Scandal!

When I was a young man fresh out of graduate school, PhD in hand and filled with optimism, I taught at the University of Rhode Island for two years. Rhode Island was a great place to live and the University was a good place to work. As a new player on the team of seven professors I was handed the chore of teaching several sections of logic along with a course in the history of philosophy. Two other members of the department taught logic as well, since it was a university requirement that all students at the university take the course (imagine that!). Thus there were seven or eight sections of the course taught in three different ways.

Strange to say, the university scheduled all of the logic finals to be given in the gymnasium on he same day at the same hour. Strange, because it caused endless conflicts and when I pointed out to the powers-that-be they they could avoid conflicts if they scheduled finals by the class schedule instead of subject matter, they told me “this is the way we have always done things.” So it was in New England. Much like Old England, so I hear.

Anyway, the morning when finals had been scheduled to begin I was called by the chairman of the department to report ASAP because somehow one of the final exams had gotten out and was being copied and spread around to young students eager to learn. It was about 5:00 AM as I recall and I hopped to it! When I arrived I spent a couple of hours with the other instructors putting together a common exam for all students as we had no idea whose final had been pilfered. Imagine that! Several hundred students were now going to take an exam made up by three different instructors who each taught the course a different way. It was bedlam. The students complained — with good reason — and I had to lower the curve to make sure at least half the class passed the course. All because some kid, as it turned out, rummaged through the trash bin outside the philosophy department and found the plastic sheet that in those days covered the mimeograph paper and was later tossed aside: it being possible to determine just what was on the plastic sheet with just a touch of pencil rubbed on the overlay. What we didn’t know was whose exam had been pilfered. So we needed to design a new one we could give to all our students.

After the event we discovered that a fraternity man found the exam and was selling it to long lines of students lined up that morning eager to find out what was on the impending examination — even though they had no idea whose exam it was since the instructor’s name was not on the final exam! Still, it was a mess. And the rationalization that went around was that this was not such a bad thing: it was no different from keeping a wallet found on the street. Really? I was outraged.

Not only because I had to get up at dawn and rush to the university and try to put together an exam with a couple of my fellows, but because the excuse sounded so hollow, I wrote my first ever letter to the student paper. (It was not my last, as my wife will attest. I am a bit compulsive about such things — which is why I blog, I guess.) Anyway my letter pointed out that rummaging around in a dumpster outside the philosophy department was hardly like finding a wallet on the street. The  analogy was not only weak but the ethical conclusion in both cases was bogus: in either case it was wrong to (a) keep the wallet and (b) make money by selling copies of the exam to other students. Some things are just wrong.

Within a week I had a call from the Dean’s office and was told to report as soon as “convenient.” I was told that the university did not want a scandal and I should let the matter drop. Being bold and a bit naive I asked what was going to happen to the fraternity responsible as everyone knew which one it was — as determined by the lines in front of a particular fraternity house the morning of the exam. He said the university would handle it and repeated that I should let the matter drop. What this translated to was sweeping the whole thing under the carpet in hopes of saving face. So much for integrity in the Ivory Tower!

Interestingly enough I had one student, a young woman majoring in mathematics, who earned a legitimate B+ — on an exam that asked questions about things we had never even discussed in class. How remarkable!  But the rest of the students suffered from the entire episode, needless to say. And the fraternity got off scot free in order to avoid a scandal! Was it then that I began to be just a bit cynical?

 

6 thoughts on “Scandal!

  1. I took every class you offered during the year I spent at Midwestern College in Denison, Iowa. Those were some of the best classes I took through my entire PhD program, even though I was a biologist. Yes, I took logic and lots of philosophy. I will never forget a final that included one simple demand: “Name three and tell why.” I really thought about all of the famous thinkers and philosophies we had studied that term, but was fascinated by the simplicity of the question. I finally wrote my answer: “Red, white and blue, my favorite colors”, which was one of a zillion acceptable responses. Those who picked three authors or concepts to explore were more at risk because they were graded on how correct their details were. That final provided a life lesson of pausing to look beyond the immediate question that has stuck with me. Thanks Hugh.

  2. Hugh, it sounds like “logic” was not used to set the schedule or react to the crisis. Maybe the replacement question should have been “if given the opportunity to review the exam beforehand, would you and, if so, would you be better for it and why?” Keith

  3. Dr. Curtler,

    Your recent post spurred a memory of a similar situation.

    One of my senior colleagues once taught a “self-paced: course wherein students read textbooks on their own and took exams at times of their own choosing in the Testing Center. The only stipulation was that all exams had to be completed by the end of term, at least in theory.

    After I had been teaching at the university a few years, but still lacked tenure, I found that a fraternity was selling pencils with keys to the exams etched into them. (It is a relevant point here that the instructor never changed the exams.) It was both ingenious and profitable. It was also a clear violation of the university code of student conduct.

    I provided undeniable proof of the cheating scheme to my department chair. In response, my senior colleague accused me of trying to make him look bad. I replied that not only was that not my intention but that the fraternity had already managed to do that very thing. He was not appeased by my answer. Passing strange.

    The response of the Dean of Students was even more interesting. He said it wouldn’t be fair to punish either the students or the fraternity because, after all, it was so easy to cheat given the format of the course and of the exams. In effect, it wasn’t really their fault they cheated; it was the instructor’s fault for making cheating easy in the first place.

    Luckily, our new Chancellor caught wind of this matter and saw to it that the students who were running the cheating scheme were disciplined (but not expelled). Further, he initiated a review of self-paced courses which led to their discontinuation — much to the chagrin of my senior colleague who was, in effect, being payed to teach courses that weren’t taught. Losing this sinecure lead him to work against me, and my tenure, at every turn. (i was relatively lucky in that almost everyone ignored him.)

    My tale is similar in theme to yours, involving both (a) a fraternity, and (b) an unwillingness to directly confront the ethical issues at hand.

    Would that this had been my only experience of this kind.

    Regards and respects,

    Jerry Stark`

  4. Very interesting. I am not surprised that there are other stories like mine, just disappointed. One would think that academia would house people of integrity who would want to do the right thing. Ha!

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