Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine's decision to suspend the grades of its entire 2010 class of 52 students just after their final exams follows similar, recent actions at other American dental schools.
The SIU dental school, based in Alton, is not divulging details behind the suspensions. But an anonymous letter sent to local media, apparently written by a dental student, refers to unfair allegations of academic misconduct and cheating.
The State Journal-Register obtained a copy of the letter from The Alton Telegraph.
One of the students, all of whom are listed in the letter, is class president Christopher Maurer of Springfield. Multiple attempts to reach him this week were unsuccessful.
The dental school's dean, Ann Boyle, has made only brief comments about the incident.
"Personal integrity and ethical standards form the foundation of all healthcare professions, including dentistry," Boyle said in her remarks, issued through SIU at Edwardsville's communication's office. "This matter raises questions about the integrity and ethical behavior of Year I students and is, therefore, under investigation. We will follow our processes as outlined in our Student Progress Document to resolve the situation as quickly as we can."
Over the past two years, roughly 26 dental students faced disciplinary measures in two separate cheating scandals at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.
In 2006, 10 students at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas dental school were accused of stealing a professor's computer password. This May, about 46 students at Indiana University's dental school were dismissed, suspended or reprimanded for breaking into password-protected computer files. Some students allegedly used commercial code-breaking software.
"Schools have stepped up to try to respond to this because it's important," said Stephen Young, dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry and chair of the Chicago-based American Dental Association's Council on Dental Education and Licensure.
Earlier this month, the ADA convened a conference in Chicago specifically to address ethics in dentistry schools, mostly as a result of the recent cheating scandals.
"In the last two to three years, when these isolated incidents have occurred, they've involved groups of people," Young said. "That's what's gotten everyone's attention. What has caused this? Why is this happening? Is it simply a matter of more people being involved because of technology, is it cultural -- students used to working in teams and (excusing collusion) as a 'group project?'"
The anonymous SIU letter refers to e-mails of past exams as being a potential factor in the suspensions. But in many professional schools, releasing and sharing old exams for study purposes is common.
"In the past, certain professors will release an examination. Others don't," Young said. "But there's no question that, I would think, (at SIU) there was a concern or feeling that something significant happened."
Such a decision isn't made lightly, he said.
"This is a very stressful situation for everybody," said Young, who was only vaguely familiar about the SIU incident. He said he knows Boyle, and ye spoke highly of the Alton school.
In the anonymous letter, the writer said students whose grades have been suspended have lost out on competitive graduate and research positions, which require transcripts as part of the application process.
But Young said SIU must protect itself when it suspects cheating and would have to assume responsibility for sending potentially ill-prepared or unethical students out to fellowships and jobs.
"Every dental school puts integrity and ethics very high," Young said. "Having that public trust, part of that trust means the person providing the health care has to be an ethical and moral person."
Young also sides with the students who may be innocent.
"Most students are great. They are professionals. It's also sad for them," he said. "This will be watched, and we all will try to learn from this."
Also watching is the Illinois State Dental Society in Springfield. SIU's dental school is one of only two in Illinois (the other, in Chicago, is affiliated with the University of Illinois' campus there.)
"I've had one communication with (SIU's) dean," said the society's executive director, Bob Rechner. "I was just indicating I was forwarding a news article (about the suspensions) to my board of trustees. It's important for them to be aware of what's going on."
Rechner confirmed that recent incidents of cheating have been a cause for alarm within the field of dentistry, as well as within other professions. Though he wouldn't comment on the SIU scandal, Rechner acknowledged it's on the society's radar screen.
"We're very concerned," he said. "We only have two dental schools in the state."