A Fresh Start: Solving ethical issues at the University: past and present

A staff member broke the rules of conduct, which resulted in dismissal.  Another staff member kept breaking the same rules and managed to get away with it. A teacher shows disrespect to a female student according to others, while the teacher considers his actions to be permissible. A colleague makes offensive remarks towards the other staff members at the department through social networks instead of a personal conversation.   Students are appalled with the teacher’s critical comments on the topic outside the discipline under consideration. Similar cases get into the public domain quite fast. They are widely debated by the staff even if they have occurred outside St Petersburg University. 

Ethics Committee at St Petersburg University

Some issues fall within the scope of the law and get resolved as the current legislation permits. Others can be resolved administratively, for example, by imposing a disciplinary measure or by talking to each side. However, very often such situations belong to the ethical domain touching upon the universal moral principles.  What are the ways of solving these issues at the University? How were they solved in the past?  And how are they solved nowadays?

Long ago

The Ethics Committee of the Academic Council at St Petersburg University has been created quire recently. It has worked for nine years since the spring of 2011 (What are the ways of resolving ethical issues at the University?). How were the issues of ethics resoled at the University previously?  

‘If we look back, the structures resembling an ethics committee have a long history at Russian universities’, said Vadim Perov, Associate Professor in the Department of Ethics, Director of the ‘Applied Ethics’ academic programme at St Petersburg University. ‘The provisions in the General Charter of the Imperial Russian Universities (1804) in Chapter 14 ‘On the University Court’ can be considered a precursor. It is devoted to judiciary power of university boards consisting of the rector, faculty deans and one full professor who was appointed a chairman by the board of trustees. Along with administration of the university, the board took decisions in various disputes including tangible disputes between teachers and students.    Interestingly, these decisions could be called down at the ‘general assembly’ – a body similar to an academic council in modern universities in Russia.

Later, another provision is included into the General Charter of the Imperial Russian Universities dated 1863. It refers to a special university court (Chapter 5, section 3) convened on an annual basis and composed of university professors with the participation of representatives from the Faculty of Law. It also had to be chaired by a lawyer. This court resolved cases of students’ violations of the university rules, collisions between students, teachers and university officials in the territory of the university and beyond.  This state of affairs did not last long and the General Charter of the Imperial Russian Universities dated 1884 had no mention of university courts any more.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the Ministry of National Education of the Russian Empire made attempts to revive this activity and issues a number of documents. The most significant regulations were the Temporary rules of academic disciplinary courts at higher education establishments of the Ministry of National Education (1902) and the Instruction on academic disciplinary court at universities (1908). Although the universities had to develop their own provision based on these documents, it did not go beyond discussion and drafts.

Nevertheless, academic disciplinary courts existed and operated at universities including St Petersburg Imperial University.   They considered the cases of violating the university rules by students, teachers and staff including arising conflicts.   Based on the experience of the academic court universities, the provisions on amending the Temporary rules of academic disciplinary courts were prepared. The discussion of such courts reached the Ministry of National Education. However, they were not adopted eventually.  Academic disciplinary courts at Russian universities suspended their operation with the onset of World War I in 1914, although they were formally eliminated only in 1916.

The Soviet times

The Soviet period was extremely complicated and controversial in terms of ‘ethical codes and committees’ due to the historic events and processes as well as their possible evaluations.    Here is a brief account.

On the one hand, the ruling communist (Marxist and Leninist) ideology was initially ‘morally loaded’, since an educational and corrective function was implied as its immanent part.  On the other hand, ‘classical’ Marxism treated moral quite negatively as a relic of the past.  For rather a long time after the October Revolution, ethics had been considered as a ‘bourgeois science’ long before the same labels were given to genetics, cybernetics, etc. Thus, theoretical ethics neither existed as such, nor was taught in an organised manner. Only in the late 1950s – early 1960s, the situation changed when studies in ethics and general courses in Marxist and Leninist Ethics started to emerge.

