Dalhousie University's faculty of management is backpedaling on allegations it made that two Halifax tutoring schools wrote assignments on behalf of students.
On March 6, Vivian Howard, the faculty's associate dean academic, wrote an email to all undergraduate commerce and management students warning against cheating on final assignments.
"It has come to our attention that some businesses such as Halifax Institute of Learning Canada and Chengguo Education may be preparing assignments for students for a fee," Howard wrote.
"I wanted to remind everyone that submitting work completed on your behalf by another person or organization is a violation of academic integrity and a serious academic offence."
As schools deny, Dal provides no proof
The two schools named in the email say the allegations are categorically false. Representatives of both schools say Dalhousie has refused to provide any proof, and did not retract the allegations until six weeks later.
Wentao Li, who also uses the English name Michael, is the co-founder of Chengguo Education, which opened in September.
Li, 23, is an undergrad at Dalhousie himself who is majoring in statistics and economics. He said he got the idea for a tutoring school while working as a teaching assistant.
"A lot of students asked me whether I could teach some subjects that I'm not familiar with. I told them I couldn't, but my friends could," he said.
Li opened his school in Spring Garden Place Mall on Halifax's Spring Garden Road. He said he employs more than 20 staff and has taught roughly 300 students during the past academic year.
About 10 per cent of his students are Canadians getting help with statistics courses at Dal, he said. The rest are undergraduate Dal students from China seeking help with lecture review and exam preparation.
Li said Chengguo Education helps Chinese students bridge a cultural gap.
"The education system is quite different in China compared to Canada," he said. "For most of them it's their first time to study abroad and live abroad, right? They have many things to worry about, and many things to adapt."
Li said he found out about Dalhousie's accusations when several of his students forwarded Howard's email.
"At first it was just a terrible moment. I don't think our teachers or our students were involved in academic integrity dishonesty behavior," he said.
Li said Dalhousie never contacted him before making its allegations.
Chengguo fights back
Li said the email didn't affect his relationship with the current students. But for those who don't know about Chengguo, he said the effect is "tremendous."
"They would think that Chengguo is an institute that only writes papers for students for a fee and if they go to Chengguo they would be considered, by their profs, that they are the students who would plagiarize," Li said.
Li then hired Halifax lawyer David Coles to take up the case.
In a letter to Sylvain Charlebois, Dalhousie's dean of the faculty of management, Coles wrote: "The clear message of these publications is that their authors have information suggesting that our client may be engaged in improper activity. Any responsible students may well consider avoiding engaging our client for tutorial services following upon receipt of such a condemnation."
Coles demanded a retraction or a meeting with Dal faculty to clear up the allegations in order to prevent financial damage to Li's business.
Li said he met with Charlebois, who refused to retract the email or apologize unless Chengguo could prove the allegations were false.
Coles then sent a second letter demanding a retraction, and including screenshots of Chengguo teachers refusing requests from Chinese students to buy answers, complete assignments and ghostwrite essays.
'We don't tutor any Dal students'
The second school Howard accused in her email is incorrectly identified as the Halifax Institute of Learning Canada.
The Halifax Language Institute of Canada is a language school that prepares foreign students to study at Canadian universities.
It has "pathway agreements" with Saint Mary's University and Mount Saint Vincent University, the Nova Scotia Community College, and five other schools, but none with Dalhousie.
Executive director Jordan Reed said Dalhousie's allegations are particularly ridiculous because the institute has no links to the university or its students.
"We have no students who've ever gone to Dal; we have no students trying to go Dal. We don't tutor any Dal students," she said.
Reed said she learned of Dalhousie's email after being contacted by CBC News. She said she called Howard the next day to defend her school.
"I just don't understand where it came from and I also can't understand how a person of her position would target two local businesses without speaking to them first without having any proof," Reed said.
Associate dean backtracks
After a heated conversation, Reed said Howard sent out a second email to all undergraduate management and commerce students within the hour.
The email read, in part: "We incorrectly indicated that some local businesses, including Chengguo Education, may have been preparing assignments from students."
"We have had conversations with Chengguo's principal and would like to confirm that he has assured us that his company does not support this type of activity," Howard wrote.
Reed said she asked Howard not to include the name of her school in an attempt to minimize damage to the school's reputation.
Howard declined CBC News's requests for an interview.
"The university has not received any allegations it can act on. Therefore no action is being taken," Brian Leadbetter, Dalhousie's director of communications said in an email on Wednesday. "We stand by our correction."
Leadbetter said it's "not uncommon" for the university to send reminders to students about the importance of academic integrity.
Feelings of discrimination
Lu Jiaxuan, who also calls himself Chris, is a Dalhousie student from Beijing who studies at Chengguo.
"I like the study style, because English is a second language for international students," he said.
"Chengguo gives us a very good opportunity to study well. Teachers show the knowledge in Chinese so we can understand it easily."
Lu said the accusations from Dalhousie upset him.
"When I saw this email, it looks like Chengguo is helping Chinese students to cheat. No. This is not correct," Lu said.
Lu said he thinks the email plays on stereotypes that international students are more likely than Canadians to cheat on their school work.
"I think it's no good. I think it's discrimination for international students or Chinese students," he said.
Below is a screengrab of the second email sent from the school to Dalhousie students: