Forgiveness vs. Permission?

There’s the old adage that “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission“…

I just want to state that there are some circumstances where that simply doesn’t hold true.

This is not hypothetical.

A postgraduate student has breached a watertight confidentiality agreement with the company who is funding their research. The topic of their thesis isn’t exactly a secret, but the results are. And the company funding the project in question is really serious about maintaining the confidentiality for various reasons. The student has previously been prevented from submitting conference abstracts, as the non-disclosure period wasn’t up. The student can’t claim ignorance as to the contents of the confidentiality agreement.

However, for some unfathomable reason, the student decided to chat with someone about the results – someone that people in the sponsoring company know. Without permission. Academia is a small world, and the sponsoring company found out about the conversation via an email trail. The student had assumed the company would retrospectively say it was ok for them to have the discussion.

It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission…”

No. Just no.

This student now faces having their funding terminated, effectively immediately. The company has been funding the student’s tuition fees, their living stipend, and their research expenses. Not an insignificant amount of money. If the company terminates funding, the student will be facing having their enrollment terminated due to lack of funding (as well as the actual breach of contract), which will result in their student visa being terminated, and therefore being kicked out of the country.

Seriously, why?

It isn’t as if the student was unaware of the details of the confidentiality agreement, or the consequences for a breach. Why did the student not seek to confer with their supervisor(s) before making this decision? I realise that as postgraduate students there is some degree of self-autonomy expected, but with decisions like this? It not only affects the student in a very serious way, but it has consequences for the supervisors, the department, and the university as a whole. What impact do you think it has when the company starts talking about how the university/department/supervisors allowed such a breach to occur? It absolutely demolishes their reputation, totally aside from the student’s personal reputation. Who would want to provide hundreds of thousands of dollars (which is the ballpark we’re talking here) for a project, when the university can’t be relied upon to hold up their end of the bargain?

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