Monday, January 28, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: The Case of the Slippery Stipend

A nervous correspondent writes:

I am a regular reader and occasional pseudonymous poster, and am faced with an ethical dilemma. I wonder if you and/or your readers have a suggestion:

In my program, we ask students to do some work for credit. It's entirely independent of a class and they work one-on-one with a professor. At the end of term, we pay the professors a very small stipend for their contribution. We also ask for a copy of the work the student has done and (separate) signed statements from the students and the professors that verify the work was done. For the most part, the students are very honest and admit when they don't do the work. My problem is that I have a (small) number of professors who said the student did the work (and thus triggered the system by which they get the small stipend) but the student confirmed that they did not.

What's the best way to approach this? I am having a hard time trying to figure out just how to begin that particular email. I rely on professors' good will to continue working with students to ensure the life of the program, and also need the program to maintain a good reputation among students and professors on campus.

You've hit on the eternal dilemma of the honor system: not everybody behaves honorably all the time. But heavy-handed surveillance comes across as insulting to the folks who do behave honorably.

Luckily for you, you have at hand a reasonable excuse for knowing that you're being lied to. You mention both that you “ask for a copy of the work the student has done” and that some “student[s] confirmed that they did not.” So if a professor puts in for a stipend, and you don't have the required work (and you do have a student admitting not having done it), I think you're on solid ground to start asking questions. I mean that literally: ask questions.

Readers of a certain age - - we know who we are, and there's no need to press the point, thank you very much – will remember Columbo. His shtick was playing dumb and asking series of questions that would inevitably trap the perpetrator. (Think of him as Socrates turned detective.) The virtue of this approach is that it's less directly confrontational. You might not get the professor's back up too early, and it allows for the possibility of someone admitting an honest mistake (“I got the names mixed up”). It's always possible that what looks like self-serving deception is simply sloppiness; by starting off with indirect questions (“Do you know why we never received a copy of the work? Do you have it?”), you leave open the door for more innocent explanations.

The bane of my existence is the miscreant-turned-amateur-epistemologist. “How did you know that? What right did you have to gather that information?” I don't walk the hallways with a clipboard and a checklist, noting who is in which classroom when, and I wouldn't want to work anywhere where someone did. But not doing that makes it harder to document the folks who don't show up for work, since it's easy for them to claim that they're being singled out.

In your case, you have easy answers for those questions.

I'm not sure I'd start with email, though. If you know the professors well enough, I'd probably start with a face-to-face meeting at which you ask them to explain an incongruity. Then follow up with something in writing – a memo or an email – summarizing what you remember the meeting to have covered. That way you'll still have a written record, but the somewhat less threatening style of initial approach might yield better results. You'll be able to read body language and vocal expression, for one thing, and it's harder to simply ignore someone right in front of you than to ignore an email. (“What email? I never got an email.”) It will also reduce the likelihood of getting into one of those maddening series of escalating evasions with cc's to all and sundry.

What I wouldn't do is go in with guns a-blazin'. Sometimes incongruities are simply that. Leave open the possibility, at least initially, of an innocent explanation. Signals get crossed, misunderstandings happen, and we're all only human. If you ask for the professor's help in explaining an incongruity, rather than starting off with an accusation, you're likelier to hear the embarrassing-but-not-criminal explanation (clerical error, misplaced benefit of the doubt, etc.) that would otherwise get hidden under a brittle and bitter defensiveness.

(Besides, unless he's truly sociopathic, a professor who dodges a bullet with some flimsy-but-not-disprovable cover story once will probably toe the line a lot more closely after that. In the long run, you get most of what you want, even if you have to pretend credulity in the short run. I've had to settle for that more than once.)

And yes, some people are ethically challenged. But it's probably best to save that as the 'residual' explanation, to be used only when all else fails.

Good luck. Even handled perfectly, this won't be easy.

Wise and worldly readers – what would you suggest?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.


Comments:
What DD outlines here sounds like a reasonable approach.

I think in many cases, people who try to game a system, don't always fully know how that system works or where the checks and balances are. They think they're getting away with something, but are actually quite exposed.

Are the professors unaware that a copy of the student's work will be requested, let alone that a signed confirmation from the student attesting to this is required? If unaware, then they probably figure they're getting over. If not, then that's just ballsy. Furthermore, if the stipend is not that much, they probably figure "What's the harm? They'll never miss it."

Also, I agree with taking the Columbo {wink} apporach. I have found that when you "eyeball" someone in person, it is less easy for them to bluster, embellish, be evasive, or prevaricate as they might do in an email. You will probably nip more nonsense in the bud speaking to them in person and using the soft touch.
 
Dean Dad,

Sounds sensible; you must have read this book.
 
