HONOR SYSTEM

Several weeks ago I caught three students cheating on an exam. In a mandatory, arena-sized Intro class of 325 students it is not entirely unexpected. Many freshmen who will not be in college for very long pass through such classes as do all kinds of students more interested in partying than anything academic. Unfortunately for them, auditorium classrooms are well designed to catch cheaters. Because the students' seats are elevated it is quite easy to use the angle to observe students looking at one another's papers, looking at concealed notes, or passing information back and forth.

I will spare you the details but the sharing of information by these three gentlemen was blatant, a technique they no doubt considered very clever and learned from their elders at the frat house. After watching them clumsily cheat I asked four different TAs to watch them and verify that I was not imagining things. All four agreed that they were attempting to cheat.

Upon informing the students that they would receive an F for the course due to academic misconduct, I assumed the matter was closed. Anyone who teaches for more than a short while deals with this. No big deal. Soon I was contacted by a university administrator and informed that professors at this school are not allowed to fail students for cheating or plagiarism. We have to report them to an academic affairs office and go through an administrative process. OK, I thought. Irritating but ultimately irrelevant.

I was then told that the first step in this process is "mediation", wherein the professor and students meet with an administrator who would…do something, I guess. This irked me. I did not appreciate having to waste an hour of my life on these sad excuses for students. The meeting consisted of an endless legalistic preamble about students' rights and an admonition that we "come to an agreement" about what happened and what consequences would result. What was supposed to take an hour took about 30 seconds. I informed them that I have no intention of negotiating with students and seeking their permission to fail them for cheating, and even less enthusiasm for negotiating a lesser slap-on-wrist punishment. We can skip this and go directly to the next stage of the process if the students insist, I said.

The admin was decidedly upset by this. It became apparent that the entire point of this process was to mildly scare the students until they Learn Their Lesson and then let them off the hook with some sort of minor punishment. In my case, the admin didn't even want to go that far. Despite written statements from five people – me and four teaching assistants – she was aggressively implying that this could be a big misunderstanding. Are you sure that you actually saw them cheating? Why don't you have any proof? (to which I responded "What would you like, surveillance camera footage?") Can't we come to some kind of agreement to put this behind us?

No, we can't. This isn't kindergarten.

We now move to some sort of quasi-judicial procedure with a five-member panel that will make the decision. The outcome is obviously going to favor the students. It's clear what the university is doing but not why. I honestly can't figure out their motives here. Are they afraid of lawsuits? Worried about the school's reputation? Pandering to parents? More "the customer is always right; he paid for an A, give him an A" nonsense?

What I do know is that it makes absolutely no sense for a student at this school not to cheat. A rational person who understands how this process works – certainly word gets around – realizes that he has nothing to lose by trying to cheat. If this is the university's position, faculty might as well leave the room during exams and put everyone on the honor system. The worst part about this state of affairs is how it reinforces the paranoid "Let's tear down the ivory tower" view of academia most often found on the political right. I mean, it appears that your angry uncle and loudmouthed coworker are right. Between rampant grade inflation and lax attitudes toward enforcing the most basic rules of conduct, every student really does get a trophy just for showing up.

83 thoughts on “HONOR SYSTEM”

  • I don't know what the deal is at your university, but I've never been in any class where the professor wasn't CRYSTAL clear that cheating is an insta-fail, and I've ALSO never been in any class where the professor didn't have total authority over the final grades.

    If you wanted to suspend them or something I can see the administrative process, but to just F their sorry asses at your discretion OUGHT to be your prerogative.

  • From my own experiences, I've decided that it's just not worth my time to punish cheaters. The fact is that students who are so dumb that they can't cheat well enough not to get caught also can't do a lot of things well, like pass the course without cheating. So I keep an eye them, make sure they can't cheat again and watch them earn a D.

    In the meantime, it's really fun to play psychological games with cheaters. Drop hints about
    meetings with deans. Put a copy of the school's academic misconduct policy on the first page of the next exam. Next time you proctor, spend a lot of time near them. And watch them sweat.

  • "Are they afraid of lawsuits? Worried about the school's reputation? Pandering to parents? More 'the customer is always right; he paid for an A, give him an A" nonsense?'"

    All of the above.

    I was a grad. instructor at the University of Virginia which loves to tout it's "honor system" as thought up by ol' Thomas Jefferson itself.

    What a fucking crock.

    It basically meant that a student was always "on their honor," and as a teacher if you wanted to punish a student for cheating you had to go to a student-run "honor council." Hilarity ensued.

    Not to mention the time Fed Smith's son (head of FedEx) beat the living shit out of another student. Head to honor council and boot the little shit, right? Wrong. Word quickly got out that Smith had hired lawyers for his kid and they would sue any accuser and even anyone involved with the entire process for libel. And UVA did nothing at all about it.

    So, no trial.

  • Ah, check that — Smith's kid did get booted, but the president had to do it by himself. The whole honor council thing was still an obvious sham and a headache for teachers.

  • I'm fairly certain you can find a way for these students to "earn" their F's.

    They might have staved off an insta-fail, but these students must know that they have lost every benefit of the doubt and iota of goodwill you would have had for them. Unless they're awesome students (which I highly doubt), I'm sure they will fail on their own accord.

    And for the record, this is reason #37 why I have given up on academia as a viable career path.

  • Different schools, different rules, I suspect; I teach at a satellite campus of a large university, so there's a certain kind of local-community-independence as to how we regulate ourselves. In similarly dire circumstances–plagiarism–I simply inform the student in question that his/her cheating is grounds for failure, and if s/he wants to make an issue of it, I'll happily go with him/her to the Dean, at which point I will also recommend suspension/expulsion, hinting strongly that the Dean will listen with an amenable ear.

    But: I don't give in-class exams (the joys of teaching literature), and that's probably a major factor here–plagiarism is much, much easier to prove, because it's right there–no eye-witness-testimony fuzziness about it. In-class cheating, unless it's somehow documented, and I don't see how it could be, can and does come down to rival witnesses. So yeah, I can see how *that* might gum up the swift wheels of justice. Which sucks. We're usually told that the Administration Has Our Backs in such matters, but I suspect, what with litigious paranoia rampant, that is no longer the case.