No less controversial and ambiguous were the processes of evaluating ethical behaviour and solving moral conflicts at work in the USSR. On the one hand, there was nothing that could be called and ‘ethical committee’ or ‘ethical commission’ in the Soviet times.  On the other hand, similar functions were often performed by the committees of the party, Komsomol, trade unions, etc.  Curiously enough, in the late 1940s – early 1950s, ‘courts of honour’ for workers similar to the ‘military courts of honour’ were created almost in all ministries and agencies of the USSR. However, this practice did not assimilate.   

One should remember, that being a part of the authoritarian and ideology driven system of state government, party committees and other similar structures were elective bodies. At the grass roots level, they were closely connected with the organisation workers, which called for special attention to the ‘opinion of the staff’.  These structures had to address the violations of general moral norms including informal standards of professional ethics. Without idealising and being nostalgic about the party and Komsomol past, it should be noted that sometimes they could manage with the ethical functions.  People who lived during the Soviet times remember how the committees considered ‘personal files’ and announced reprimands on immoral behaviour, which mostly implied family conflicts and unacceptable sexual relations. Similar events occurred in all higher education establishments and Leningrad State University was no exception.

Not so long ago

Before adopting the University Student and Staff Code of Conduct, St Petersburg University had used the term of the ‘university style’.  This term was quite vague and allowed for manipulation.

‘About fifteen years ago, Viktor Zhuravlev told me that one teacher accused another of violating the standards of professional ethics,’ recalled Associate Professor Vadim Perov.  ‘I remember explaining him that if there are no written standards, it is impossible to accuse anyone in their violation. In this case, we can talk only about someone’s private opinion: I don’t like the behaviour of my colleague and I say that he or she is not following the university style or goes against it.

If we say that a staff member or a student should correspond to some university style, we should give a clear definition to it. The University Student and Staff Code of Conduct defines general rules of conduct and one can appeal to these standards. Today, the Ethics Committee consideres the actions of the University staff and students determining where the specific norms of the Code are violated.

What was it like before the standards were determined?

Case No 1

In April 1994, three candidates took part in the first elections for the position of the University Rector: Acting Rector Lyudmila Verbitskaya, Vice-Rector for Research Vladimir Krasilnikov and Director of the Research Institute of Physics Vadim Fomichev. Lyudmila Verbitskaya was elected the Rector. Before her, in 1986-1993, the position of the Rector was taken by Stanislav Merkuriev, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and renowned scientist of theoretical physics.   It was probably due to this fact that two physicists took part in the Rector’s elections in 1994. Half a year later, Professor Fomichev was dismissed from the University as they said ‘with cause’.  He was fired by the Rector’s order.

Professor Vadim Fomichev, Doctor of Physics and Mathematics, worked at Leningrad State University since 1968 occupying different positions. By 1994, he had been the Director of the Research Institute of Physics for 16 years. In those years, research institutes at universities were directly subordinate to the Ministry and Professor Fomichev was appointed Director of the Research Institute of Physics in 1978 following the Minister’s order. In the spring of 1992, he was re-elected as a director of the Institute for the following term at the meeting of the Academic Council of the Faculty of Physics.

Six months after the Rector’s elections, on 28 November 1994, a regular meeting of the University Academic Council took place. At the meeting, Director of the Research Institute of Physics Vadim Fomichev commented one of the issues under discussion. After the meeting of the Academic Council, Professor Fomichev was approached by Lyudmila Verbitskaya and two other members of the Academic Council with a request to write an explanation about his condition. Professor Fomichev said that he did not feel well and would give such explanation on the following day. However, he fell ill on the following day. The pause lasted for two weeks.  He managed to write the explanatory note only on 14 December upon returning from the sick leave.

Then, he learned that on 28 November, an act was created with the signatures of Academic Council members stating that he, Vadim Fomichev, ‘appeared at the meeting of the Academic Council of St Petersburg University under alcoholic intoxication, which was reflected in his incoherent speech, unsteady gait, and multiple comments beside the questions under discussion to name just a few.’ Based on this act, Acting Academic Secretary of the Academic Council at St Petersburg University submitted an internal memo to Rector Lyudmila Verbitskaya that ‘a member of the Academic Council, Director of the Research Institute of Physics Professor Fomichev appeared under alcoholic intoxication’ at the meeting of the Academic Council of St Petersburg University on 28 November 1994. In the memo, a request to take a relevant decision was voiced.

