Legal Matters: Institutional Action Basics

The Student Doctor Network gets several questions to our Confidential Consult experts a month about what is and what is not an institutional action. Many of these questions are about what does or does not need to be disclosed on an application to health professional school, especially medical school. In this article we will break down the basics of different types of Institutional Actions. We’ll also detail what you should do if you are facing one during your academic career.

What is an Institutional Action?

Let’s start with the basics. What is an institutional action, or an IA for short? Well, first, what is an institution? For the purposes of this article an institution is going to be any university, college, or post-high school training.

What is an Institutional Action? For those applying to medical school (or any school that uses the AAMC definition of an institutional action, which is the most rigorous), an IA is any university action “resulting from unacceptable academic performance or a conduct violation, even if such action did not interrupt your enrollment, require you to withdraw, or does not appear on your official transcripts due to institutional policy or personal petition”[1]. Other professional schools, such as dental or veterinary schools, may have different definitions of what they consider an IA. You will need to review the policy of each school during your application process.

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A more rounded definition of an IA comes from Duke Pre-Health Advising: “By use of the term ‘any institutional action’ it is understood that medical schools intend for you to report academic actions that result in an academic dismissal or expulsion, or disciplinary actions that result in faculty-student resolution, mediation, referral to health/safety education programs, required educational activity or community service, disciplinary probation, suspension, or expulsion. Thus, violations such as cheating, plagiarism, alcohol-related illness/injury, illegal substance abuse, conduct violations etc. are all reportable”[2].

When Do You Need to Report an Institutional Action?

In Draconian terms, if your university or institution contacts you regarding your personal unacceptable academic performance, or your personal student conduct, that could be considered an institutional action. It doesn’t matter if the college or university that is performing the action considers it an IA or not. It doesn’t matter if the action is listed on your transcripts or not. The act of contacting you is likely enough to trigger a disclosure.

Conduct Policy Violations

A question from a Student Doctor Network member sums up the problems with the IA disclosure question and if something is considered an IA by an institution. Here is the situation described: At the end of Fall term, the Student was preparing for finals. Under the conduct policy, the Student was required to clean their dorm room prior to winter break. The Student knew about this policy and opted to prioritize getting a good grade on their final. They planned to return to the dorm room following the final and get things tidy for the winter break. After finishing the exam, the Student found that the university had shut down the dorms and locked out the students. So, the Student was unable to clean their dorm room prior to winter break.

The Student was subsequently written up by their RA for the mess left over winter break in the dorm room. The Student had to meet with a faculty advisor who made the Student sign a paper that they would not leave a messy dorm room. This action was reported on their transcript. However, the university that took the action didn’t consider it an IA.

Here is the problem with the university’s logic. The university has a conduct policy that if you live in the dorms, you may not leave a messy room over break. The university took an action, writing the student up, and forced a mediation with the student’s academic advisor. This is an IA that must be disclosed on the student’s application to medical school. The university in question above nearly sabotaged their own graduate’s ability to get into medical school by saying that this wasn’t an IA, but still reporting it on the Student’s transcripts.

Academic Policy Violations

Academic policy violations are generally more clear-cut. For example, you received a GPA below a required threshold for a semester and then your school places you on academic probation for the next semester. This is the simple version of an academic institutional action.

Here is an example of a more complex academic institutional action. You are in a History class that has a term paper weighted as 90% of your final grade. You spend weeks on the term paper researching first and second edition texts. A week after you submit your paper, your professor issues you an F. You ask your professor why you have been given an F. The professor accuses you of plagiarism, because the professor is unable to find your quotes in his versions of the texts. Now, because the professor charged you with plagiarism and gave you a failing grade, you are the subject of an automatic academic review by the dean of the department.

You argue that you did not commit plagiarism. It is not your fault that the history professor is not checking against the cited texts. The dean changes your grade from an F to an Incomplete. You re-submit photocopies all of your original sources to the dean. At the end of this process, it is deemed that you did not commit plagiarism, and that you correctly cited your academic work.

You are then required to submit a petition for your grade to be changed from an incomplete to an A. You were deemed innocent of any charges. However, you were accused (falsely) of plagiarism. It now shows on your institutional record that your grade was changed from an F to an Incomplete to an A. So, the question is, do you have disclose? The answer is either yes, you must disclose, or that you should disclose.