  • "More "the customer is always right; he paid for an A, give him an A" nonsense?"

    Precisely this, Ed.

    Behold, the glorious results of our pseudo-privatized post-secondary education system. Universities are not institutions of higher learning, they are businesses. They do not exist to educate students, they exist to sell credentials required for the modern, hyper-inflated workplace.

    Incidents like the one you describe are the reason the labor market is in the shitty state it's in. It's the reason why I, as a software developer, spend my days programming machines — which *do not have brains* — to do basic list and transaction processing and remote order handling, and yet you need "previous experience" or a low-level degree to apply for a job at a fucking McDonald's.

    It's pretty simple, really. These days you have to produce credentials to hire on as a goddamn cashier in retail, let alone jobs that require actual thought. My father, who has been active in his field for several decades, has been passed over for promotion on more than one occasion in favor of a green employee who happens to have a slip of paper from a school. In this environment, a university is nothing more than an elaborate kiosk where you pay a few years of servitude and tens of thousands of dollars to obtain your golden ticket, that magical slip of paper that says you are suddenly qualified to not have a completely shit job.

  • @John All of this sounds right. But the real truth is that that piece of paper isn't even the golden ticket it used to be. Having a degree hasn't done me a damned thing for the year I've possessed mine. It doesn't grant admission to "real adult jobs" like it used to.

  • This is why my father gave up his tenure at a major (?) university to go work in the media department at a community college, where he spent the last twenty years of his career and perhaps slightly overqualified with a Doctorate, several patents and two MAs. He did teach there, eventually, but he enjoyed the atmosphere presented by a large component of the student population that was there by the sweat of their own brows, instead of some goddamn "let's go fuck and drink while pretending to study while dad pays for it" institute of higher learning. He was told at Enormous State University that, in no uncertain terms, the goal was revenue, and that if he failed every idiot who couldn't spell his own name, pretty soon they'd be out of business and all the ivy would soon be homeless. "Business?" he exclaimed. "This isn't what I signed on for". And he walked out.
    He was a happy guy after he figured that one out. Your milage may vary, of course. There are whole divisions of troops at E.S.U. who strive and pay attention; who toil late into the night and hold that spark of intense interest . . . ah, who am I kidding? I work with people who spent eight or nine years in post-secondary servitude who can't properly use "there, their or they're". I know a guy with a Master's degree who never, NEVER attended any sort of math class.
    God save us. I hope he attended a community college.

  • Nora Carrington says:

    I quit a tenure track gig in philosophy at a decent liberal arts college (gasp!), in part because the "consumer is always right" posture was just coming into vogue and I could see the handwriting on the wall.

    Went to Smith, which had a UVA-type honor code and it was real, and rigorously enforced by the student board that oversaw it. No one on the faculty or in the administration had anything to do with it, iirc. We turned each other in, but mostly we didn't cheat.

    I would have considered moving to a community college if I could have gotten a tenure track position; I wasn't going to teach 12-14 classes a year at 3 different campuses for no benefits and less than $30K.

    Of all our major civic institutions, education top to bottom is most broken.

  • anotherbozo says:

    Bravo, Ed. That part about asking the assistants to check your own observations was smart, and most non-tenured faculty would have been too intimidated to tell the "process" where to shove it. But anyone who knows you from this blog wouldn't have been surprised.

    At any rate: thank God, thank God I'm not in teaching any more. I remember one case–a long time ago–in which I failed some administrator's pet, there was a big to-do, huffing and puffing from all over the place, but I didn't budge. They finally allowed him to "withdraw" from the course, something that they could do several months after the time limit because they make the rules in the first place, so that he could have a "W" on his record instead of an "F." That didn't require my approval or even acquiesence and was totally out of my hands. If I'd had tenure I might have made a stink, but I only found out about it much after the deed was done, and I figured if they wanted to befoul themselves for this kid, it was their problem.

    Fiat lux.

  • I went to a Small Liberal Arts college, and testing was entirely on the honor system. Profs were only very rarely in the room during testing, and students were usually pretty reliable about turning one another in to the student-run Honor Court for obvious violations of the honor code. It sounds a bit absurd, but seemed to work and the Honor Court never seemed to have a problem dishing out punishements.

    That said, there was still some of it that went on that never went unpunished.

    School Honor Code, signed on everything we ever turned in for a mark:

    "I have neither given nor received any unauthorized aid on this exam/paper/etc, nor have I seen anyone else do so."

  • I went to a small private prestigious liberal arts college, and there was a girl in my class who was dumb as rocks. Seriously, I don't know how she got dressed in the morning, let alone got into a good college. Actually, strike that, her father was a rich legacy, so I know how she got into college. Anyway, she got caught plagiarizing on a paper. This was blatant. She had basically copied and pasted the whole thing from online. It was an open and shut case. Her defense, as junior in college, was something equivalent to "I didn't know I wasn't supposed to do that." That, plus maybe a donation from dad, worked like a charm.

    Then it happened again, very shortly after the first time. She argued that she had turned that paper in before she got caught for the first, so it still fell under the "I didn't know I wasn't allowed to do that" rubric. And guess what? It worked! She graduated (a year late, but not in any way due to these incidents). It made me sick. What made me sicker is that my friends and co-graduates generally did not see what made me so mad about the situation. To me, it cheapened the degrees that I had from that school, to know that they would be so craven about punishing academic dishonesty from the legacy daughter of a rich donor.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Have been teaching college for almost 30 years. I don't like to talk to the administration because I am bureaucratically challenged; I am allergic to their logic (reflexive insulting ensue). A cheater gets to choose one of the two options: you want an F, you can have it, or I'll give you a special assignment to make up for the exam you stole. They, of course, take the second. (I keep the email exchange for audit trail in case ..) They almost always fuck up the second choice. Those that do well; well we uncovered a good student and both sides are happy.