Vadim Fomichev described his illness on the day of the Academic Council meeting in the explanatory note.   As doctors later clarified, he had done an unacceptable thing by getting an overdose of various medications he was taking. According to Vadim Fomichev, those rash acts resulted in his ‘deeply inhibited condition at the end of the Academic Council meeting’ and ‘possibly affected the articulation when he talked’.  It was confirmed by the sick leave of Vadim Fomichev closed on 13 December with the diagnosis of ‘high blood pressure, angina pectoris’.

However, it seems that nobody listened to the arguments of Vadim Fomichev. The University representatives did not direct him for a medical expertise to confirm his health condition. With written acknowledgement of receipt, Vadim Fomichev was handed Rector Lyudmila Verbitskaya’s Order No 1676/2 dated 14 December 1994 about his dismissal from 14 December 1994 for ‘being at work under alcoholic intoxication following section 7 article 33 of the Labour Code of the Russian Federation’.  Professor Fomichev was undecided about challenging the order in court.

The only thing he was able to achieve was cancellation of the old order and issue of a new one with a different wording without the mention of the Labour Code article. They also found an opportunity to hire Professor Fomichev as a leading research associate in the Department of Solid State Electronics. 

In April 1995, elections of the Director of the Research Institute of Physics at St Petersburg University took place.  According to Vadim Fomichev, Lyudmila Verbitskaya allowed him to participate in the elections.  There were four other candidates.  He was leading in two election stages. However, the meeting of the Academic Council of the research and educational centre in physics on electing the Director was chaired by Lyudmila Verbitskaya. As a result, Evgenii Riumtsev, Head of the Department of Polymer Physics, was appointed as the Director of the Research Institute of Physics.    

Case No 2

The relations between the heads of subdivisions and the Rector’s office administration have always been complicated. They depended on personal attitude and on the support of the faculty staff and the dean to this or that candidate for the Rector's position. Financial success of the faculty and its popularity among applicants also played their part. Professor Konstantin Khudoley faced these issues many times during his assignment as the Dean of the School of International Relations. It was not always easy.  From the very inception of the idea to create a School of International Relations, there were supporters (in the majority) and active opponents.  Even after the creation of the school, some of the opponents used every opportunity and resources to prevent the new structural subdivision of the University from development.

Heated discussion and stormy debates among the University community members proceeded the creation of the School of International Relations in 1994. ‘The majority of the University staff supported us. Here we should give credit to Rector Stanislav Merkuriev, who immediately supported the idea and took the first steps towards its implementation.  However, the administration of the Faculty of History were outspokenly critical of the initiative,’ said Konstantin Khudoley, Head of the Department of European Studies, Dean of the School of International Relations in 1994-2010. ‘Thus, the process of establishing the school went in complicated and even adverse conditions.’

Within a short period of time, we were able to achieve undoubted success. The academic process was organised at a high professional level. The school became the basis for large-scale international conferences. Many teachers took part in prestigious international conferences held in other organisation in Russia and worldwide giving talks that rose interest in the scientific communities.  Only two universities in Russia including St Petersburg University represented by the School of International Relations and MGIMO University became associated and then full members of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs.   All of it happened against the backdrop of continuous renovation of premises at Smolny handed over to the University by the Central State Archive of Historical and Political Documents of St Petersburg in the condition entirely unsuitable for academic processes.

However, not everyone was happy to witness our success. When Stanislav Merkuriev passed away, the policy of providing for the domination of the Faculty of Philology over all other subdivisions of the Humanities started to prevail.  This policy was strictly enforced by the then Dean of the Faculty of Philology Sergey Bogdanov.    In public, he was not against the creation of our school, but with our growth his negative attitude became more pronounced. At the same time, the relations with philologists were paramount to us due to the importance of foreign language training for international relations specialists. Sergey Bogdanov and especially his colleagues made little secret of the fact that they wanted the level of foreign language training among the students of international relations to be lower than that of the students of philology, so that they could not compete with each other upon graduation.

