Cheating As A Rule

The possibility of a cheating scandal at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities has raised concern in many circles. So a recent story begins:

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — An unusually high number of students at Stanford University are suspected of cheating during the most recent term, putting faculty members and administrators of the prestigious institution on alert.

University Provost John Etchemendy sent a letter to faculty members highlighting what he called “troubling allegations” that stem from “a smattering of concerns from a number of winter courses,” the San Jose Mercury News reported Friday. Etchemendy said the students are cheating themselves and risk severe consequences.

When I taught at the University of Rhode Island years ago word came down to our department that a copy of someone’s logic final had gotten out. We all had to come in a 5:00 AM and write a common final exam that would be given to all students, even though there were five of us and we all taught the course differently. It was a nightmare and most students badly failed, I’m sorry to say. The innocent were punished along with the guilty. Later, it was learned that a plastic overlay from the mimeograph machine (remember them??) had been pilfered from the trash and was being used to sell copies of one of the finals at one of the fraternities. In any event, students lined up to buy the exam though someone eventually blew the whistle. We had no idea whose exam it was, and that’s why we all had to come up with a common exam. The administration knew which fraternity was involved, but that fraternity was never disciplined because the university “didn’t want a scandal.”

Cheating is not new, of course. Just recall Tom Lehrer’s wonderful song long ago about plagiarism and those who cheat, graduate, and are “forgotten with the rest.”  We have learned what universities will do to “avoid a scandal” — The Paterno scandal comes to mind. It seems that not only in athletics, but in the university climate as a whole the possibility of a scandal leads administrators to do strange things to “cover up.” That, in itself, is a scandal since the universities are supposed to lead by example and this is a very poor example indeed. But it appears to be the norm. The common defense is: hey, I’m just  doing what the others do — which seems to the cornerstone of this culture’s ethics  — so we should not be surprised.

Anyone who has taught at a college or university is familiar with the drill involved to check on the sources of student papers and watch carefully during exams to see that no one is looking where they shouldn’t be. It’s commonplace, though it most assuredly should not be.

So we have a perfect right to ask why and wish that it were otherwise. Stanford University has strict rules about cheating and that’s a good thing. Let’s hope those who are caught with their fingers in the cookie jar are appropriately punished. The notion that an action is perfectly right if others are doing it is the most shallow, even cynical, sort of ethics. Cheating is wrong. It may be widespread, but it is wrong — not only in universities, but anywhere.

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5 thoughts on “Cheating As A Rule

  1. Hugh, great post. When you tack on the business of essay writing, which may be even more rampant, it does cause you to question things. BTG

    • Indeed. I know professors who regularly go online to determine what the sources were for the latest shining essay. I used to have the students write their essays in class. You hate to be a policeman, but the situation demands it. Sad.

  2. It is alarming how little we think about “accountability” and hold all…even oneself…to that highest standard. I know, I know, Hugh…rose coloured glasses and all that…shame on me. No. Not me.

  3. Of course, the problem doesn’t stay on campus once the students leave — or in general. Too many of our big businesses and government leaders are also quite comfortable with cheating — stealing ideas, cutting corners, skimping on important research as long as there is some kind of marketable result, etc. — to make a profit or get ahead. Just as with your Rhode Island exam, the innocent suffer along with the guilty as a result. Actually, the innocent suffer even more far too often, and sometimes fatally. (Think of the Bush administration’s rush to judgment on WMDs in Iraq as a test-cheating scandal. Or the same with the persistence of pharmaceutical fraud.) I know a prof who, this year alone, started reading essays one day and realized that what he was reading was either familiar or far beyond the students’ writing capacities. He looked the content up online and, sure enough, it was plagiarized word for word. He failed the students instantly. That’s how it should be done.

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