    Stay away from the ant fuckers (the admin).

  • Elder Futhark says:

    Ah, you guys is too hard on these earnest young lads. Obviously, the school has adapted to the current climate change. Just providing the expedient tool kit they'll need for when they go into business. You know, Wall Street.

  • Are you sure you're not a private tutor for Goldman Sachs children? Good Lord. What kind of institution is this? My schools had a zero tolerance policy. Simply receiving an 'F' is great. But, they want to arbitrate instead. You must teach at a publicly funded institution.

  • I've had to skim the comments quickly, so I apologize if others have said this, but having dealt with cheaters at three universities, the point of having a "mediation" process, as far as I can tell, is to cut the workload of Academic Affairs. That's about it. If students and professors agree on a punishment for an offense, then the professors file the standard paperwork, which everyone signs, and Academic Affairs gets to put it in a file. Then, if the student racks up another violation (or two!), they might take action. Anyway, there's no mystery about it. The problem, as everyone here realizes, is that the process gives professors a strong incentive to impose light penalties because those are the penalties that students are more likely to accept. Who wants to waste time talking to a committee just to fail a student? Also, there's risk in going before those committees, since they can rule against you, although, technically, they can also impose a heavier punishment. However, from what I've heard, the latter is much less likely than the former.

  • Despite the fact that my syllabi state that cheating will result in an F for the course, students still appeal from time to time. Unfortunately, the appeals process takes a lot of time and many professors prefer not to deal with it. The worst part is that there is no public shame associated with cheating. The entire process is hush hush. If that changed and cheaters had to face their peers who knew the truth about them, I think students would think twice about cheating.

  • circularreasoning says:

    After 10 years in the administrative side of things (admissions and fundraising), I can tell you the "why". Each of those students represent dollars in tuition today as well as potential dollars in the future in the form of donations (as well as possibly current donations from parents). I'm glad to hear you are standing your ground and wish you the very best. Of course, you already know this will not end well. Very sad.

  • Ah, the old "honor code" dodge. Completely useless in practice, as the kids who cheat don't usually give a rat's ass about 'honor'. It's all about "I'm special!" instead. As the good Elder above points out, they're on the Wall Street track.

  • I went through several similar episodes during my academic career. I caught a husband and wife plagiarizing each other in a graduate seminar. The deputy chair of my department refused to see the evidence in front of him and I had to compromise. I discovered that an undergraduate had altered a grade in a TA's gradebook. I already had recorded the grade in a spreadsheet, which is how the discrepancy came to light. The dean of students not only refused to support me, but gave a copy of my grades to the student's mother, in violation of the university's privacy policy. The student's mother worked for the IRS and I received an inquiry letter from the IRS for each of the next 5 years. These are among the reasons why I am glad to be out of academia.

  • I had to teach a course that showed elem. ed. majors how to use music in their classrooms. Some of these kids could not sing at all and the majority of the performance assignments required them to sing for a grade. I, of course, offered help with practice but had to give them a bad grade based on their performance. I was quickly told that I had to make these students feel good about themselves so when they became teachers they didn't have negative feelings towards music. So I just started giving all of them Bs while some got As and a few got Cs. I don't think I actually graded a single assignment after my first semester as an AI.

    I also caught a student submitting false doctor's notes and after being sent to one such ethics committee, he was cut from the music program but allowed to change majors and remain at the university. Awesome.

  • Scott sez:

    "And for the record, this is reason #37 why I have given up on academia as a viable career path."

    You took the words right out of my [hybrid] keyboard-mouth, sir.

  • Monkey Business says:

    When I was an undergrad, I took a number of computer science courses. One set in particular stands out: Java 1 and Java 2. In Java 1, the professor encouraged us to work together in developing our programs, because that's how it's actually done in the real world. No developer is an island and whatnot. Now Java 2, with a different professor, believed that we should program everything ourselves, with no assistance from our classmates. The problem was that he failed to indicate this in our syllabus, in class, on the class website, etc., so those of us that had taken Java 1 together turned in a handful of assignments where we clearly all worked together, thinking we would be fine. Turns out, we weren't. This particular professor submitted three quarters of the class for academic dishonesty. We were, of course, pissed. If he had said "Hey, don't work together", we wouldn't have, or at least not in such an obvious fashion. So, this group of students and I went down to his office and had a chat with him, along with the academic affairs folks, and asked him to point to something, anywhere, that indicated that working together wasn't allowed. He couldn't do so, because no such thing existed. Ultimately, he had to give us the grades we wanted because we were right and he was wrong. After that, he made it explicitly clear that working together wasn't allowed.

    My point of this story is that yeah, students cheat, and eventually it catches up to them. However, sometimes professors don't play fair either.

    All that being said, yeah, these kids were stupid, and I wish you would have flunked them.

  • @circularreasoning-

    Indubitably. This is essentially the method, of course, by which 43 received his degree.

    @Ed-

    *Briefly chafed, Scott Walker loudly laments his own university choice, but quickly develops the contented smirk of a fully- vetted tool.

  • This post, and the comments, are breaking my heart and turning my stomach. If it were me, I don't know if I would raise seven hells (and risk losing a job, which is a rare and beautiful thing) or simply turn my rage inward until my spleen exploded.

    But one thing is certain: if those miscreants remained in my classroom, I would certainly be tempted to do a lesson on cheating. Remember when 24 midshipmen were expelled from the US Naval Academy? Remember when 45 students were expelled from UVA for cheating? At self-respecting schools, cheaters are not failed, and certainly not bargained with; they are expelled.

    Even if this school doesn't have a code of honor, a name it wants to keep unstained, or any shame in condoning cheating, it should feel some sense of responsibility toward the students who did not cheat, and whose efforts should not be devalued by cheaters who are given a free pass. And here I thought Georgia would have some sense of honor, however anachronistic. Alas. Et cetera.

  • I graduated two years ago, but we had it pounded into us endlessly that not only would we be shown no leniency for cheating or plagiarism, but we'd be kicked out of the University. Zero tolerance.