It was especially vivid in teaching a second foreign language required by international relations specialists at a professional level to be further used in the international activity.   Simultaneously, we proposed that the Faculty of Philology improve the courses in regional studies, since we already had highly qualified specialists in that area.  However, the proposal was declined by Sergey Bogdanov quite categorically. He was not ready for any compromises. During almost two years, our school was in disarray: the proximity to the Rector provided the attacking side with far larger resources than those that we could receive.

Eventually, in May 1998, this issue was raised at the meeting of the University Academic Council.  To be honest, I still remember it quite vividly. The people who knew our work well and praised it on the side-lines said quite the contrary in public. They showed complete lack of integrity trying to adjust to Sergey Bogdanov's policy.  Reviewing the minutes of this meeting now, I have to say that some comments have been softened and suppressed. The decree issued by the Academic Council of the University (Minutes of the Academic Council dated 25 May 1998) severely damaged the school slowing down but not suspending our development. The opponents of the school provoked me to resign from the position of the Dean and change the whole team of the school administration.

The school already had a healthy core of teachers and staff. Virtually all students declared of their readiness to provide support.  Deans of other faculties helped in many other ways. First of all, such help was provided by deans Nikolay Kropachev, Nikolai Skvortsov, and Igor Gorlinsky, and Director of the Centre for the Russian Language and Culture Stanislav Eremeev.  I cannot but remember precious advice by prominent mathematician Gennady Leonov.  Only the support of many friends at St Petersburg University and beyond (there were more of them than we thought) enabled me and my colleagues to stand against this pressure.

Talking about the ethics of those years, I can share another characteristic feature. Before the meeting of the Academic Council of St Petersburg University, I thought I had established good personal relations with some University managers that spoiled after the meeting.  Sometime later, one of them (since he is not living any more it won’t be ethical to share his name) ‘explained’ me: ‘Why are your peeved with us?  The situation with your school was just some practical training before the attack on the Faculty of Law.’ It happened one year later: SPbU Faculty of Law: Dean dismissed for fighting corruption).

In conclusion, I would mention that the problems that led to conflict at that time have been quite successfully resolved in the recent years.  The University has arranged for efficient training in foreign languages by creating an independent Faculty of Foreign Languages. Its teachers hold classes at all faculties taking into account the specific nature of every academic programme. In our case, teachers of foreign languages became a part of the faculty staff de facto.  A representative of the Faculty of Foreign Languages is a member of the Academic Council at every faculty. Candidates taking part in competitions for the staff positions at the Faculty of Foreign Languages should be assessed by the Academic Councils of the relevant faculties. Together with the teachers of foreign languages we conduct not only teaching activity, but also research. A part of courses on country studies to students of various programmes are delivered by the teachers of the School of International Relations. Thus, the most complicated issues can be solved taking into account the interests of all parties involved and following ethical standards.

Recently: the Ethics Committee

Let’s take a look at the way ethical issues are sometimes resolved at universities.  For example, Vadim Perov shared a story that happened two years. A well-known professor of Russian published an unflattering remark about the Russian language in social networks.  Vadim Perov considers that the professor implied one thing that was interpreted in a completely different way giving rise to further escalation.  In a Moscow institution where he worked, the Committee on Ethics held remote voting and declared his actions unethical before the meeting of the Academic Council. They did not even discuss the matter, but just voted with six votes ‘for’ and one ‘abstained’. The professor was not requested to give any explanations learning about it only after the decision of the Committee was voiced at the meeting of the academic council.  According to Professor Vadim Perov, in this case the committee acted as a tool in the hands of the university administration.

At St Petersburg University, this cannot be the case.  When the Ethics Committee was established at our University in 2011 in accordance with the provisions of the University Charter, it was comprised of only honorary professors of St Petersburg University – respectable people with significant life experience with immunity status or independence.  They can voice their opinion on ethical issues based on their ideas of what is good and what is bad.  For the most part, they are free from possible administrative influence and public opinion pressure.  Their authority including in the issues of ethics is very high.

