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Who would have thought that doing too well on a test could get you in trouble?
Certainly not Tony Williams. After passing a new online test on ethics required of all state employees, the tenured professor in the English department at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale received a notice from his university ethics officer and from the state inspector general that he was not in compliance with state ethics regulations, a failure that state officials said could result in punishment that included dismissal. The reason? He had completed the test too quickly.
“It’s a very simple test designed for thousands of state employees, and it’s more relevant for people in purchasing or positions of power,” he said. “Anybody with a fair degree of intelligence can get through it quickly.”
However, state officials have asked him to complete another ethics training course for “noncompliant employees,” which they sent him in the mail. The letter sent to the professors states how long it took them to complete the test, and reads: "Contrary to instructions, you appear to have failed to carefully read and review the subject matter contained in the program's introduction and the lessons." After completing the course, Williams and others were told to sign a letter acknowledging their participation in the “ethics orientation for noncompliant employees.”
But Williams said that signing the form places him in a bind. First, he does not believe that he violated any of the rules for taking the test, which does not have a minimal time for completion. Second, his union’s collective bargaining rules allow for harsher penalties from the university if a person has prior marks on his record. Signing the form for “noncompliant employees” may jeopardize his ability to defend himself should he come under any future disciplinary action, he said.
Drawing a line, he and at least three other professors at Southern Illinois refused to sign the form by last week's deadline. “We’re going to sue the state for the illegality of this training,” said Marvin Zeman, a professor of math and president of the faculty union, which is affilated with the National Education Association.
Zeman has also refused the sign the form. His letter from the state inspector general charged that he had completed the test in only 6.18 minutes. Zeman said that he is not certain how much time he spent on the test, which he took from his office, but he said that it was quite easy. “They are just stating something and I have no way to challenge it,” he said. “I didn’t time myself because I was never told about a time limit.”
“Each question had four choices and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out,” he said. Zeman said that he has not been presented with evidence that he violated anything in the state’s ethics laws by completing the test too quickly. He also said that signing the form may subject him to harsher penalties if he becomes the focus of disciplinary action in the future. “I’m opening myself up to future trouble,” he said.
Morteza Daneshdoost, professor of electrical and computer engineering, agreed. He recently sent out an e-mail to faculty members advising them that if they signed the form, they should add the line, "I am signing this document under duress and my signature does not mean my agreement with its contents or its allegations." Morteza said that they advised faculty members to add the line after consulting with a lawyer.
"Legal counsel told us to do that to protect ourselves," he said.
One of the letters that noncompliant faculty members received came from Corey Bradford, assistant vice president for finance of Southern Illinois and ethics officer. Bradford said that 255 employees across the Southern Illinois system were sent letters for not being in compliance with the state ethics act for completing the test too soon -- 65 were professors on the Carbondale campus. Bradford defined the noncompliance test as “retraining” and said that signing the form does not imply any failure of ethics
“This is simply retraining,” he said.
But Williams dismissed this claim. “He’s just playing with words,” he said. “If you sign a document admitting your guilt, the administration can use that against you.”
Part of the fear by professors comes from statements made in the press by Gilbert Jimenez, deputy inspector general in the state inspector general’s office. Last December, Jimenez told the Daily Egyptian that it was unreasonable for anyone to spend less than 10 minutes on the exam.
“This person is holding onto a cheat sheet,” he told the student newspaper. “That’s what it tells me.” He raised similar concerns in an article that ran in the Chicago Sun-Times in early January.
However, Jimenez told Inside Higher Ed that he had been misquoted and that he has not made allegations to reporters that professors may have cheated. He further stated that he had no proof that anyone had cheated, but for any professor to finish the test in under 10 minutes “raises questions as to whether they had assistance.”
“I wonder about cheat sheets,” he said.
Jimenez added that any state employees who have not finished the required retraining and signed the form of noncompliance are in violation of state law. “We will direct their agencies and departments to begin discipline, up to and including discharge.”
Michael Ruiz, director of communications for the office of the president of the Southern Illinois system, seemed stunned by Jimenez’s comments and said that Southern Illinois would defend itself against any allegations that professors have cheated. “This kind of language, ‘cheat sheet’ and ‘discharge,’ gets people upset,” he said. “I think that if we can avoid that type of language, we can get this resolved.”
Ruiz said that the administration is working to bring the matter to a close and that officials do not see signing the “noncompliance” form as any admission of guilt. He said that no employees should be concerned at this point about being fired, whether they had signed the form or not.