    I still saw rampant cheating, but at least we knew the ramifications.

  • Makes me wonder whose offspring they are. There was a great (if horrifying) post on Deadspin yesterday about the sliding-scale "honor code" policy at BYU, specifically how it applies more to African-American athletes than it does to connected LDSers. Certain customers are always more right than others.

  • I cheeted thru colledge. I've have 2 degree's so its no big deal. Now im a engineare at the Creation Museum. Its kickass!11!!!

  • I guess it depends what business the school is in. For example, I learned quickly that graduate business schools are in the business of exclusivity upon admission, graduating those admitted, raising money from alumni, and promoting graduates' success to facilitate the others. Education was secondary.
    I think I was one of the few students who didn't know that, going in.

    It's brand management, Ed. Will the school generate more money by forcing responsible behavior, or by graduating more students? Odds are, the school's decided that graduating students is better for the bottom line. 3 students? One of them might be well-connected, or might luck into success. One of their *friends* or fraternity brothers might already be monied. And if you fail those 3, you lose that money.

    Now, the moral hazard that word will get out, and people will not bother working hard? That's obviously not the case, alas. Some people do actually go to school for an education. The shame is that getting an education, and playing with integrity, and doing the right things? From a practical standpoint, that might be the wrong approach…the student who doesn't cheat may end up with lower grades, have a harder time getting a good paying job, etc. (Or maybe the "real world" does reward integrity, and it all gets normalized after some time.)

    My main take away is something that took me more than 35 years to learn (despite having heard it from my parents): life's not fair. Liars and cheaters are often rewarded. "Winners never cheat and cheaters never win?" Complete bullshit.

    I have a reputation in a few communities I participate in, as someone who's a stickler for the rules—if we're not going to, as a group, enforce the rules, we ought to not have it.

    But still, in the height of hypocrisy, I encourage my son to be more laid back when others cheat, or when there's unfairness. I mean, I want him to be honorable. But I'd like to share him the heartache and stress that guys like you and me feel when we run into this. See? Ed and I are totally alike. 'cept for the owning rats, having wit, and being young thing, you know.

    So, I cheer from the sidelines—you speaking truth to power. (And make no mistake about it…this is power your speaking the truth of rules to.)
    But, pragmatically speaking, maybe you should have a nice herbal tea (or hi-ball—your choice), and recognize that shit's not fair. Cheaters are rewarded.

  • College is essentially hedging a bet. You're betting that if you (or your parents) plunk down or borrow enough money, it can save you from working a blue collar job or surfing the unemployment line.

    It's not about learning. People who pay for a college degree (sometimes to the tune of several hundreds of thousands of dollars) now expect to be "given" the degree that they've paid for, regardless of work ethic, skill or learning ability.

    The IT industry, for example, is stocked with large quantities of recent graduates of CSE programs and for-profit training schools who couldn't tell their ass from a doorknob if they were given a diagram to assist them, and yet somehow their degree is expected to guarantee skill level. Which it might have, back in the day where college was about learning things for the majority of students, not providing a social landscape, higher blood alcohol levels, and a nice piece of paper to substitute the need for any critical thinking or adequate skill set.

  • Don't get anyone started on the myth of the scholar athlete… Back in college, I had a basketball player who hadn't shown up for a single class (until the final exam) ask me to hand over my test so that he could copy all of the answers — while the professor watched. College athletics (especially basketball) regularly pushes "talent" to the commercial leagues, but their athletes have to maintain a GPA — so the professors have to pass them to keep their jobs. It's like anything else, corrupt and rotten to the core.

  • Natalie @ 3:21: Don't look now, but my degree plus my decades of experience plus my "maturity" equals three hundred bucks a week in unemployment benefits. Just sayin'.

  • I think it's all about money, and the university qua business. Why would you fail students in first year, when you can fail them in 2nd or 3rd year and get an extra year or two of tuition fees out of them in the meantime? Ideally, you wouldn't fail them at all so you can get a full degree's worth of tuition, but do that too much, and you'll earn a reputation as a degree mill, and then your customer base drops off real sharp, real quick.

    Like any other business, you want to strike a compromise between wasting too much money on customer service and providing so little customer service that your customers never come back.

    I don't know whose bright idea it was to couch education, healthcare, infrastructure etc. as profit-making businesses, but they deserve to be put up against a wall and shot.

  • George W Bush says:

    mojidoji says:

    "
    I cheeted thru colledge. I've have 2 degree's so its no big deal. Now im a engineare at the Creation Museum. Its kickass!11!!!
    "

    I two! Yuz can even be Prezident of Amerika if yuz has the rite family ties!

    Several years ago, my TA colleagues and I caught four cheaters (in an ethics exam – a nice touch).

    There was no question of the cheating – the students' multiple-choice answers were all identical, and NOT the correct answers.

    We had to "escalate" what should have been a simple academic procedure (fail the students) all the way up to the office of the Dean, whom I knew personally and who did not doubt the facts.

    As soon as the word "lawyer" was uttered by the one of the students they were effectively forgiven.

    To put it kindly, the experience greatly lowered my respect for the Dean and the university.

  • This is just another example of why this honesty crap my parents parents pounded into my head as a child just keeps costing me more and more money!!!

    I could have pulled crap like this and skated thru school? Man, was I dumb. I did the homework myself. better job, bigger house……… Just last week a cashier gave me the wrong change, I gave the money back. Tonight I send in my taxes. Like I said, this honesty crap keeps costing me money.

  • Entomologista says:

    When I was TAing I asked the professor what to do if I caught students cheating. She said there was nothing I could do, basically. We'd have to go through all the BS Ed described with academic counseling, and since it was on a test or quiz there wouldn't be any real proof. The extent of my ability to deal with cheaters as a grad student TA was to say "Please keep your eyes on your own paper."

    I did have a basketball player in my class, but he did his work and earned his A.