Let us recall that the Collegium of Honorary Professors of St Petersburg University was created in 2009. It was initiated by an enquiry by staff trade union member Tatiana Trubinskaia to Rector Nikolay Kropachev.    She suggested that the University should take real care of the people that gave all their life to it (Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 25 July 2016). Former provision on the status of honorary professors at St Petersburg University was fundamentally transformed to raise the status of honorary professors and appreciate their efforts and input into the development of the University.  It is important to raise the youth as well. Young people should see respectful attitude to the older generation.  Honorary professors at St Petersburg University received significant privileges. In particular, they have the right to independently determine the type and scope of their activity while keeping the same salary; they receive a voluntary medical insurance policy with privileged service in comparison to other University staff; and they have the right for health resort treatment on preferential terms to name just a few.  At the same time, they continue to raise the generations of young students.

Candidates for the Ethics Committee members are proposed by the Collegium of Honorary Professors (The results of the Academic Council of St Petersburg University dated 28 March 2011) by open vote. Neither the Rector, nor other administrative officials can propose candidates to become the committee members. The decisions on the composition of the Ethics Committee and on the changes of such composition are taken by the Academic Council of St Petersburg University by show of hands.  According to practical experience, the Ethics Committee is solving the relevant tasks getting even more active (What are the ways of resolving ethical issues at the University?). Ethical standards are active in the field where the law cannot operate for some reasons and administrative mechanism fail to work.

The Ethics Committee solves the issues related to the University staff and students. The nature of these issues has been changing. Students are becoming more active. However, teachers also demonstrate ethical issues.

Unattributed borrowings

St Petersburg University received a letter from one of the managers at the headquarters of the German Research Foundation (the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft). Employee of St Petersburg University Vladimir Brukhin was attracted as an expert. He worked as Deputy Director at the Theodosius Dobzhansky Center for Genome Bioinformatics.   After preparing a review of the application for the foundation, he used the results of two other scientists in his publication incorrectly, which is a dishonest research practice according to the management of the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the regulations of the DFG.  Based on the letter from the foundation management, Vice-Rector for Research Sergey Mikushev turned to the Ethics Committee. Vladimir Brukhin left the University without waiting for the consideration of the issue at the meeting of the Ethics Committee. He was hired by ITMO University as a laboratory head.

Upon considering the enquiry by Sergey Mikushev, the Ethics Committee received an explanation from Vladimir Brukhin. According to the letter, he demonstrated negligence by using unacceptable borrowings in the text of the publication.

The Committee made a conclusion that Vladimir Brukhin severely violated the ethical and moral standards of research activity causing great damage to the prestige of St Petersburg University at the level of international cooperation (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 15 October 2020)

The information on the decision of the Ethics Committee and dishonest conduct of Vladimir Brukhin was forwarded to: the headquarters of the German Research Foundation (DFG); the administration of the Russian Science Foundation; the administration of the Russian Foundation for Basic Research; and the Rector of ITMO University (Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 26 October 2020).

Here is another case: Nadezhda  Pivovarova, Leading Research Associate at the Russian Museum, filed a claim stating that teacher at St Petersburg University Tatiana Laska used the materials of her research in a publication of 2018 titled ‘The history of copying the frescoes of Veliky Novgorod (Novgorod the Great) in the pre-revolutionary period’. 

Vice-Rector for Research Sergey Mikushev created an expert committee and established ‘equivalence of structure and separate content elements’ between the articles of Nadezhda Pivovarova and Tatiana Laska.   The general conclusion of the Committee was as follows: ‘Elements of unattributed borrowings were detected in the publication by Tatiana Laska “The history of copying the frescoes  of Veliky Novgorod (Novgorod the Great) in the pre-revolutionary period”.’

At the meeting of the Ethics Committee, Tatiana Laska denied the fact of unattributed borrowings of the research results by Nadezhda Pivovarova. However, Ms Laska failed to explain the equivalence in structure and content of the two articles.  The Ethics Committee took the following decision: Тatiana Laska violated the principles of research ethics, in particular, paragraph 6 of the University Student and Staff Code of Conduct ‘Respect the intellectual property rights’ (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 27 June 2019).

Case No 3: two graduates of the Faculty of Geography at Moscow State University reported to St Petersburg University that Aleksandr Briantsev, a doctoral student at St Petersburg University, used multiple literal borrowings from research papers of the claimants without the relevant references.   An expert committee found out that the 11 publications by Aleksandr Briantsev have both equivalents at the level of content and almost literal copy of the original text.

