When’s the last time that you reported someone for doing some questionable, illegal, or immoral act? I’m willing to bet that it has been a pretty long time. When I told a close, non-medical school friend that a medical school classmate may have unwittingly confessed to cheating in a very casual co-conspiratorial way, she said don’t get involved. And yet, there it was–a text from a student that claims knowledge of final exam questions, along with a plea: Don’t tell anyone. It was right in the palm of my hand–in my smart phone. This smart device that has been often blamed for failures of etiquette among polite society and now, perhaps, the unmaker of someone’s medical career. Armed with textual proof and compelled by the honor code, I couldn’t disavow knowledge. For approximately an hour, I deliberated: Could I have misunderstood? Does Don’t tell anyone necessarily imply guilt? Somehow, I felt as if this were a behavioral experiment and how I responded would irrevocably reveal my beliefs about human nature–the necessity of human decency and integrity in order to avoid chaos–and my trust in educational institutions. That trust that is probably built on a bit of Disneyland naïveté and tells me that “right” should win out in the end. The best course of action was to report. In reporting, I would be fulfilling my end of the bargain and allowing someone else to make the final call regarding its significance.
Late in the afternoon, I headed off to the Dean’s floor with the intention of running the situation past our academic counselor so that she could escalate if need be. She wasn’t in. From across the hall, our financial aid officer greeted me. Hesitantly, I walked into her office and spoke in hypotheticals: “If I were to think someone is cheating..” She stopped me mid-sentence and pulled one of the deans out of a meeting. The dean was sensitive, reassuring and kind:
“You did the right thing.”
I told, but then I realized that I was the only one with the proof. The shadows of bureaucracy closed in around me. Once I was a mild-mannered, stressed-out med school student, with a vague and untested disregard for authority but now I was part of the machine. Congratulations! I’m a snitch!
It is important to note that as a medical student, I felt like I had no choice. I could either a) not report it, breaking my school’s honor code, and becoming an immoral person myself, or b) tell. The honor code tells you to uphold it, rain or shine, despite the positional status of proverbial trees in forests, and despite grudges you might have against medical education, your school, or “the man”. I agreed to an oath. If A then B. It’s simple logic.
I waited a protracted, seemingly interminable length of time (that amounted to about five days) for a resolution to the issue. Surprisingly, during this time, I worried. I looked for validation from my family and my mother groaned loudly asking why I didn’t just stay out of it. I paced and ranted to non-medical school friends like Woody Allen in any Woody Allen film. I wondered aloud why anyone would be idiotic enough to confess to cheating by text. Despite my claim to a disaffected persona and outsider-status, I betrayed myself and I cried for the student and for myself. I hoped I wouldn’t get gunned down in parking lots. I tried to predict the unpredictable: If I left for Anatomy class ten minutes early/late, could I avoid this student? I tried not think about the concerning number of suicides in medical school. I tried not to think about student debt in the face of dismissal or a marred reputation. I’m not in this to ruin lives. And I was ultimately upset because no one really has the high road here. How many times have I rolled through a stop sign? Inadvertently littered when a piece of paper blew away from me too quickly? Lied? The only thing separating me and a known cheater is probably the known part.
“You did the right thing.”
People kept telling me this and I started to feel a bit hostile. Okay, so what? Doing the right thing didn’t give me peace of mind. It didn’t make me feel any less like a snitch, a ruiner of lives, or happy. It just made me right.
I was informed that the student was presented with the evidence and given a chance to defend himself. He denied wrongdoing and it was decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to move forward with disciplinary action. My feelings were mixed: happy that the student wouldn’t have a mark on his record and annoyed that I had worried for naught. I was grateful for some transparency but I will always wonder what arguments were raised, the course of the debate, and the details of the conclusions reached. The unknowables. But, in the end, I know this, as whistleblower, I didn’t ruin a life.
“I did the right thing.”