  • For a bit of perspective: I have worked at two Canadian universities (mostly on the support side of things, but also a bit of instructing) and I can tell you that, yeah, we too have cheaters. However, when they are caught they fail, fail, fail. At the very least get scared shitless and fail the assignment in question, and in every single case I've heard of they fail the course the second time — if they are not kicked out for a year with the reason why going on their transcript.

    It's just not an issue. The administration is totally behind profs and the calls they make.

    Of course, all our universities are mostly-publicly-funded, so when I was a student myself my degree cost me $4k a year, not $40k. Maybe it's related?

    (Our grads still have a tough time finding jobs; it's largely related to degree though. And our b-schools are still a cesspool, but definitely less so, and actually do do some solid research alongside the $20k-per-year warm-body Executive MBA programs.)

  • For the people dissing honor codes generally: I'll believe that they're broken in some places, but they can definitely work. I taught for several years at an institution with a reasonably strict honor code and I loved it; I did get some cheating, but I would turn it in to the Honor Board and in all cases but one they found the student(s) guilty, often applying a stricter punishment than I would have. (The standard penalty was F in the course for first offenders, and expulsion if there was a second time.)

    In contrast, I'm teaching at a non-honor-code school now that is otherwise fairly similar, and man, there is a *lot* more cheating here. It is in some ways more convenient (I judge the cheating and apply the penalty and move on, no admin intervention) but I prefer a system that A) presumes you won't cheat and B) comes down like a ton of bricks if you do, to one that A) presumes you might cheat and has to watch you like a hawk and B) gives you lots of warnings and low- or no-penalty outcomes.

  • I don't know how you manage to avoid succumbing to brain-melting rage. I don't think I could ever be a teacher, because if I had to go through that bureaucratic nonsense with a pack of smug, cheating bastards on a regular basis, I'd have punched someone by now.

    I can't think of a way to write this without sounding like I have an overinflated ego, but somehow I managed to get through a great deal of postsecondary education without even knowing that cheating was common or accepted. I almost feel like a sucker for doing my own work, until I realize I'd just have been wasting everyone's time, including my own, if I'd cheated.

    The only experience I'd had with cheating was when a friend said he was having trouble checking his assignment, and asked to see how I'd done it so he could compare his solution to mine. I sent him my work, and he turned it in as his own. We both got a cranky email from the instructor asking that we explain ourselves. I explained what I'd done, the friend's account squared with mine, and I got a sternly-worded letter explaining that I shouldn't share work. I'm not sure what happened to the friend, but he didn't want to talk about it… though he was still in the class when the final rolled around.

  • I'll take "the customer is always right; he paid for an A, give him an A", Ed.

    It sounds like your institution is quite a bit like mine in that there is no aspect of the college experience that isn't ridiculously tilted in favor of students' ease. It doesn't matter if it's plagiarism (don't get me started…), cheating on assignments, cheating on exams, or just some general sense of entitlement to a grade greater than the one earned, everything can be appealed. The only issue here is that the appeals process is less about appeals and more about an end-run around accountability.

    From my observation point, all of these appeals processes are so laden with disincentives for faculty members and so laden with incentives for plagiarists, cheaters, and malingerers that the processes are pretty clearly less about protecting students' rights and more about providing a escape valve for holding students accountable to the bare minimum rules of academic work.

    Let's take a hypothetical case of plagiarism. Charge of plagiarism is made. It can first be appealed to the chair of the department (in a meeting with the accuser, the accused, and the department chair). Next it goes to our Center for Student Rights and Responsibilities for mediation. If no one cries uncle there, it gets kicked back to the Dean of the college (in a meeting with the accuser, the accused, the department chair, someone from the Center for Student Rights and Responsibilities, and the Dean). If there's still no joy in Mudville, everyone goes to the Provost's Office to meet with some Vice Provost of something or other.

    Clown shoes.

    As someone commented above, however, it is the perfect preparation for life on Wall Street.

    The cost of it and who bears that cost is definitely related, Renee. My institution and many other public institutions here in the U.S. are peddling a college degree as a retail good. We have parent orientations as well as orientations for students. We have web tools that allow parents to keep track of their childrens' academic progress (with the appropriate authorization). Undergrad education is a retail experience, becoming more and more like the choice whether to shop at Gap or Old Navy.

    I would imagine in an environment where the state picks up the majority of the tab for an education, there's more incentives to do it the correct way and less incentives to neuter accountability in order to chase the almighty dollar.

  • A friend and I got caught cheating on an assignment in uni – we did half each and swapped and were so far off track it was pretty obvious. The Prof sat us down and said we'd both get 0% for the assignment (worth 30%) but we could still pass the course if we got enough on the final (I didn't…). Also, he'd be keeping an eye on us.

    To be honest, I can't remember what the university's policy was on cheating, but neither of us every though this result was unfair to us or the other students. Failing a class hurts your academic record and helps maintain the credibility of the institution. We knowingly did the crime and took the punishment like adults.

    All this mediation and lawyer talk is total bullshit.

  • I suppose you think the President should be able to detain citizens whenever he likes, too.

    Such a process is designed to catch the few instances where a prof will level a charge that is unwarranted. Any process can be abused, of course, but that's what it's there for.

  • I wrote a bunch of undergrad papers for a kid a few years ago. I got paid and learned some philosophy (Descartes, St. Anselm, the French existentialists, etc.) that I might not have otherwise. I'm not proud of it, but I needed the money and she needed the grade. Same thing happened soon after that: A friend's daughter needed a psych paper to graduate, so three weeks and a few hundred dollars later she had a 3,000-word paper describing some of the current research on slowing the advance of Alzheimer's Disease. The first kid never graduated; the second one did.

    I don't know why I'm telling you professors this; you're just going to jump on my ass, not that I don't deserve it. But, like I said, I needed the money.

  • George W Bush says:

    @ Renee

    Re. your characterization of Canadian universities as being harder on cheaters. The story I related in my post at 1:44 occured at a Canadian U.