In an explanatory note, Aleksandr Briantsev entirely admitted the fact of plagiarism and said that he had already taken necessary action to retract ten articles.  At the same time, he noted that his publications were not used when filing reports on his research project. They have no value for him and differ from the topic of his research interest. He also wrote that his graduation project went through anti-plagiarism inspection and was successfully defended.

The Ethics Committee took the decision that Aleksandr Briantsev violated paragraph 6 of the University Student and Staff Code of Conduct (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 17 February 2020).

Resonant cases

The Ethics Committee has earned great reputation. Some of its decisions attract special attention from mass media after a number of resonant cases.  For example, in early September 2021, a third-year student of Political Science at St Petersburg University Vladislav Dubrovskii offered to take part in the voting process at several election stations at a time. He made this announcement in social networks offering monetary compensation.  On 22 September, a meeting of the Ethics Committee at St Petersburg University took place, where an enquiry of the students of Political Science regarding the actions of this student was considered.

Upon the request of Professor Gennady Bogomazov, Chairperson of the Ethics Committee, student Vladislav Dubrovskii tried to explain his actions that he himself called terrible, speculative and having no sense.   According to him, during the elections he worked as a foreman recruiting those who were willing to promote some candidates through picketing for 300 roubles per hour.   As the student explained, he received negative responses in the chat from those who were not willing to picket and decided to raise his status.

However, according to the meeting participants, this was not the only explanation of his actions.  Previously, when explaining his actions, this student said that he would be conducting research on student's participation in the elections, despite that absence of research programme, supervisor and other conditions necessary for conducting research.  However, this time he talked about the motivation of revenge for the negative attitude towards his initial proposal (‘Fails to correspond to the high status of a student of St Petersburg University’).

During the discussion and conversation with Vladislav Dubrovskii, the Ethics Committee made a conclusion that this person had formed a distorted view of many important issues failing to understand that his actions damaged the reputation and prestige of the students and staff of the University.

The meeting participants including students condemned the actions of Vladislav Dubrovskii saying that he had committed a criminal offence.  The speakers tried to understand his motives, but one after the other they concluded that the student had been completely aware of his well-directed actions. At the same time, Vladislav Dubrovskii said that he had been under the influence of emotions.   

Following the discussion that lasted for over an hour, the Ethics Committee at St Petersburg University made a conclusion that the conduct of Vladislav Dubrovskii failed to correspond to the high status of the University student from the viewpoint of ethical and moral standards.   Professor Bogomazov thanked the University students for demonstrating their civil position refusing from the provocations by Vladislav Dubrovskii (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 22 September 2021). Following this decision, student Vladislav Dubrovskii was expelled from St Petersburg University on 6 October based on the decision of the Ethics Committee.  

Here is another case.  On 2 March 2018, Associate Professor Oleg Sokolov held an open lecture on the epoch of Napoleonic wars in the University building at 5 Mendeleevskaya Line.  This lecture was attended by people who fundamentally disagreed with the ideas of Oleg Sokolov and his view of that epoch.  Without going into scientific discussion and asking any questions, young people behaved quite aggressively already during the lecture insulting the speaker and accusing him of lie and plagiarism.  After the lecture, one of them stood up and made a number of insulting statements addressed to the lecturer.  In response, in quite a rude way, Oleg Sokolov suggested that the young man should leave the hall.  At the same time, he also addressed the general audience in this way: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please, explain it to the young man.’ Two young men stood up from their places and pushed the disrupters from the lecture hall. All of it was recorded, edited and later posted in social networks. The recording was made quite professionally featuring all the insulting remarks not only about Oleg Sokolov and the staff at the Institute of History, but also about the University in general.  

Abdulla Daudov, Director of the Institute of History at St Petersburg University, turned to the Ethics Committee with a request to examine this incident (Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 5 March 2018). During the discussion, the Committee members arrived at the conclusion that it was a previously planned and prepared act aimed at discrediting Associate Professor Oleg Sokolov rather than at scientific discussion and search for the truth.  However, the Committee assumed that in case of delivering any lectures, scientific reports and publications, scientists represent not only themselves, but also St Petersburg University in general.  In this regard, the Ethics Committee declared that   Associate Professor Oleg Sokolov not only violated ethical standards in interacting with the audience, but also damaged the image of the Institute of History and St Petersburg University in general (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 4 April 2018).

