How Orwellian Is “Student Conduct Software”?

by James A. Bacon

More than 1,300 educational institutions across the country use software developed by Charlottesville-based Maxient, which bills itself as the “industry leader” and “most trusted provider for incident reporting and behavior records management.” Clients include most of Virginia’s public institutions of higher education.

The recent revelation in the CollegeFix and Wall Street Journal that the nation’s universities maintain consolidated files on student “behavior” is troubling to many’ The phrase “student conduct software” conjures images of “Big Brother” college administrators compiling dossiers on students who commit microaggressions or otherwise transgress woke codes on speech and behavior.

While it is becoming clear (1) that most colleges have developed the capability to build such dossiers and (2) that many have integrated them with their “bias reporting” systems, concrete incidents of abuse have yet to surface. The fact is, little is known about how the software is being used. Only now are questions being asked.

The Cadet, the independent student newspaper at the Virginia Military Institute, has taken an important first step in finding out. The Cadet submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to all public universities to determine how Maxient is being used. Some institutions — Longwood University and Mary Washington University — were particularly forthcoming. Some were not. Virginia Commonwealth University refused to hand over any documents or answer any questions, referring The Cadet to the university’s website.

(Jefferson Council FOIA requests reveal that the University of Virginia-Wise has a contract to use Maxient software. The University of Virginia itself has no contract. We are endeavoring to find out if UVa uses “student conduct” software at all, either provided by a different vendor or programmed in-house.)

The Longwood and Mary Washington responses to The Cadet FOIA show the kinds of incidents that at least two public universities are putting into their “student conduct” databases.

Longwood logs data relating to Honor Code charges, Code of Conduct charges, and “Care Team” data. Examples of the kind of conduct and behavior included are:

  • Hazing
  • Computer misuse
  • Alcohol use
  • Mistreatment of persons
  • Bizarre/disjointed thoughts
  • Depressed/persistent sadness and crying
  • Physical attacks and sexual assaults
  • Disruptive classroom behavior
  • Disturbing written material/class discussion
  • Inappropriate display of anger/negative emotions
  • Intimidation

Among other categories of information, Mary Washington’s system incorporates:

  • Incidents reported by Residence Life staff
  • Concerns related to COVID
  • Honor Code violation forms

Mary Washington indicated that the university has had an average of 13 bias incident reports per academic semester since 2022.

Responding to The Cadet, Maxient co-founder Aaron Hark likened the software platform to “a really nice digital filing cabinet that’s perfect for holding the kinds of records most schools manage.” The institutions themselves, not Maxient, decide what kind of information goes into their digital filing cabinets, he added. In other words, the use of Maxient software varies from institution to institution.

VMI spokesman Bill Wyatt acknowledged that Maxient software is being used by the Institute’s Title IX staff, which enforces federal regulations regarding discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and race.

“VMI’s Title IX staff is still learning how to use the system. Once it is fully operational Maxient is designed to help VMI’s Title IX office provide the most responsive care to cadets who are going through the Title IX process,” said Wyatt. “Someone who is not a Title IX officer would not be able to access case information about a Title IX complaint.”

Maxient is fully compliant with all state and federal privacy laws, Wyatt said. VMI staff and faculty who deal with student records receive training on the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The Institute’s General Order Number 16, dating to September 2022, forbids discrimination or harassment based on race, sex, sexual orientation, color, religion, age or national origin. A hostile environment, according to the General Order, can be created by oral, written, graphic, or physical conduct. The General Order says any incident should be reported promptly.

Information regarding VMI’s “Silent Witness” reporting system is available online, Wyatt told The Cadet. Silent Witness allows members of the VMI community to report “crimes” such as assault, drugs, fraud, theft and vandalism. Witnesses are invited to submit the suspect’s name, if known.

The Cadet raises the issue that anonymous charges can be lodged in the Maxient database and become a permanent part of a student’s record without his or her knowledge. The newspaper enumerates 25 detailed questions that it has posed to VMI and other Virginia higher-ed institutions. You can read those questions here.

Students, parents, alumni and other stakeholders should insist upon full transparency at their university, especially if it has a bias reporting system that allows individuals to file complaints anonymously. Every public university in Virginia has such a reporting system.

College of William & Mary: Harassment, Bias and Hate Incidents

Christopher Newport University: Title IX reporting

George Mason University: Bias Incident Report

James Madison University: Not @ JMU

Longwood University: Say Something

Mary Washington University: Bias Incident Reporting

Norfolk State University: Report an Incident of Intolerance/Bias

Old Dominion University: See Something. Say Something. Do Something. 

Radford University: Report It

University of Virginia: Just Report It

University of Virginia-Wise: Be Wise, Report It

Virginia Commonwealth University: Incident Reporting Form

Virginia State University: File or Report a Concern

Virginia Tech: Online Complaint form

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walter smith
walter smith
1 year ago

But…at the University of Richmond you can get Spider “merch” for reporting bias!

Geoffrey Close
Geoffrey Close
1 year ago

Just wait until students and Fraternities find out that they are on “double secret probation”. Is President Fyan trying to play
Dean Wormer?

Geoffrey Walter
Geoffrey Walter
1 year ago

UVA uses Symplicity Advocate, a more pernicious software because Sympliticy also provides career services software…so is it possible that Symplicity is reporting bias issues to future potential employers?