Cheating: The Experts Weigh In

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on July 26, 2011

On July 18, the Bloomberg Businessweek Getting In blog publicized the story of NYU Stern Professor Panos Ipeirotis, who caught 20 percent of his class cheating and found the effort he put into rooting out the cheaters was not worth it. In the future, Ipeirotis said he would assign projects requiring more original thought to creatively channel the energies of his highly competitive students.

Some of those who commented on the blog faulted Ipeirotis, blamed the cheating on the Stern grading curve, or said that cheating was common at many schools. Bloomberg Businessweek asked two ethics experts about the views they expressed.

David Callahan is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in New York. He has a Ph.D. in politics and has written extensively about ethics on his blog for years and in his book, The Cheating Culture, published in 2004.

John Gallagher is an associate dean for the executive MBA program at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, where one of his responsibilities is to prosecute honor code violations. Duke dealt with its own cheating scandal in 2007. It’s use of the episode to reinforce the honor code was applauded by many.

Below is an edited transcript of their interview with reporter Kiah Lau Haslett.

What was your reaction to this story?

David Callahan: I’m not surprised at the high level of cheating among business students; research tells us that business students cheat at among the highest rates of students. I think that a lot of professors often get a lot of pushback for exposing cheating. A professor at the University of Central Florida reported a lot of cheating and he was subjected to a lot of attacks to him as a teacher, that it was somehow his fault. I think there’s a lot of rationalization of students about cheating: They don’t find it surprising and people are cynical. They assume there’s a lot of cheating and it’s not a big deal.

Why do students plagiarize?

David Callahan: I think you have to look at the real, underlying causes. Students are extremely anxious today, they’re incurring record levels of debt to go to college, and they’re relying on scholarships and grants dependent upon maintaining a certain GPA. College is no longer the last stop; now it’s a stepping-stone to a professional school and graduate school. College transcripts and GPA really matter. On the one hand, there’s more pressure than ever before to cheat, and on the other hand there’s a tremendous amount of cynicism. When a professor complains about cheating and points it out, students push back in a cynical way and say, “This is commonplace. What’s the big deal?” Or they push back in a defensive way and say, “The pressure’s on me to get good grades and cheating is one way to do it.”

What are some assignments that make it easy for students to cheat or plagiarize? What are some assignments where it's harder to cheat?

John Gallagher: If you are giving a proctored exam in a closed room, there's going to be far less opportunity than if you are giving an assignment that requires people to do analysis and make recommendations. Many institutions use case studies, so it's likely that somewhere you can find someone who has done an analysis of the case. I think that any time you ask students to personalize their work, talking about its applications and concept, it's very much more difficult. No one has written that material and it's unique.

What is the professor's role or responsibility to ensure students don't cheat?

David Callahan: The responsibility on professors in this day and age is to teach in such a way that makes it harder for students to cheat. They need to take seriously the responsibility to reduce the amount of cheating. It doesn't just fall on students to not cheat. Lots of professors feel overburdened as it is, in terms of their teaching obligations. Many don't want to make the extra effort in reducing cheating, and unfortunately they have to make that effort.

Is this the curve's fault?

David Callahan: A zero-sum game where students have to compete against other students exacerbates the situation. Nobody wants to be the chump who's honest when everyone else is cheating and you're in direct competition for grades.

John Gallagher: I don't think so. [At Fuqua] we have a recommended grade distribution that our professors follow, but they are never required to give a low pass or a failing grade. There's no need for students to cheat. There are all kinds of people who cheat for all kinds of reasons. I don't think that you would ever say that the primary factor or force that leads students to cheat is there's some kind of a curve.

What should the punishment be for students caught cheating? Maximum? Minimum?

David Callahan: For the most part there's typically very little punishment for cheaters, which is one reason why there's so much cheating. You typically get punished with a slap on the wrist: flunk a paper, flunk a class. Rarely are they suspended or expelled. Of course, there are different gradations of punishment. But I think there needs to be more. One incentive to cheat is that the punishment is lax or minimal. If there's no punishment there's no deterrent.

John Gallagher: For us, the maximum punishment is rescinding the degree. We've had five cases of alumni where it was later discovered they cheated in one of their courses and their degrees were revoked. The next is that people are simply expelled from the university and there is a notation on their official university transcript stating they were dismissed from the university because of a cheating conviction.

The least severe punishment I have ever seen is mandatory failing of the course, but in our particular world that has significant ramifications. Anyone who fails a course must take a mandatory one-year leave of absence before being allowed to return to retake the failed course and finish the program. Everyone who graduates must have a minimum 3.0 GPA. If you can imagine a five-semester program with a conviction of cheating the fourth semester and you were given a grade of F in a course, looking at the number of courses remaining, it might be mathematically impossible to maintain a GPA and you'd be academically dismissed.

What do you do when a cheating conviction happens? What happens to the student?

John Gallagher: I never speak to companies [who sponsor EMBA students] because of student privacy issues, but I have witnessed the impact of convictions on students. In my experience, companies treat this very severely. It's a severe violation of ethics and it is not something that I would ever expect a company would ignore or have a wink-wink-nudge-nudge attitude toward at all. In many cases, these companies are paying students' tuition and if they're not financially involved, then they've given them the time they need. They are stakeholders in the student's education, and now the student is caught in an extremely awkward situation having to explain the circumstances. It is very serious. It can destroy someone's career and professional reputation.

What should a school do when this happens?

David Callahan: One reason higher education doesn't confront the crisis of cheating is there are bigger fish to fry and people are judged on other things: money raised, times they're published, prestige of their department. So if I was an administrator with no incentive to do anything about cheating, I would hope the issue goes away. If I did want to take an issue and make progress on it, I would take a closer look at the honor code in place. When colleges focus attention on issues, they can change campus culture: date rape, alcohol abuse, multiculturalism. Many problems get solved when you throw resources at them and I would want to have some serious resources to address [cheating].