Following the decision of the Ethics Committee at the Academic Council of St Petersburg University, Oleg Sokolov,    Associate Professor in the Department of Modern and Contemporary History, was imposed a disciplinary punishment for violating ethical standards in interactions with the audience during an open lecture on the premises of St Petersburg University (Minutes of the Rector’s meeting dated 4 May 2018).

Case No 3

Aleksandra Elbakian, a graduate of the Faculty of Philology at the University, who studied in the master’s programme ‘Theory and History of Language and European Languages’, complained that during the entire period of studies she had been subject to humiliation and insults on the part of teachers and students.     Aleksandra Elbakian was most appalled with the fact that her graduation project received a ‘satisfactory’ grade. So, she asked the Committee to ‘investigate it in a thorough way.’ Ms Elbakian wanted the University to ‘re-examine’ her knowledge and graduation project that deserved a ‘good’ grade at the very least.

The Ethics Committee members tried to explain the claimant that these issues lie beyond the competence of the Committee that may not interfere with the teaching and learning process at the University.  However, Aleksandra Elbakian behaved in a quite aggressive way, talked in a raised voice, used insulting words, and interrupted the Committee members and teachers.

Following the discussion, the Ethics Committee took the decision to leave the claim of Aleksandra Elbakian.

Using complaints

Previously, students did not use to turn to the Ethics Committee.  However, later some students started to use complaints as a way of imposing pressure on teachers. For example, Viacheslav Shaimardanov, a student in the field of ‘International Relations’, filed a complaint on Associate Professor Filipp Khanin.   The student was not satisfied with the ‘good’ grade given to him at the examination in the course ‘Fundamentals of Entrepreneurship’.  According to the student, during the entire course, ‘the conduct of Associate Professor Khanin failed to correspond to the norms of professional ethics for a teacher at the very least’. In this regard, he asked the Committee to examine the situation and take measures including an objective assessment of his examination work.

Upon considering the complaint, Senior Vice-Rector for Academic Activities and Teaching Methods Marina Lavrikova concluded that there were no reasons to accuse Associate Professor Khanin    in illegal nature of his actions during the classes and examination.  There were no reasons to reassess the grade received at the examination. Nevertheless, Viacheslav Shaimardanov decided to turn to the Ethics Committee.

Upon consideration, thorough analysis and discussion of the complaint and related information, the Committee members found no violations of conduct by Associate Professor Khanin, whose behaviour complied with the standards of professional ethics.    The Ethics Committee decided to leave the enquiry by Viacheslav Shaimardanov unsatisfied (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 19 March 2021).

Here is another example: five students of Economics complained on the teacher with the goal to improve their grades.  They asked to hold a resitting of an examination, change the teacher and get examination questions of the same complexity level as other students. Allegedly, their examination questions were of biased nature.

Professor Iurii Malenkov turned to the Ethics Committee reporting that some master’s students  in his group ‘demonstrated ungrounded discontent with the teacher and the course of lectures in a rude manner in order to get non-deserved high grades’. 

The inspection showed that the examination questions were not prepared specially for those students. They were taken from the syllabus of the academic course and all students knew about them in advance. However, these questions proved to be too complicated for those students. It should be noted that other students who studied well during the term were satisfied with the course and thanked Professor Malenkov for the knowledge.   It turned out that these students took the examination twice.

During the first attempt, all of them received unsatisfactory grades and were directed to resist the examination.   During the second attempt, according to the teacher, he gave them ‘satisfactory’ grades with difficulty.  After that, the students made a scandal, although they claimed to have no problems or resentment with the teacher.

The Ethics Committee decided that these students violated paragraphs 3 and 7 of the University Student and Staff Code of Conduct.  Since the conflict was of academic nature, the Committee recommended that the administration of the Faculty of Economics take the necessary measures to resolve the situation (Decision of the Ethics Committee dated 14 May 2021).