Chapter 4 – The Accusation Waltz (Part III)

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“As I intimated,” he said, settling back into his chair again. “I want to hire you. I will pay you for your services—no academic favors, if you’re going to work for me, you must do so as an outside party and not a student under my jurisdiction. Of course, I cannot offer you the resources of this office either. There must be no hint of impropriety.”

Frog cocked her head slightly and frowned; then she raised a finger to ward off Elaine’s instinctual objection. She’d cultivated a policy of not doing work for faculty members—too much trouble with the same when she started her semiprofessional hobby in high school. Too much entanglement with teachers and school staff could strain already tense situations.

“Our services are not cheap,” Frog said, “and a discount would only give rise to the phantom of impropriety, don’t you think, Elaine?”

“Yes,” Elaine said. She couldn’t guess at it, but the shrewd tone in Frog’s voice told her that her friend had found an angle to work. “You’ll have to make my full retainer for two weeks if you want me on the case. Contingent on the case, of course.”

“Of course,” the dean said. He heaved a sigh and sank further into his chair. He shook his head and swept the documents of Elaine’s cellphone incrimination from his desk. “They bugged my office, after all,” he explained as he stuffed the folder back into the recesses of a filing cabinet. “Why should I hold that over you now that the FBI have also abused by own dignity. I am not interested in the FBI, but if you discover why they’ve chosen to violate my office, I’d consider it a personal favor.”

Elaine nodded. No doubt, she would feel the same.

“As for what I want investigated,” the dean said. “I need you to look into a widespread case of academic fraud. Or, I should say, what I suspect is a widespread case of cheating, but I can’t prove it. In fact, I cannot even guess how they’re doing it, but I’m sure they are nonetheless. Someone is attempting to impugn the reputation of this department.

“This afternoon I received a visit from the Academic Board of Trustees. In person. They brought to my attention that numerous new graduate program students who have shown excellent Engineering GRE scores and ranked well academically in the last year of their coursework are not performing as well as their histories would suggest. As a result, this department’s graduate program is seeing falling marks.”

A key rattled in the desk as the Dean of Engineering unlocked the drawer, slid it open, and drew a folded sheet of paper from within. “This is a list of names that I suspect are part of the cheating ring. They are all newly minted graduate students in my program. You should have no trouble finding their dossiers in the directory. Perhaps you can start by speaking with them.”

Elaine took the page and scanned the names. None of them jumped out at her. “I will need access to these student’s files, their grades, and academic career records,” she said.

“I can grant you no such thing,” the dean said. He straightened with the mantle of his authority as if insulted. “You will have to work from your own resources and must do so without connection to this office or its authority.”

Frog made a face like she’d just sniffed sour milk. “How can you expect us to do our job for you if you tie our hands like that?” she said. “From what I can see, you called Elaine because it’s your ass in a sling if things don’t go down how you’d like. And you’re not going to make sure she’s got everything she needs to get the job done?”

“I did warn you from the outset that you will receive no extra benefit from this office—or me personally, for that matter—your retainer and fee shall be the only compensation as is proper for your profession. If you have a problem with that, I will hire a different firm. One, perhaps, who maintain an actual investigator’s license. By hiring you I am already stretching my neck further than I would rather.”

“I don’t know if that’s—”

“How does the cheating manifest?” Elaine asked.

A frown slowly creased the dean’s features as he drew his back straighter and placed his hands palms down on the desk. “The students in question appear to be the top of their class through grade averages and scholastic testing. In fact, everything about them seems to suggest that they’re ahead of the curve in their chosen fields, and we’ve implemented extra testing this year due to a surge in qualified graduates.”

“And you found out when the Academic Board accused you of incompetence in accepting them—where do they get their data?”

The dean looked taken aback for a moment. He lifted his chin and shook his head as he thought over Elaine’s question. Finally, he nodded. “An unreleased study, I believe.” He nodded again as if agreeing with himself. “The chairwoman addressed me directly for the failure. She’s a resourceful one herself, but she also wields the brunt of the entire University and the Trustees. I’ve been attempting to research the matter myself.” He gestured towards the sleek workstation on his desk. “Even with my aging knowledge of statistics and data mining, I am coming up with some extremely disturbing figures that weren’t immediately obvious last semester. It’s almost as if the data points have changed since then, but there’s nothing in the historical data to suggest that.

“I may be old guard now, but my political career in this department has not been undistinguished. This sort of thing should not have slipped by me so easily and into the hands of those rank politicians who have forgotten what it is to be educators. Certainly, I have enemies among the Trustees who would like to see me replaced with a more complaisant man, but I don’t believe they’d sink so low as to hurt their own bottom line by weakening the stability of this institution.

“However, if I do not determine the source of this academic decay, I will have no option but to resign.”

“I accept your terms,” Elaine said. She creased the page of student names and folded it into one of her many pockets. After doing so, she rose from her chair, advanced a single step, and offered the dean her hand. “I will e-mail you with payment instructions that will allow you to retain me confidentially.”

Frog rose behind her and the dean reached across his desk to shake Elaine’s hand.

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