    In my 13-year teaching career spanning three universities I have seen students get away with some crazy-ass shit. Even in our public system in Canada, admins live in fear of litigious students.

    I know – the plural of anecdote is not data – I'm just sayin'.

  • Maybe it's something about the epistemology and the knowledge society. Is it that our students are feeling that "knowing" is not what it used to be? Knowing is stored in computers, and shared (almost) freely by now, and what we want to know is not if they fill correctly the bubbles of the multiple choice test, but if they can do anything in the practical work with the knowledge we share with them at the 'Varsity. And that is a problem that the current state of the art of assessment is not solving for us easily, so we turn to assessment strategies that make cheating a sensible way to cope.
    I say, perhaps being sanctimonious about personal responsibility has to do with another past era. Not that I wouldn't have flunked those guys, but probably I would have spoken to them about their doing something they deem useful for them in the short term, but does very little for them as learners. And I would have an oral exam reserved for them, he!

  • Without in any way attempting to defend cheating students, I just want to point out that there do exist such things as vindictive, lying professors, who do try to screw over students that they dislike for one reason or another.

    Having been victimized by two of these professors in my academic career, I would like to state that I don't think having some sort of due process for academic punishments is a bad thing. If you don't like the due process, well, too bad. Students DO have the right to be treated fairly and that's what the due process is there to assure. It would be more convenient if we let cops gun down "criminals" at the scene of the crime but there are flaws in that system, you see.

    You haven't even come to the end of the process with these students and don't yet know whether they'll be wrist-slapped or face-stomped.

  • @Michael – It certainly sounds like you're defending cheating students.

    The problem that Ed and many other instructors at the college level have brought up here is not that there is a due process system for the students, but that it is biased TOWARDS the students. I feel that you were victimized by vindictive professors and the system probably saved you. The students that Ed busted were not victimized. The due process system should punish them and it does not seem that any punishment is forthcoming.

    There were five eyewitnesses to this transgression. While I agree that the process should be adhered to, there should not be a question of if these students should be punished. Or do you believe that the punishment for cheating on an exam should be a simple slap on the wrist?

  • @Scott: Ed only tells us that they "now move to some sort of quasi-judicial procedure with a five-member panel that will make the decision. The outcome is obviously going to favor the students." As far as I can tell, his main evidence for this "obvious" outcome is that the panel is made up of students; if he has other evidence of past outcomes by this panel he's not told us. It's quite a stretch based on the information *we* have to say that "it does not seem that any punishment is forthcoming".

    In other contexts some people (possibly us!) would refer disapprovingly to what's going on in this post as "trying the case in the media".

  • @blahedo – I was not there. I can only base my opinions on what Ed is reporting here. With that being said, the reason I say that no punishment is forthcoming is because the "mediator" refused to acknowledge that the students did anything wrong in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Simply by referring this to the next step in the process seems to suggest that nothing substantial is going to happen to these cheaters.

    If this was a real criminal proceeding, the lawyer representing the students would tell them to plead guilty because the prosecutor has damning evidence from five completely credible eyewitnesses. In this system, we see the system try to shield the guilty from that same damning evidence.

  • The best advice I can give Ed :

    1. Realize that these students are cheating themselves, and will probably continue to do so. Over the long run, and in deep ways, being a dishonest asshole is its own punishment, even if the asshole himself never becomes self-aware enough to perceive that just consequence.

    2. Read Richard Russo's 1997 novel of academe, Straight Man. Laughter will get you through until you decide what to do about your discontent.

  • @GWB: Shiz. That's depressing as hell. I can only hope the good examples I saw of how academic misconduct were handled at the institutions I worked at (and the other one I went to) are more the rule than the exception. It would be interesting to see some numbers, but of course unless these things are subject to a formal process we never will have that data, and if things get dropped there is no data at all.

  • Try a high school. Kids can turn in completely plagiarized papers and receive, a detention. Plus a chance to rewrite the paper. They don't even actually end up serving the detentions. In this environment, I see no reason why they shouldn't give it a shot and cheat, what are the chances. I've had students turn in papers complete with the blue underline url links, and then claim they didn't copy and paste, even when I showed them the web page they got it from.

  • Arslan Amirkhanov says:

    As I live in a country that is far ahead of the US on the road to oblivion(Russia), consider this a message from the future. The wealth gap will widen even more. Academia will become even more business like than it is now. Nearly all students will elect to take "practical" courses like business, engineering, etc., to the detriment of history, philosophy, and other liberal arts programmes. Culture will degenerate even faster as the entire society shifts its objective to survival in a cut-throat labor market. Life will be based entirely on work, and consuming, with no significant interest in culture, history, art, or politics(Russia has for all intents and purposes, one party, whereas the US has two acting in concert). Large parts of the country will become ghost towns or cesspools as people find themselves compelled to migrate to the few urban centers which can offer decent jobs and salaries.

    Enjoy your capitalism.

  • Surface Tension says:

    Can't help but draw the analogy between this pathetic state of affairs, and what's happening up here in Canuckistan. Our Conservative government has repeatedly been caught "cheating" – leading finally to a conviction for contempt of parliament – the first ever such conviction for a Westminster-style / Commonwealth parliament. And the attitude of priminister Harper (who delivered a plagiarised speech when running for election in '08) that has led us to this? "You win some, you lose some." And sadly he'd dead right – cheating pays off.

  • (I posted this comment before and WP apparently choked on the non-ASCII character.)

    My wife has a Ph.D. in chemistry, and spent a lot of time TA-ing as both an undegrad and a grad student at Very Prestigious Schools. She brought back lots of stories about cheating (including the student who copied part of an assignment word-for-word from The Journal of Chemical Education), and about administration apathy thereto. She lives in fear for the day that she wakes up on a hospital gurney and sees one of her former organic-chemistry students looking over her.

  • In a world where the "top 70%" of everybody in a country gets a university degree, the degree is no longer a good proxy for aptitude or skill. Couple that with the $50k-100k loss of income per student that drops out, and you can see why the current system probably focuses on the wrong thing.

