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.