Columbia honor scandal leads to student suicide

by Abigail Drachman-Jones | 5/10/00 5:00am

While Dartmouth grappled with its own cheating questions Winter term, Columbia University was facing the fallout of a much larger, eight-month-long honor code scandal involving lies, expulsion and court intervention.

The debacle ended in suicide on Thursday, April 20, 2000, when 21-year-old Puneet Bhandari, a senior at Columbia, was hit and killed by an Amtrak Metroliner train in Iselin, New Jersey.

The roots of the case, however, stretch back to the fall of 1998 when Bhandari was enrolled in the "Contemporary Civilizations" course.

A transfer student from Rutgers in 1997, Bhandari was pursing medicine at Columbia and was an advisor in the New Student Orientation Program and an undergraduate tutor.

According to Judge John G. Koeltl of the Southern District Court as quoted in the New York Student Law Journal, the student appealed to his professor, Greg Downey, for extra time to complete his assignments. Bhandari claimed he was struggling to keep up with his work because of family problems.

His story to his professor went as follows: Bhandari claimed that he and his twin brother, Parag, had recently been in a car accident where they were hit by a drunk driver. Although Bhandari himself came out unscathed, his brother was in critical condition, barely surviving on life support.

After missing multiple classes, Bhandari later informed Downey that his brother had died.

Bhandari's story continued with subsequent updates on the funeral and family reactions. His story brought student and teacher closer together, creating a bond that went beyond the standard student-teacher relationship.

There was one problem, the story wasn't true.

As Koeltl summarized, Downey stated that Bhandari lied "elaborately over several months, staged emotional displays, and used the excuse to get out of several classes and a little bit of work (not very much though, it's important to note)."

The following school year, Bhandari asked Downey for a recommendation to medical school. In that letter, Downey elaborated, among other things, how well Bhandari handled his brother's difficult death.

Bhandari's lies came to a halt in an interview for one of the medical schools he applied to. When the interviewer inquired about the his twin brother, Bhandari replied that his brother was thriving as an investment banker.

Officials at the unnamed medical school inquired about Bhandari's curious response, and Columbia eventually moved to expel him from the University. But Bhandari appealed his expulsion to the Dean of Columbia College, Austin Quigly, admitting to his lies but requesting a lesser punishment.

"I accept [Downey's] perception that my episodes of crying and my visible upset, along with the untrue story about my brother's injury and death, were planned performances," he wrote in his appeal. "But I want you to know that I was really crying (something I rarely do) out of deep upset. Just what it was about I may never know."

Quigly reduced the expulsion to a two-year suspension from the University. Yet Bhandari continued his efforts to lessen the sentence even more. Only months away from graduating, he asked the court to stop the suspension with an injunction that would allow him to graduate, Dan Laideman, an editor at The Columbia Daily Spectator, said.

The court eventually sided in Columbia's favor. "Mr. Bhandari's conduct reflected substantial dishonesty over a prolonged period in dealing with a professor," Koeltl wrote.

Ultimately, Bhandari took his own life.

Karen Dunn, an Amtrak spokeswoman, stated that Bhandari did not try to move out of the way, even though a train engineer "blew the whistle numerous times."

Dartmouth has yet to experience a similar story. "There certainly has never been a case like that in the six years I have been at Dartmouth," Undergraduate Judicial Affairs Officer Marcia Kelly explained.

Kelly said that if a similar case arose at Dartmouth, the results might not be so clear-cut: "Lying gave him an academic advantage. The fact that he lied in this way could be considered a violation of the academic principal."

Kelly however, said the line is not very clear. "It would be interesting to see if a lie to a professor about outside circumstances would be considered an act of academic circumstances."

Kelly went on to say that if Bhandari's act was indeed considered a breech of academic integrity under Dartmouth's regulations, he would most likely have received a four-term suspension, on average.

"You have to think about it in the sense that is this someone you would want to be given a Dartmouth degree?" Kelly noted in conclusion.