  • I'd like to start my comment with a question, to which the answer and its implications should be of more fundamental importance then your rambling about this imaginary honor system. Why were those students even in your class to begin with? When we start to think about the answer to this it starts to become clear that nothing is as black and white as you'd like it to be… at least not for all parties involved. Colleges and unfortunately by association the teachers have cashed in their honor system to become cash for degree exchange systems. Under the guise of academia large amounts of useless classes (often taught in large lecture halls despite volumes of research suggesting that this is one of the poorest methods for dispensing quality knowledge) are shoved down the throats of students looking not for a quality education, but for a higher hope of landing a quality job. But! you say, the students agreed to the rules right? Well yes they did, but are you really under the presumption that they felt like they had any choice? If it wasn't your lecture, it would likely be another of equal unimportance to these students that they would be "encouraged" to take (of course if they do not they can't get the degree). Todays schools, and your's is without exception, cannot pretend to have complete academic integrity when you willingly and knowingly sacrifice quality of knowledge dispensation for quantity of it. If your school stopped issuing access cards to the professional world, do you think these students would have been in your school let alone your class? Until colleges figure out how to provide academic enlightenment to those seeking it without also monopolizing the vast majority of professional training then your "student" issues will persist, and I will continue to not feel bad for you.

  • originalgeek says:

    There's a simple solution to this problem. Multiple versions of the same test, each with different questions. Distribute them round-robin in the class, such that the next person with the same version sits 6-8 seats away.

    And really, since when are sworn statements not "evidence"?

  • I'm an MBA candidate at a large state school. Not only does every syllabus state explicit that any from of cheating is an automatic fail, there are posters everywhere that advertise the university's cheating whistle-blower hotline.

    No hotline in at my undergraduate institution, but every class started with a (required, i think) lecture on the consequences of cheating.

  • I'm a tenured prof at an Enormous State University. I have had one experience with the academic misconduct quasi-judicial machinery and it has been positive. The student turned in someone else's published article as his/her own work on an assignment. I noticed it and submitted it to the academic misconduct people. The hearing took 15 minutes, it was very fair, the student was given every opportunity to present evidence, the committee (mostly professors but with undergraduate and graduate representation) had done their homework, they peppered the student with sharp but fair questions, and ultimately gave the student an F in the class and a 1-year suspension from the university.

    I would not hesitate to use this process at my university again.

  • Oh, George, you sound like one of those guys who say you have no pity for girls who dress like hookers and get what they were asking for…minus the pay. Whether those cheaters are children in expensive day care, or unintelligent adults "getting what they paid for", or cynical grade-grubbers, or hur-hur-hur fratboys — or whatever — they cheated. There is no excuse for cheating. It does not matter, in the least, why they took the class. Whether one is in a diploma mill or the most rigorous academic environment, cheating is cheating.

    Arguing that a school with low academic standards shouldn't expect students to behave with any integrity does not follow; decent behavior is not dictated by one's environment. And even if universities pretended to monopolize "the vast majority of professional training", as you put it (and they don't), it would not be a temptation to cheat, much less license to do so. If it's so easy, why cheat? If it's so hard, why should you pass? If you need me to parse this out in shorter words, draw a simple diagram, or act it out with hand puppets, just ask and I'll be happy to dumb it down for you.

  • I taught several courses at a very large U.S. state school in computer science; classes varied from 25 student sections to 300 student freshman intro classes (all CompSci). I never had a class where I didn't find cheaters.

    Scams included copying essays out of magazines, copying during exams, copying homework, &c. It was very clear that the incentives are all wrong; cheating was never seriously punished, except by bypassing the university system and dishing out low grades. Oddly, the most obvious cheaters were older in-the-workforce students taking classes through their employers — they were consistently horrible about copying/sharing their homework results, and not very good about covering it up.

  • As much as I admire the ivory tower idealism, I can assure you that this sort of behavior simply mirrors life after college. Ethics are all but irrelevant if you can afford a decent attorney or CPA.

    As long as the profit motive is the only thing that matters, childish matters like fairness or quaint notions of honor or integrity matter very little to all except those who can afford nothing else.

  • First, to all those who state some form of "this is just how it is": It's only cheating if you're cheating, and those of us who try to stand up for basic honesty/integrity in the face of those who have deficient consciences should (and in my case, do) take that as a personal affront.

    Second, ladiesbane pretty well makes the case. As some/most(/dare I hope, all?) here may be familiar with Kantian vs. Utilitarian perspectives, I submit that people should be Kantian before the fact/on an individual level, and Utilitarian in hindsight/on a collective level when it comes to the basics of moral action/ethical systems. In other words, start off on the right foot/with good (or preferably the best of) intentions, and reflect on results with an eye to making things better in the future rather than backsliding into the much with the lazy, dishonest, spoiled, etc.

    Third, fuck those kids. They cheated, they deserve to fail, period. In high school, I got caught cheating once; fuck me, I deserved to fail, and I did, period. If you're going to cheat (looking at you, GW Bush, Barry Bonds, and et al), why bother? Bottom line, damn near everything is a work in progress and it is NEVER okay to give up when it comes to these things. Simple acts of positive morality/personal courage in corrupt contexts can have profound and positive consequences.

  • The range of reactions by colleges/universities varies with these things. I've taught at more than a couple now and I've seen a wide range. There are overlapping goals here. One is academic integrity, which is certainly not absent in any of the places I've been. Another is academic freedom. That is, some schools are protective of faculty and their goals and evaluation methods. Another is money. circularreasoning parsed that out well here, but I will add a detail to that by saying that many schools who rely on tuition for expenses spend big budgets recruiting students. Losing even one can be a problem. That's no excuse for you situation, Ed. Schools have other reasons for wanting students to be there, including athletics (alumni love this, other students feel shared pride, $ again in both cases). There's another element that hasn't been mentioned much (from my skim), either and that is in many cases schools honestly installed these policies hoping that these experiences would be learning experiences. Is the student beyond redemption? What percentage of students that could become less likely to cheat through this process would justify letting a few cheat the system? 95%? 60%? I'm not so hard-line on that question that I refuse all answers below 100.

