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.

Paterno As Scapegoat

In the wake of the massive penalties levied against Penn State by the NCAA there was shock and dismay in State College recently. An astonishing number of people still cannot accept the fact that Joe Paterno was part of the cover-up of his assistant coach’s  attacks on young boys. A reporter for ESPN mentioned that a number of people he spoke with regard Paterno as a scapegoat who is being made to take the blame for errors in judgment by those above him.

Apparently they haven’t been paying attention: they haven’t read or heard about the Freeh report in which is was made clear that the man not only knew about Sandusky’s behavior as early as 1998, but was unwilling to report the behavior to his superiors upon first hearing of it because it was a Friday and he didn’t want to disturb authorities on the weekend!  And he continued to stonewall as boys continued to be attacked in his own facility which he ruled over with absolute power.

There is such a thing as denial, and this may simply be such a case: group denial. But there is also such a thing as stupidity and I suspect this is closer to what we have here. I understand it would be hard for those who held Paterno in very high regard to admit that he is guilty as sin — not because they believe he was above suspicion, but because it would mean that they were wrong about the man. We have more trouble assimilating this sort of shock when it’s about ourselves, and those who thought Paterno was a Saint (yes, that’s what has been reported) must have suffered quite a shock to their reality principle as they were very wrong.

For years I sat on a committee at my university that heard student appeals after they had received poor grades and were dismissed for academic reasons. Students had the opportunity to try to convince a committee of fellow-students and faculty that there were extenuating reasons for their failure and some of them were at times given another semester to get their grades up to par. One of my close academic friends on the committee was an economist and we often looked at one another in dismay as we heard about dead grandmothers, broken promises, sick girlfriends (or cats), and a host of other excuses that the students tended to fall back upon with remarkable regularity. One of the most common lines of defense was the argument that the student had a learning disability. Students would usually appear in front of the committee with the head of the “Learning Resources Center” who would attest to the student’s inability to read and write because of this supposed “learning disability.” Some of them had legitimate disabilities and we usually took pity on them. But one day after hearing this excuse for the umpteenth time from a student who was clearly grasping at straws my friend looked at me and said “stupidity is also a learning disability.” He was right on. There are legitimate learning disabilities, but there are also hollow excuses. And once you have heard a few you learn to recognize them. There is such a thing as stupidity.

We believe what we want to believe and we insist those things are true that make us comfortable. This seems to be human nature and we are all a bit guilty of this tendency. Instead of looking at the evidence and working through it with our critical faculties, we jump to the closest comfortable conclusion and cling to it for dear life. It’s hard to let go. But at some point it is just plain stupid to continue to deny the plain truth when it is staring you in the face.

Joe Paterno was involved in the Sandusky scandal up to his bushy eyebrows and thick spectacles. And while we can understand how difficult it is for those who held him in high regard to admit it, we must wonder at their unwillingness to succumb to a truth so glaringly apparent. There is denial, which is to be expected. Then there is learning disability, which is legitimate in many cases. And then there is just plain stupidity.

Courting Latin America

President Obama is in Latin America attempting to build economic bridges with that region of the world in the hope that it will boost his reelection prospects. He wants to convince voters in this country that our economy will recover as new trade relations are solidified with our neighbors to the South. The officials in that region of the world, meanwhile, are distressed over the fact that the U.S. is perceived as ignoring them out of a misplaced concern with the Middle East. Perhaps so. In any event, the President’s visit has been marred by a scandal involving eleven (at last count) of his security people who seem to have an uncontrollable urge toward promiscuity, and the fact that the U.S. has insisted that Cuba be denied involvement in the next Summit of the Americas.

The story begins: CARTAGENA, Colombia (Reuters) – A prostitution scandal involving U.S. security personnel in Colombia and an unprecedented regional push to end the isolation of Cuba threatened on Saturday to eclipse President Barack Obama’s charm offensive to Latin America.

I am less alarmed by the prostitution scandal — which is certainly disturbing on many levels — than by the fact that the U.S. voted to deny Cuba access to the Summit when 32 countries in that region of the world insisted that Cuba be invited to participate. A number of Latin American countries, including pro-U.S.A. Colombia, have said they will not participate in the next Summit without the involvement of Cuba. I realize that there are real-world political problems with cozying up to Cuba, but this is about sending messages to that part of the world and starting anew. Allowing Cuba to attend the Summit does not necessitate renewed friendship with that country and it just might help build those economic bridges.

Ours is a President, after all, who ran on a policy of open government, the desire to open lines of communication with others — certainly other nations. We should have learned by this time that turning a deaf ear to a country, any country, can be a mistake of gigantic proportions. It is always preferable to talk to people, even people with whom we are ideologically opposed, than it is to take a stance of hard-line opposition. Our acknowledgement of the importance of Cuba to that region is an important element in opening lines of communication with other nations in Latin America, and the resentment that our denial has stirred outweighs the sexual scandal that is grabbing most of the headlines around the world.

In any case, the prestige of this nation and the reputation of this President as a man with an open mind and a willingness to engage in dialogue with anyone may have been irreparably harmed. The scandal involving a group of men who surround the President and apparently can’t keep it in their pants didn’t help, either. In the meantime, China has stepped in and maintains the upper hand in the region with trade agreements that portend the continued economic ascendency of that country at a time when the prestige and economic clout of the United States seem to be in serious jeopardy.

