In 1925, while studying as a postgraduate student at Cambridge, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the great physicist and one of the most brilliant minds in history, attempted to poison his tutor. 

The motive behind this exceptionally alarming action was in fact quite trivial.  Oppenheimer’s forte and passion was in theoretical physics; conversely, he was virtually inept in experimental physics.  His tutor, who happened to be the future Nobel laureate Patrick Blackett, was apparently oblivious to this and kept assigning him to laboratory works.  Out of frustration, Oppenheimer laced an apple with poison and left it on his tutor’s desk.  Fortunately, Blackett did not eat it.  The university authorities were aghast nonetheless.

A hearing was commenced.  Attempting to poison someone was surely more than a simple misdemeanor; it was a serious crime.  Sanction was to be given to young Oppenheimer, and no doubt expulsion was considered.  However, in the end, all he received was probation and a compulsory consultation with a psychiatrist.  Malcolm Gladwell attributed Oppenheimer’s escape from a murder rap to his “practical intelligence”—the savvy to know what to say to whom at what time.  Some historians claimed it was his father who pulled the string.  Regardless, Cambridge decided to give Oppenheimer a second chance.

Oppenheimer went on to become a leader in quantum mechanics and helped pave the way for the advancement of theoretical physics. In 1942 he was assigned as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, which discovered the way to harness energy from the very building blocks of matter and subsequently built the world’s first atomic bomb.  That bomb triggered a series of events: the end of World War II, the downfall of the Nazi, the unconditional surrender of Japan, and subsequently, the independence of Indonesia.

Fast forward over six decades later and we see that very same Indonesia finding its leading university in science and technology in a precarious situation.  The Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) discovered that at least 14 of its students were involved in “jockeying”—getting paid to help prospective university students cheat during the national enrollment test or take the test in their stead.  The news brought tremendous shame to the university.

Like Cambridge, ITB now have to deal with their students’ serious offense.  Unlike Cambridge, however, ITB seems to be bent on ensuring that the students get no second chance.

At the time of this article’s writing, ITB’s Student’s Code of Ethics Commission has come up with a recommendation to expel 11 of the 14 students; it is almost a certainty that the recommendation will be carried out.  An ITB official claimed that “expulsion was the only option.”  Deputy Rector Widyo Nugroho went even further as to suggest that the students be blacklisted from all Indonesian universities, effectively denying them access to higher education in the country.

Is all that really necessary?  Nobody is denying that the students committed a serious mistake and that a sanction is in place.  But the sanction that ITB concocted is grossly disproportionate—it’s something that should be reserved for students who, say, attempted to poison someone.  And while the fact that most of the students were poor and hence found it hard to resist the lure of big cash cannot justify their actions, it should be taken into consideration in determining their sanction.  At the end of the day, these young people are not criminals and they do not deserve to be treated as such.  They do not deserve to have their entire future taken away.

And it’s not like Indonesians are alien to the concept of giving second chances; at times we even went overboard.  We looked pass the alleged involvement of former military officials in past human rights violations, focused on their leadership quality, and allowed them to join the presidential race.  We were willing to pardon a dictator’s regime of fear and silence, highlighted his good deeds, and considered making him a national hero.  We released a religious hatemonger from jail, downplayed his involvement in past terrorist attacks on the country, and made him an acceptable religious figure.  But when a bunch of young people helped others cheat a test, we rain down hell on them.

“Expulsion is the only option”?  How about temporary suspension and probationary period?  How about 1,000 hours of community service, say, tutoring high school students?  How about assigning the students to schools in the local area to work as teacher assistants until they graduate college?  Any of these sanctions—and more, if one is willing to be creative and employ common sense—would be proportionate to the students’ misconduct and be a sufficient deterrence for others.  And nobody’s future needs to be destroyed.  But no; somehow it had to be expulsion.

Whereas Cambridge gave Oppenheimer a second chance, ITB is giving its students none.

History notes that after the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer became a staunch detractor of the weapon he helped built and refused to support the development of the even more powerful hydrogen bomb.  He paid dearly for his decision.  A McCarthy-ist witch hunt was launched at Oppenheimer, humiliating and stripping him of his security clearance.  Thus, one of America’s most brilliant scientists, one who had dedicated his life to public service, was branded as a traitor by his own country based on evidence amounted to hearsay. 

That second chance for Oppenheimer given by Cambridge in 1925 was indeed a gift to the world, for we were given the opportunity to learn from him not only of quantum mechanics, but also of human compassion and bravery, as the great physicist chose to be publicly humiliated than to support the application of science in mass murder. The man who tried to poison his tutor in college put back mankind’s faith in science.

As for the eleven brilliant young minds facing expulsion from ITB, we can only wonder what contributions they could in the future give to their families, their communities, their country, and even perhaps the world if they were to be given a second change.  But that would be the tragedy, wouldn’t it?  If we could only wonder.

An edited version of this article was featured in The Jakarta Globe

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