    So, lots of intersecting interests and goals and on top of that, the personality and goals of administrators is a huge factor in this. What if that administrator was counting on your support later for their case for promotion? What if they expected to be on committees with you? What if they thought you were a meaningless tool in the machine they lord over? What if they sincerely believed in you as an instructor and valued what you were doing in the classroom? These are all actual examples I've known (some were related to me by colleagues) during my time teaching at the college level.

    My point: There's a grey area. Colleges haven't lost all their integrity, and sometimes compromise for good reasons, but the idea that they would stand up in all cases with "cheaters fail" is unrealistic, too. Your case seems to be on the shitty, unsupported faculty, bureaucratic machine end of that spectrum.

  • I share your passion for ethics in academia, I do…but good luck to those students that try to pull this off in grad school. And good luck finding a job without a Master's.

  • Townsend Harris says:

    I was a meaningless tool in the machine. I was an adjunct. I did as I was told, and that included awarding a passing grade to a well-connected student who didn't meet the college's own attendance requirement.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    Once there was this rock-star psych professor (he'd written popular books, been on talk shows, etc.) who told his 500+-member Intro to Psych class about an experience he'd had with cheating. His class was the only one I ever took that depended entirely on multiple-choice tests; we never wrote an exam essay or paper. A few years ago, some students got hold of the answer key and had a high old time until they got caught. They had some academic council thingy, and the kids (through their lawyer, or student advocate, or whatever he was) said they were not responsible for their actions because the key was so easy to get that it constituted an irresistible temptation. Or something like that. The point is, the professor agreed with this bullshit!

    It's obvious he felt sorry for the kids and wanted to be soft on them. I guess there's nothing wrong with that, except he shouldn't elevate his pity into some bogus psychological principle.

  • Renee mentioned her experience in Canadian schools; I am writing to chime in that while I have encountered reluctance by admin to initiate a charge unless there's good evidence (and testimony of 5 people is pretty good), there is typically no lenience about cheating. My trick as an instructor (at the same school from which I got my bachelors degree) is to tell students that cheating cheapens their degree, that of their friends, and mine as well, and that I would not sit idly by and let that happen. I also give them some case studies from the time when, as an undergrad, I sat on our equivalent of your 5-person panel, which was the "last chance to appeal" discipline decisions:

    – Student fails midterm. Borrows test from friend. Carefully notes answers, then erases friend's test (math therefore in pencil) and carefully rewrites friend's answers in his handwriting, making sure correction notes are properly aligned to the work. Then walks up to TA, says "you misrecorded my exam" and turns it in. Student later claimed Ramadan fasting had caused him to make a bad judgment. Got 4 month suspension.

    – Student is writing a final exam for one of her last courses in university. TA notices her consulting her pile of "scrap paper" which is found to also contain notes. During appeal, claims innocence but story changes repeatedly so credibility is shot. As this was a second offense (first time was forging a doctors note to get out of an exam, which earned her a 4 month suspension), she was expelled – one course shy of graduation. An international student, her expulsion required her to leave the country.

    – First year student submits philosophy paper that suspiciously combines paragraphs of bad grammar and circular reasoning with perfect prose and flawless logic. Four seconds with teh Google finds plagiarism. Student is called into TA's office and told to either resubmit without plagiarized sections or properly reference. Student does neither so TA presses on. Letter declaring intent to appeal combined paragraphs of bad grammar and circular reasoning with perfect prose and out-of-context legal terms. Ladies and gentlemen, Student plagiarized the appeal letter.

    The process that was in place did not include mediation but did have all discipline decisions made by an independent officer. I think this was to ensure consistency across schools and to temper the inclination of some faculty who wanted public floggings in the quad followed by expulsion for all cases great and small. But there was never any mediation on the academic misconduct side, only on the "please don't kick me out for bad grades" side.

  • I would offer an additional reason why schools make it so hard for professors to fail students who obviously deserve it: relentless infantilization that pervades our culture. How many times have we heard a twentysomething — that is, an adult — who has done something clearly beyond the pale (like commit fraud), being described as a "kid" who "just made a mistake"? I often have these arguments with people over whether there is any age cut-off for being considered a "kid" too young to be held accountable, and how the word "mistake" should be defined. Taking the wrong exit off the highway is a mistake. Miscalculating an outcome despite having access to pertinent information is a mistake. Conspiring to cheat on an exam, preparing cheat notes, and then cheating isn't a "mistake" — it's a deliberate course of conduct calculated to produce a result, and there is nothing inadvertent about it. It is a course of conduct born of profound contempt towards the rules that society must live by, and a huge sense of entitlement to having those rules set aside to protect "kids"' precious future. "Kids"? Anyone who is deemed old enough to enter into contractual obligations on his own behalf is old enough to be held accountable as an adult when he breaks the rules.

    Besides, kicking these students out and consigning them to a life of menial jobs and possibly crime is so much better for society in the long run: better these three become petty crooks than corporate executives or politicians.

  • I went to a huge state university and an almost-Ivy for undergrad and grad school, respectively. My undergrad classes were so big, there were always students cheating during tests. When it was obvious that someone was cheating (and I could make a confident accusation) I would report it to teachers. I don't know if any of the students were reprimanded. A lab I was in used the same worksheets every semester, which meant that a lot of people had the ability to obtain the answers. Annoyingly, the class was graded on a curve! Because all the cheaters got 100% on each lab, missing one or two questions a paper meant I ended up with a B+ in the class (though I had over a 90%). Annoying that my GPA suffers because I refused to cheat; even more frustrating is that I am competing to get into med school against these kids! My classes in grad school were so small there was no temptation to cheat, though I don't think there was a desire – every one wanted to learn and work hard.

    To me, a common form of cheating that is overlooked is the use of prescription drugs as study aids when the student has not been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD, etc. At my undergrad institution, people would sell Adderall in the library during exam week!

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