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?

 

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.

The Tail of That Dog

I have written about the tail that wags the dog for many years and general awareness has increased; none the less, the problem isn’t any closer to being solved. I speak of the inordinate amount of money and time spent on athletics, especially in NCAA Division I schools, that seriously undermine the higher purpose of education. A recent article in Sports Illustrated about the scandal at The University of North Carolina focuses the issue nicely. The author, a graduate of UNC, turns his attention to the weakening of the academic program that is in direct proportion to the rise of the athletics programs at one of the most prestigious Division I schools. He raises the question”How Did Carolina Lose Its Way?”

It is especially disturbing to see the problem growing in the face of the inordinate costs of athletics, reflected in the fact that public universities, like UNC, now spend three to six times as much on athletics per athlete as they do on academics per student. Even more remarkable is the fact that the average amount of money lost, I repeat, lost, on athletics among Division I public universities is $11.6 million each year. So the myth that athletics brings in the dough turns out to be just that, a myth — except for those schools at the top of the pyramid, including the University of North Carolina where the cost of athletics has grown from $9.1 million in 1984 to $83 million last year, and the cost to the university in the reduction of the quality of education is beyond rubies.

The problem doesn’t end with the cost to the athletics program at that university. It extends into the classroom as well. At UNC where the recent controversy centers around the Department of African and African-American Studies, the main problem started to appear in 1993, the year that a woman by the name of Debbie Crowder headed up the AFAM department. The SI story describes the program she initiated in which

She began to devise “paper classes.” The “shadow curriculum” run by Crowder and department head Julius Nyang’oro “required no class attendance or course work other than a single paper, and resulted in consistently high grades that Crowder awarded without reading the papers,” the report said. (Crowder retired in 2009 and Nyang’oro was forced to retire in ’11). A disproportionate 47.4% of the enrollees in AFAM classes were athletes, mostly the football and men’s basketball players.”

The problem at UNC also includes “special admits,” the alarming number of students who are admitted to the university with “rock-bottom SAT verbal scores of 200,” scores well below the acceptable level, coupled by the placement of those students very carefully into special classes designed to guarantee their success — at the university if not in later life. One is put in mind of the parent who allows his child to continue to eat candy thinking they are doing the child a favor while, in fact, the child’s teeth are rotting out. In any event, as it happens, the problem at UNC goes beyond the AFAM program and included

“philosophy lecturer Jan Boxill, who was chair of the faculty and head of UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics (!), [who] was discharged last October for steering athletes into sham courses, doctoring students’ papers, and sanitizing an official report in an attempt to shield the athletics department from NCAA scrutiny. From 2004 to 2012, The Daily Tar Heel reported, Boxill also taught 160 independent studies — 20 in one semester. (The standard runs between one and three per year).”

Those independent studies courses, of course, were a joke. But apparently the fox was caught guarding the chicken coop! (A philosophy professor, I shudder to admit, and chair of an Ethics Center to boot!) But the problem extended beyond the playing fields and the gymnasium as students across campus became aware of the “cake courses” being offered by various departments. According to the report, those taking Crowder’s “paper classes” numbered  3,100 students, the majority of whom were not athletes.  This is not new — students will always find the easy courses to help their GPA — but it has simply grown by leaps and bounds at North Carolina, where some courses aren’t even real courses, but most are encouraged by the demands of the athletics department.

Thus does the infection begin to seep into the bowels of the university itself and infect the entire student body. A recent book by two professors at UNC, Cheated: The UNC Scandal: The Education of Athletes and The Future of Big-Time College Sports, focuses attention on the problems at that university, where “We show pretty persuasively that it all started with easy-grade-independent studies in the late ’80s for a handful of weak students on the men’s basketball team and mushroomed from there.” But as the SI article points out, the issue is broad and deep. The author of the article asks in discussing the current situation with the new chancellor at UNC, where things have reportedly been put straight, “. . . [whether] the money in college sports — at least $16 billion in TV contracts alone — [makes] ‘the right way’ impossible”? That is the $64 million question. In saying this, however, it is important to point out that it isn’t only at the University of North Carolina where these sorts of problems exist. They are becoming all-too common, not to say prevalent. The tail is indeed wagging the dog.