Two weeks ago Harry Lewis, professor of computer science at Harvard College, spoke at Cornell. His book, Excellence Without a Soul, questions the effects a consumer culture has had on undergraduate education, including the instrumental approach that many students take toward learning. On the snowiest day of our winter, many professors and some students showed up to hear Professor Lewis’ thoughts. A discussion about teaching, learning and the future of higher education ensued. I expected the experience to be meaningful given the caliber of the people involved. What I did not expect to hear was how thoroughly pervasive plagiarism has become in undergraduate education.
In preparation for his visit, I had read Professor Lewis’ book. I was already familiar with some of the plagiarism cases he included. Most memorable is the one where the student brings back his exam to the professor complaining of mistaken grading. The professor, not born yesterday as the saying goes, had photocopied the original exam. When he produced it showing the wrong answer in the original, the student did not blanch. Rather he then returned with a sworn statement from his father that he, the father, had inadvertently changed the answers but failed to tell his son — an exonerating explanation!
My mouth drops every time I hear that story. Junior faculty and students were non-plussed. That’s nothing in an environment where half the class has cheated on homework at least routinely in a semester. WHAT!?! Half the class? Oh yea. Some enterprising student has found the instruction manual and posted it on line. Professors find out when there is a mistake in a manual that half the class has produced in kind. Okay, one, maybe? No. Go to the next meeting, in another department, and the overall story is the same. And did you hear similar cases at Dartmouth, Penn or Princeton? It is not just a Cornell phenomenon.
Wait, as Billy Mays would say, there is still more. Don’t you know about GradeGuru or CourseHero? These are examples of sites that encourage, even pay, people to post homework sets, papers and exams? And guess who owns at least one of those sites? McGraw-Hill, a major textbook publisher! Heartbreak penetrated my shock. An Indian national graduate student raised his hand. How does an honest student compete in a world where so many people cheat and plagiarize?
While technology undoubtedly has amplified the problem, it did not cause it; the problem lies deeper in modeling appropriate behavior to young people. How often do we turn a blind eye to ethical lapses both big and small: the mistake we fail to correct at the grocery store because this time it was in our favor; the file sharing of our primary and secondary school children rationalized on the grounds that everyone is doing it, the record companies deserve it and by God, it is so easy. Is it any wonder, then, when revered corporations such as Enron collapse before our eyes? How about when entire flocks of trusted investment firms and commercial banks fail? That greed has overwhelmed hyper-rational minds from recognizing disastrous degrees of financial risk at the expense of our economy and the lives of untold millions of people around the world should be no surprise.
Let’s stop the cover up of plagiarism. Much of it occurs, I am learning, in freshman and sophomore introductory courses filled with large numbers of students, taught by junior faculty under tremendous pressure not to make waves while under scrutiny for tenure. Let’s face it: it is an embarrassment for a college or university, although I submit that the failure to address it straightforwardly will cause the more enduring harm. But we cannot approach the issue in the traditional manner or capriciously. The current system places to great a burden on individual faculty who would, under the circumstances, appear to have perverse incentives: pursing these matters lowers course evaluations, takes their severely limited time away from research for promotion and unfortunately personalizes the issue when it is not personal at all, but a violation against the University, which itself bares responsibility to shape the research habits of students.
Consequently, there are at least three things we can and should do immediately. First, create a reasonable process to adjudicate the violations. The current process is weighted too heavily on junior faculty and departments. It needs to involve a wider segment of the University focused on the contemporary type of academic integrity problems including new technological means. We also need a comprehensive system of managing these cases. Students struggling with academic integrity might well be at risk in other areas. A more complete picture of the student will enable us to help them. Second, let’s recalibrate the disciplinary procedure. Distinctions should be made between types of transgressions. For example, more benign failures to cite sources might require a response different from the intentional purchase of papers or lies about authenticity. In addition, a first offense for a freshman’s failure to cite a source properly is an educational moment; the third sequential offense is not, especially when the student advances in status to an upper classman.
Finally, a comprehensive approach would take advantage of existing programs designed to address the problem from the instructor’s perspective. For example, Cornell Information Technologies has a basic information site, digitalliteracy.cornell.edu. It includes basic information on copyright, plagiarism, Internet research and privacy. Faculty and students should use it, or other similar sources available freely, as a guide before instruction begins to level set the rules of the academic road. Coordination among and between this and other initiatives to assist faculty in realizing Cornell’s teaching missions should be interwoven with promotion and tenure processes explicitly endorsed by the president, provost and deans.
Overwhelmed by a drive to attract students, we may have inadvertently developed a tendency to treat students like customers to the detriment of their well-being. Let us not forget what separates an .edu from a .com. It is our moral fiber and a commitment to our missions. We value open inquiry, free expression and the originality of ideas while standing on the shoulders of giants and in collaboration with others. We should expect no less from the students whom we have invited into our scholarly community. Most students will go into a world of ruthless competition, technologically enhanced violations of personal privacy and portfolios that shape identities derived for financial ends. Some may even rise to the level of political or fiscal leadership for this country or around the world. If we are earnest in our endeavor to create ethical leaders we must do the soul-searching necessary to embrace reforms that realize our unique missions. Let us not fall into the trap of treating a student like a commodity. In addition to all the accolades that an outstanding research community such as Cornell University deserves, that effort might model meaningful learning and bring our institution genuine distinction.
Tracy Mitrano is the director of IT Policy and Computer Policy and Law Programs for the Office of Information Technologies at Cornell. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org Guest Room appears periodically this semester.