The Cover-Up Culture

One of the things that has come out of the scandal at Penn State is the realization that there is a cover-up culture in large universities where Division I athletics reign supreme. That term was coined in the cover story that recently appeared in Sports Illustrated detailing the scandal at Penn State. But the notion that misbehavior, from simple cheating to felonies like rape and assault, need to be hushed up “to save the reputation of the university” is common. Not that all aberrant behavior, even at Penn State, manages to stay “in-house.” For example, it was reported by E.S.P.N. that in Happy Valley between 2002 and 2008, 46 players had been charged with a total of 163 crimes ranging from public urination to murder. The fact that these cases did not get national attention at the time is evidence of the immense influence the football coach at Penn State had not only at the university but in the region as well.  Until recent events surrounding the accusations against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State was generally regarded as “a haven of virtue,” as noted in Sports Illustrated.

For the most part, at Penn State Joe Paterno held immense power and saw to it that whenever possible  any misbehavior on the part of one of his football players was handled by the coaches and never got to the judicial board that handled all other student cases.  It is common for football teams like Paterno’s to have separate housing, separate practice and training facilities (even separate from the other athletic teams), to eat their meals as a group, and regard themselves as privileged members apart from the university community. This obviously breeds insularity and a feeling that the group is all that matters and rules do not apply, except for those made by the coaches. Needless to say, the education of the athletes is of minor importance. “There’s an emphasis on athletics that necessarily results in a de-emphasis on everything else,” according to Penn State journalism professor Russell Frank. “But a lot of us owe our jobs to [Paterno], and that’s attributable to how high-profile the football program has been.” ‘Best not to bite the hand that feeds us.

But the universities are at fault to allow this to happen, and all criticism should not be directed at the athletic teams. In principle, it is a relatively simple matter for the university president to disallow this sort of insularity and insist that the athletes be treated the same as all other students. However, it would be supremely difficult at a place like Penn State, because of the immense power that Paterno had, and the football team will doubtless continue to have. Additionally, it would be difficult for any single university to take the lead here, because the athletes expect and like the special treatment and they will seek out other teams that treat them as royalty and avoid any institution that doesn’t treat them as such. Furthermore, the universities are steeped in the cover-up culture, concerned about their reputation and willing to look the other way to protect their image. Thus we can expect the cover-ups to continue.

This short-term thinking that equates protecting the reputation of the university with secrecy in the face of misconduct extends beyond the athletics programs, of course. The “cover-up culture” permeates large — and even small — colleges and universities. In point of fact, I was involved in such a cover-up at the University of Rhode Island years ago when it was discovered that a fraternity had gotten a copy of the final exam in a logic class and those of us who were teaching logic had to get up at 5:00 AM the morning of the exam and pool our resources to put together another exam at the last minute — in spite of the fact that we all taught the class differently: no one knew whose exam had gotten out. When it was revealed that one of the fraternities on campus was selling the exam to other students — lined up into the street outside the frat house — absolutely nothing was done. Thinking the fraternity should at the very least be put on probation, I raised my voice in protest and was called into the Dean’s office and told to cool off. I was a lowly Instructor without tenure, so I did as I was told. But it was clear to me that the university didn’t want a “scandal” and wanted to keep things under wraps. They feared bad publicity above all else. In my way, I saw first hand how insidious is the cover-up culture. Imagine how intense the pressure must be in a large university with an athletic program that brings in millions of dollars to keep things “in-house” and make sure misconduct is hushed up.

It all comes down to priorities, of course, and it exemplifies, among other things, short-term thinking. But consider the irony: the cover-ups at Penn State that were supposed to preserve the university’s good name have resulted in a sullied reputation that will take years to clean up. The $1.5 recently pledged by that university to help abused children as recompense for the atrocities charged against Jerry Sandusky is a first step. But it is a small step in light of the atrocities alleged against an assistant football coach and the cover-up that followed.

The encouraging thing is that at least one other major university seems to have gotten the message. Syracuse University recently fired an assistant basketball coach who has allegedly abused young boys. This appeared, on the surface, to be a quick, no-nonsense response to allegations that would most assuredly taint the university’s reputation. We shall see if the effects of the Penn State scandal have long-term effects. Something has to give.

The Paterno Scandal

It appears that Joe Paterno did not break the law in not coming forward and making a greater effort to put an end to the atrocities that were taking place in his world. Today he has announced that he will retire at the end of this season. This, of course, solves nothing. The legal issue will be sorted in the courts, but the moral issues loom much larger and require deep thought. At this point, I dare say, the “who’s to say?” group will raise their hue and cry and insist that morality is just a matter of opinion. But this is absurd. As Hannah Arendt has noted, “there is a distinction between right and wrong, and it is an absolute distinction, unlike distinctions between large and small, heavy and light, which are relative; and, second, every human being is able to make this distinction.” It is self-evident that Mother Teresa was a good woman; it is self-evident that Hitler was an evil person. We can debate these things, but we all know this to be the case.

Joe Paterno was morally culpable if he knew about and was in a position to put a stop to the atrocities that were occurring in his own football program. Responsibility implies knowledge and ability. Given his lofty position at Penn State — some say he is higher in the hierarchy than even the President of that University — and his apparent knowledge of what his favorite assistant was up to, Jeo Paterno has much to answer for. Morality trumps the law in every case.