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.