Fraudulent E-mail Raises Credibility Questions

A single e-mail from a disgruntled student has caused many UB administrators to question not the complaints they receive from students, but the true identities of their authors.

In an e-mail sent Oct. 25, an author identifying himself as Michael Bernstein, a student in mathematics professor Eugene Kleinberg's basic analysis and proofs course (MTH301) wrote to the course's students, Kleinberg, Mathematics Department Chair Samuel Schack, Vice President for Academic Affairs Kerry Grant, President William Greiner and The Spectrum, among others, with strongly worded thoughts on the course.

"I am writing to express my dissatisfaction with the Math 301 course. This is by far the worse course I've ever taken in my college career," the e-mail read. He went on to describe the TA as "horrible," the syllabus as "totally lame," and asked, "How can we learn if we have a horrible TA and professor, why should our grades be put in jeopardy because of this?"

The e-mail, sent from a free Microsoft Hotmail account, was answered by Grant, who forwarded it to the university officials in charge of student grievances while reprimanding the sender.

"I would encourage you to take a more carefully considered action should you have an issue of importance to raise in the future," stated Grant. "Far from helping your cause, your technique tends to reduce the credibility of your concerns by making you appear unreasonable and intemperate."

What Grant, Kleinberg and others had not yet realized was that the letter was not written by Michael Bernstein, a senior mathematics major in the class who was "completely shocked" after seeing a letter with his name listed as the sender in his mailbox. Bernstein believes another student in the class sent the e-mail from an account bearing the likeness of his name either to embarrass him or voice illegitimate concerns.

Kleinberg's course, which is "traditionally where undergraduates learn to do real mathematics," focuses mostly on abstract theories of math, a new area to many students coming from lower-level calculus, according to Kleinberg. Having been sent soon before a test, Bernstein believes the e-mail may stem from a student's misguided frustration.

"I couldn't believe somebody would attach my name to something like this," said Bernstein. "This student is obviously new to real college education, and hasn't figured out what it involves."

"It's turning out to be a great class. ... The notes are good, the materials challenging, the exams are well-proctored by the TAs and returned in a timely manner."

Bill Ryan, another student in Kleinberg's course, called the professor "one of the best professors I have ever experienced."

"It is true that he comes into class without any notes, but [he] covers every piece of information flawlessly. Throughout my UB career I have experienced too many professors who came into class, put notes on the board which are identical to the prescribed textbook, then left without speaking to the students," stated Ryan in an e-mail to The Spectrum.

After announcing to the class that he had not authored the complaint and had reported the incident to officials, Bernstein, Kleinberg and Schack discussed what Schack called an "extremely rare occurrence" among the department's nearly 7,000 students.

"It's certainly gotten some attention. ... People have been concerned about where this is coming from," said Schack. He said that complaints in his department, formal or otherwise, were "very infrequent, and they don't usually have this flavor to them."

"What's most bothersome about this is that that this prank, or whatever it is, is almost impossible to trace," said Kleinberg.

Kleinberg believes "[free e-mail accounts] are becoming a major public issue," a sentiment shared by Harvey Axlerod, a computer discipline officer at UB who has previously investigated similar fraudulent e-mails for CIT.

"It's become a nuisance for just this reason," said Axlerod. "I would be very much in favor of seeing free accounts require a social security number or driver's license for some kind of credibility."

The e-mail was traced to a public computing site at Buffalo State College, which, unlike UB, does not require students to authenticate with a username and password when accessing public terminals. According to Axlerod, the chances of finding a perpetrator are "a mixed bag"; if a perpetrator is found, penalties could range from a CIT consultation, a Student-Wide Judiciary referral, or formal police harassment charges, depending on the wishes of the victim and the nature of the abuse.

"The fact that the e-mail was sent to university officials, that in itself could be quite a serious matter," said Axlerod. "If you have a complaint, there's lots of more effective ways than to act like a goofball, write everybody in town and eliminate all your credibility."

Axlerod said he has advised university administrators, including Grant, to take only e-mails sent from university accounts as authentic student or faculty communications.

Although the vice provost and other administrators can and do hear legitimate concerns over undergraduate courses, Assistant Vice Provost and Director of Academic Advisement Janina Kaars said that most cases are resolved at the departmental level.

"To be honest with you, I haven't seen grievance cases getting very far up the ladder at all," said Kaars. "Either students don't want to bother or it's getting resolved at the lower level and students are satisfied."

"It's ironic, this section of 301 is one of the best I've had in quite a while," said Kleinberg. His main concern is that fraudulent e-mails such as this "create an issue where there isn't one, which is exactly what the perpetrator of this hoax wanted."

In an e-mail received by The Spectrum Nov. 13 from the author of the initial complaint, "G.M. Bernstein" said he had "gotten nowhere, and no one wants to do a damned thing about this situation. I'm really annoyed."

"I'm not trying to cause trouble. I just want to get through the class and have it be fair."

Staff Writer Aja Badame contributed to this report.