Is it possible that a professor could have done her part (supervising a student, helping a student develop ideas, etc. - whatever is appropriate for the project) and yet the student failed to do her part? If this is possible, than I can understand why a professor would put in for a stipend while a student admits to not having done the work.
 
I think DD's approach is reasonable as well. I expect you'll find some of them just sign whatever a student hands them (or whatever's in the pile on their desk) without really paying that much attention to it.

You may also have some who have been "supervising" students one-on-one all this time without ever actually interacting with them, and this is the first time they've had a student who didn't finish the work, which presents a somewhat different problem.

I'd go in expecting human error or laziness rather than shadiness -- but of course be ready for the shadiness.

(And yeah, sometimes it's worth accepting not challenging the explanation that's obviously fake, but quietly dropping that person in the future.)
 
I like DD's approach, but it seems that there is some ambiguity as to why the professor gets the stipend. On the one hand, it could be for assisting in the production of work (say a paper or lab report that the student submits); in that case, the stipend is dependent on the production of something, i.e. the student's submission. In this sense it is akin to the bonuses some high school teachers get when their students score higher on standardized exams. On the other hand, the stipend could be for volunteering time, guidance, and/or resources to the student, irrespective of whether that student produces anything. For example, if a professor allows a student to work in his or her lab but the student doesn't produce anything, is the professor effectively penalized for a lazy or incompetent student?

In this case, perhaps the professor is simply confused about what the terms for the stipend are. Of course, it is also possible that the professor is unaware of how little the student did; while this may be negligent, it is not necessary fraudulent, depending on the policy.
 
I agree with these comments, but especially Savage Hun. The ambiguities over roles played should be cleared up first, if there are any. And I favor a polite email over an eye-to-eye confrontation.

For example, there could be a general announcement that student completion rates are lower than desired and, to address this, the "authorities" will henceforth be requiring evidence of student completion as a condition of stipend payout. This has no implied presumption of guilt or innocence -- only a new mechanism to help students. It doesn't really matter if that was the rule before; this will serve notice that enforcement, in pursuit of the greater good, will tighten.

In that case, faculty who feel they should receive a stipend even for incomplete student work can raise that concern in that context, and that concern could be discussed on its merits.
 
Yeah, that was my thought too. If a student takes a normal course but doesn't get organized enough to do the work, the prof still gets paid. Why should it be different for independent study?

If a prof is instructing the student, giving him/her lab time, etc., but the student flakes out at the end of the semester and doesn't finish the report, the prof basically just got stiffed. I doubt I'd accept independent-study students under those conditions.
 
I dunno, but based on what the correspondent wrote it seems that the basic terms of this arrangement require that actual, completed work be submitted in order for the professor to qualify for the stipend, not just the professors time providing guidance, etc.

Either the student has completed and submitted this work to the professor to turn over to the Dept. for verification or they haven't. In this case the student admits that they did not complete the work, however it appears that the instructor has said that they did.

That is a discrepancy that needs to be cleared up, and then perhaps clarification for the future as to what is required in order to earn the stipend.

In the program I completed, instructors serving as thesis advisors were provided written terms that they had to sign before they would be officially approved to assist a student. These terms spelled out very clearly what was expected, and that if they did not comply they risked forfeiting the compensation.
 
The point that several of you made -- that the professors may have interpreted the rules differently than my correspondent did -- is exactly why it's important to go into these exchanges with an open mind.

Embarrassingly, that interpretation didn't occur to me. It sounds plausible, and may very well be right. If you went in with guns a-blazin' and this turned out to be the answer, you'd wind up as embarrassed as I am.

Sherman -- yup, I've read that. Good catch.
 
Savage Hun: On the one hand, it could be for assisting in the production of work (say a paper or lab report that the student submits); in that case, the stipend is dependent on the production of something, i.e. the student's submission. In this sense it is akin to the bonuses some high school teachers get when their students score higher on standardized exams. On the other hand, the stipend could be for volunteering time, guidance, and/or resources to the student, irrespective of whether that student produces anything. For example, if a professor allows a student to work in his or her lab but the student doesn't produce anything, is the professor effectively penalized for a lazy or incompetent student?

Speaking purely from a personal standpoint, if you're going to pay high school teachers bonuses for having bright students, then professors should get the same "luck of the draw" consideration :-/

Personally I'm opposed to this style of incentive pay. I have one young lad I've brought up from a 40% to a 60% in less than half the course — that took a lot more work then the boy who always scores 99%, but I'd be rewarded for the luck of having the latter and not for the work I put into the former.

If the stipend is being paid only for successful completion of work, and the professors in question dod perform their side of the bargain (spent time and effort) they might well feel that they earned the money — that they successfully completed the work they were being paid for (mentoring, proofreading, lab time, etc.), and so honestly stated that the work (their work) was completed.
 
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