My first class at Cornell was Terrence Irwin’s 200-level Ethics lecture. It was a big-ideas kind of course. What is justice? What is fairness? When is it right to punish, praise or blame? I loved it — all of it — and have since devoted my undergraduate experience to grappling with its big ideas in the philosophy department, among other places.
To be sure, Professor Irwin deserves an ode, some poetic praise for his thoughtful manner, elegant curriculum and ever-present fanny pack. But this ode must be put on hold. There is a more pressing matter to consider. Why, when I think back on that course, do I remember not just late nights with classical texts or in-class repartee, but the ugly irony of a cluster of ethics students swapping answers to last night’s take-home quiz right outside the lecture hall, minutes before class? Why must I recall my neighbor to the right leaning forward to bum an answer off of another student, only to find out she had solicited a baby-faced, and now snarling, T.A.? Do we not care about doing the right thing or, at the very least, keeping our noses clean?
One problem in analyzing academic integrity on campus is that much of what we know comes to us in the form of anecdotes like the ones above. We tend to know who in our circles cheats; what classes in our majors allow for students to cheat; which professors in our colleges are tough and which are relaxed on matters of integrity. This type of knowledge is problematic because we don’t know the broader trends of attitudes and numbers of offenses, nor can we accurately gauge ourselves against past Cornellians or our peers across the Ivy League. As a member of the Arts & Sciences Academic Integrity Hearing Board, my knowledge of undergraduate cheating at Cornell is as good as anyone’s, but primarily informed by detailed accounts of individual stories — the cases that come to my board hearings. I do, however, get some access to the data on case volume, and here’s what I think:
Cheating is a regular part of the academic endeavor for a sliver of Cornellians. They commit some kind of fraud on many of their major assignments and think very little of it until some kind of reckoning is upon them — either an uncomfortable heart to heart with a professor or more formal proceedings. And a much larger group cheats occasionally, out of laziness or desperation, on assignments in courses they are uncomfortable with, usually first year writing seminars and required humanities courses outside of their majors. Finally, there are a lot of latent cheaters out there — students who would if they could, but don’t because of the increased absence of at-home, on-your-honor assignments.
For now, I am less interested in the cheater’s psyche than in the effects of his actions. While cheating may seem to be a solitary venture, it is not. Sure, there is the argument that cheating cheapens the Cornell degree and academia in general blah blah blah. But that argument, though valid, is difficult to quantify and boring. More meaningful for our education in the here and now is the fact that several professors have remarked to me that the prevalence of plagiarism (upwards of 10 percent on some assignments) has led them to forego assigning papers in favor of tests and in-class essays. For in-class assignments, cheaters are fewer and more difficult to identify. They want to avoid the headache of bringing charges against several students at a time, which, all-told, would take a full week’s work. So, as a consequence of cheating, we are quite literally getting an inferior education. We are taught by professors who feel partially limited in their teaching and testing.
They’re also partially soft, though, and so are we. Most cases I see on the hearing board involve students who blatantly plagiarize full paragraphs — I mean we’re talking cut and paste from Wikipedia blatant. But the punishment is typically to uphold the grade given to the students for the course (usually an F). No probation, no counseling, no suspension, no expulsion. And when I raise the concern of going too easy on these students, most everyone I talk to follows the red herring of obsessing over the “gray area” in which past academic experiences, culture and the newness of college life lead students to plagiarize without meaning to. These students are thereby guilty of only the minor, smiley offense of failing to discover the rules and seek out help on citations. It’s all learning. It’s all discovery. We’re all really good people since we’re at Cornell, right?
In considering a way forward on improving the integrity of Cornell undergraduates, we should remember that the gray area, while fun to muse about, doesn’t contain the vast majority of infractions on campus. No, there is a lot of cheating on our campus that goes unreported and unpunished, unquestioned and under-punished. Very little of it is “gray” and a great deal of it could be deterred by the specter of unavoidable, harsher punishments like those of our peer institutions. “Hey cheater, you lifted a paper off the web? See you in a year. You did it twice? Have a nice life.”
Fair-minded students and faculty alike should stand up and speak out against this ugly, hidden problem. That process starts with us turning in our classmates and students with greater frequency and dishing out harsher penalties. It continues with support of any and all reforms to the Academic Integrity Hearing Board system, which, in my experience has been a little soft on cheaters and a lot constrained in its scope of questions to be answered and punishments to be passed down. And this process never ends. We should view the molding of a more ethical student body as a continuing moral imperative.
Andrew Daines is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . The Right Stuff appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.