John Gallagher: I think the institutional response should be absolutely clear: That they stand behind the instructor and will prosecute students who cheat in an absolutely fair way. There's a wide spectrum of values and beliefs in our society, but when you come to an institution of higher learning, that institution has a responsibility to be clear about values, expectations and standards, and that if you flagrantly disregard them, there are consequences for that behavior. You can't change their beliefs. If they believe cheating is fine, but you can make them aware that the consequences are severe, they cheat at their own risk.

One person, who identified himself as an NYU student, left a comment on Bloomberg Businessweek's original blog post on the cheating episode at Stern. It said, in part, "If you're not cheating, you're not trying." Please respond.

David Callahan: That's kind of a stupid and cynical attitude, sort of flippant. It's not a serious comment.

John Gallagher: It's ludicrous.

Reader Comments


August 1, 2011 4:53 PM

Wow. Thank you for writing about this topic. I've known many people who have cheated and rationalized it in different ways. From "There's just to much to do" to "I'll cheat now and learn later."

I've also discussed the issue with professors who, like the one mentioned above, feel it's not worth the energy to proactively address cheaters.

I actually am currently interning with The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and will share this story on The Big Q which covers college ethics and is focusing on a cheating case this week. You can find us at

Karen Blakeley

August 3, 2011 4:48 AM

The research evidence clearly shows that people will go along with practices that are endorsed by their peers. Peer group norms are one of the strongest influences on ethical behaviour (commonly rationalised as 'everybody's doing it'). One of the most powerful weapons to change the ethical climate is to put in place punishments for transgressions of the rules, enforce them ruthlessly and publicise the results so that everyone knows what happens when you cheat.

Bob Bichen

August 3, 2011 10:11 PM

I graduated high school in 1985, college in 1989, and am currently enrolled in a well regarded state MBA program in the Midwest. Never, in my wildest dreams, would I have imagined that cheating is so widespread. Perhaps it is generational or maybe I am an odd duck, but I have never cheated on an exam or paper and never will. The way I figured it is that I would just be cheating myself as learning is cumulative. For those who consider cheating, knock it off. Focus your efforts and get it done. A hollow degree secured by ill gotten efforts will do you no good when you actually need to show the skills that you supposedly have acquired.


August 7, 2011 10:07 PM

Behavior based on fear of punishment is pretty low on the moral development scale. Somehow, students need to learn personal ethics (the difficult question to answer is how). This is pretty much a Kantian moral imperative--there is no acceptable level of cheating (a little bit of cheating is not OK). When I was in business school one of my professors told me that many faculty no longer assigned research papers because plagiarism was so rampant. I was shocked; I was raised to do the right thing regardless of the potential for getting caught. I did not observe cheating in business school, but if they were it was probably because they were gaining an MBA simply as a credential and really didn’t care if they learned anything. This seemed particularly true of those with full-time jobs who didn’t really have the time to apply to studies. I watched them cherry-pick assignments, completing work or reading assignments only if it was involved in the grade and skipping everything else. No doubt for them it was also easier to cheat on exams or reuse someone else’s paper.

Davis Prof

January 2, 2012 10:47 AM

When I arrived at my last university teaching job in 1974 I asked my office mate what he could tell me about the students at my new school and he replied, "They cheat." He was right. Later in 1989 our school - a medium-sized state school - surveyed its graduating class about cheating. Over 70% of the student said they had cheated on a serious test or paper, most said repeatedly. As the incoming chair of the faculty that year I tried to get my colleagues to address the issue as a university-wide project and not one individual in either the faculty or administration would come to a meeting on the subject. On the first day of my last semester on the job in 2006 I told my students I would punish all cheating as severely as I could. In fact, 40% of students in my previous semester had been given failing grades on their final term papers for cheating. When I told my last class what I would do if I caught them, 35% dropped the (required) course before the next class.

Is it any wonder what is going on in the business world or in public education? If the all too common response to pressure or work load in school is to cheat, why shouldn't we expect this to carry over into the workplace or to teachers changing test results to make their class look good. Cheating is viewed by most as easier than work. Look at the studies showing how much of their employers' time individuals spend on personal internet activity when at work. Watch what happens at stop signs these days. A friend of mine wrote a song about this years ago, ".. everyone's a dodger." It takes an effort to resist the temptation to dodge the rules. Not many seem to want to make that effort any more.


January 21, 2012 1:49 PM

While the article is interesting, it neglects to comment on the fact that cheating is occurring not just in MBA programs and colleges, but in our high schools. Competition and competitive MBA students may exacerbate the problem and be a more visible forum, but the actual activity and behavior has been "rewarded" for many years prior to ever enrolling in our colleges and universities. To fix the MBA/college problem we need to have families "man up" and confront their children. Otherwise, there will be no resolution of this problem - it has become too engrained.


February 7, 2012 5:11 AM

he had been (20 years) he sulhod have more tact than he showed in his videos. I also dare to say I agree with the students on how they reacted in their reply video. Now, I of course watch and take that with a “grain of salt”, but if indeed the majority of them were trying to study from the publisher’s test booklet- how were the students to know that the professor copied all of his exams from them? I feel like neither side was completely in the right. Though, if the students indeed were studying… what’s the big deal with doing it again? If they were cheating- then now at least they had a chance to learn it and “try again”. As for the video “war” that went on- I definitely think the professor sulhod NOT have posted his tantrum all over the internet. And you make a valid point- what if a prospective employer noticed that someone was in that class- and it cost them a job? Though, if I was an employer I would never base my hiring off some video war between a class of 600+ students and a professor duked it out on. Of course, everyone is different though.

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