The reasoning is that you were the subject of an automatic academic conduct violation and review. Getting the F triggered the academic conduct violation. So even in the end when you were found to be correct in your citations and thus innocent of wrongdoing you still are burdened with disclosure of the institutional action.

Managing an Institutional Action Accusation

So how do you approach dealing with the accusation of an IA offense? How do you mitigate the damages of an IA accusation when reporting the IA to medical schools or other professional schools?

If you are accused of an offense under your academic or student conduct code, you first need to realize that you are not on a level playing field. Start by taking copious notes. Journal about everything that is happening, including your feelings, concerns, and discussions you have about the issue. This process will help to calm your mind. It will also help you capture the facts as they happen to you during this stressful time in your life. But, most importantly, you are documenting everything that is happening to you so that you can tell your story about it later.

Next, get help. This will be either from an attorney, a mentor, or someone that is outside of the university that you can rely on for expert counsel.

Some universities will send you a notification that the office of student conduct wishes to speak with you. The office schedules a time with you automatically, with the veiled threat that failing to show up for the meeting will result in a student conduct violation. The office of student conduct will not provide you any information about why you are being called into their office.

Receiving this type of notification is an immediate red flag. You should speak to an attorney either through your student legal services office or outside counsel. In my experience, these notifications tend to be the precursors to bringing a disciplinary action against a student.

This student may or may not be you. The office may be investigating an organization that you belong to such as an intermural sports team, club, or fraternity/sorority. If you are caught up in one of these investigations, reach out to an attorney for representation. An attorney should have the experience to sniff out what the investigator is seeking.

Having an attorney will provide you an advocate that is looking at the bigger picture for you and your interests. If you do meet with the investigator, take your attorney with you. When the investigator is done asking questions, your attorney should request that the investigator to leave the room so that they can go over everything that was just discussed in private. By doing this, your attorney can make sure that you are not inadvertently lying to the investigator. Remember these are Draconian processes. In the investigator’s mind, failure to provide them everything that you know will be seen as lying. If the investigator believes that you are lying it will likely result in some form of reportable disciplinary action against you. This is not a criminal court of law – there is no “beyond a shadow of a doubt” requirement.

When Do You Need Help?

When should you consider getting help from an Attorney if you are facing an IA?

Because the rules are so varied from institution to institution, you should consider getting help right away if you are being accused of serious misconduct. What is serious misconduct? From an academic perspective, serious misconduct consists of academic dishonesty, such as cheating, and accusations of plagiarism, submitting another’s work as your own, or being accused of doing someone else’s work for them. In short, if you believe that it will make you look bad to a medical school admissions committee then you should get help from an attorney.

When it comes to Non-Academic Student Conduct Violations, you should seek out an attorney to assist you when there are real-world consequences other than a discipline ruling from your university. Items that fall in this area are accusations of sexual misconduct, fights, riots, urinating in public, damaging public or campus property, and DUI. Or put simply, anything that could result in jail or prison time, a significant fine, or a large restitution judgement.

Can you handle an IA on your own? Yes. But you need to understand that this will impact you later in life. Will an attorney be able to get you out of an IA for drinking in the dorm? It’s unlikely. Will getting busted for drinking in your dorm room prevent you from getting into medical school? As long as you disclose that you were caught and disciplined for drinking in your dorm room, probably not.


When it comes to any actions taken by a university based on your academic work, or based on a student conduct policy, you should consider that an Institutional Action. You should journal your process from the moment of the accusation to the conclusion. If needed, you should seek help from an attorney early in the process rather than when it looks like you are about to be disciplined. Finally, you should be prepared to disclose these events on your medical school application.

Next month, we will cover how to disclose IAs in applications and discuss them in interviews. Additionally, we are interested in hearing from students about their IA questions and experiences. These questions and comments will be used for follow up via a video by the author or for additional articles. Please comment below or use the Contact Us form if you would like to participate.


[1]Sections 1-3 of the AMCAS® Application: Your Background Information
[2]Conduct Violations | Duke Office of Health Professions Advising

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William Burnett graduated from University of California, Davis. He obtained a Masters degree in tax law from Golden Gate University and his JD from Washburn University School of Law. He is licensed to practice law in the state of Pennsylvania. William Burnett graduated from University of California, Davis. He obtained a Masters degree in tax law from Golden Gate University and his JD from Wa...