looking to escape accountability for his own actions. And yet it raises important questions of a university’s academic misconduct policies.
Avenir gained international attention in March 2008 after he faced expulsion for administering a Facebook study group the previous semester. The Facebook group invited students to provide answers: “If you request to join, please use the forms to discuss/post solutions to the chemistry assignments. Please input your solutions if they are not already posted.” A professor who had mandated that course work be done individually noticed the group and changed Avenir’s grade to an F on the assignment. Ryerson’s academic misconduct policy very clearly states that “working collaboratively on an assignment, and then submitting it as if it was created solely by you,” is prohibited. In other words, work that is to be done independently, must actually be done independently.
Avenir, who was then a first-year engineering student, was forced to face a faculty appeal panel, which could recommend his expulsion. The panel ultimately gave him a slap on the wrist, and ruled only that he should receive a grade of zero for the assignment in question, which was worth only 10 per cent of his mark for the class. He might have left it at that, comforted in the fact that he didn’t get a zero for the entire class, or that he wasn’t recommended for expulsion. Lesson learned.
Instead, Avenir is alleging that the faculty appeal process caused “significant emotional and/or mental stress,” and has filed a Statement of Claim on behalf of all students who have gone through a similar appeal process in recent years.
The point of contention appears to be, according to the Toronto Star, is that at the panel Avenir was not permitted to be represented by a lawyer. At Ryerson, preliminary hearings, like this one, only allow a representative from the student union to be present. While the panel can recommend more serious sanctions, like expulsion, such cases must be heard by the university’s senate, in which case, a lawyer may be present.
As the Star reports, “The statement of claim suggests Ryerson violated a policy that states all hearings will be consistent with the Statutory Powers Procedure Act, which guarantees a person the right to be represented by a lawyer.”
Whether Ryerson will be found to be in contravention of its own policy will be decided by the courts, but it is not exactly an easy question. A student union executive told the Star that a representative from the union might actually be better suited, at least for preliminary hearings, than outside legal representation. Then again, other universities, like the University of Toronto, allow students to be represented by legal counsel through the entire hearing process.
As for the question of “emotional distress,” any law students or lawyers reading, your insights in the comments would be helpful. But it seems to me that having to go in front of an academic misconduct committee, charged with cheating, is likely to be “emotionally stressful” whether a lawyer is present or not. Reviewing Ryerson’s academic misconduct policy is probably a good idea, but I can’t help but think that filing a class action lawsuit is excessive.