Cheaters in the Making?
Remember that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach when the New York Times published the story of our misreported SAT scores last year? Well, I think it’s safe to say that those back East are reaching for their Tums right now.
Earlier this month, in the culmination of an investigation ongoing since August, Harvard University forced around 70 undergraduate students to withdraw for plagiarizing and collaborating on a final exam. Harvard was not alone, either. In September, Amherst College Professor Carleen Basler resigned from her job, admitting that her published materials contained improper citations and unattributed quotations. When a University with “Veritas” as its motto and an academic about to receive tenure face situations like this, it becomes difficult to deny that cheating is everywhere.
What remains harder to accept is that cheating happens at home, but if we pretend that it does not occur here we are kidding ourselves. Last year, the Academic Standards Committee reviewed 23 potential cases and found 20 students to be in violation of CMC’s Academic Integrity Policy. Recent surveys indicate that 18% of students and 40% of faculty, out of 494 and 115 respondents, respectively, consider cheating to be a serious problem at CMC. Students who felt that cheating is a serious problem here identified Economics, Math, and Science as the disciplines in which the issue is most severe. Almost in unison, 61% of students and 62% of faculty reported awareness of instances of cheating at CMC.
If you do not buy the numbers, then try this: take a close look around you and in the mirror. How many of your peers handily duck out of exams to “go to the bathroom?” How many times have you heard an offhand remark about a copied assignment? And, most importantly, how often are these stories disregarded? The real problem at CMC is not just that cheating is happening. It is that we do nothing to stop it.
We can easily see why this might be. For one thing, it is often our friends who are cheating. We love them, and so we struggle to condemn their actions. For another, our student body cares about collaboration. We despise the competitive nature of institutions where students fight one another for grades. And so we would rather turn a blind eye than turn a peer in. This strong sense of community makes CMC the incredible place that it is. But the way this manifests itself in our toleration of academic dishonesty cannot continue. Good intentions or not, condoning wrongs is still wrong.
In order to preclude cheating, it seems important to first ascertain why it occurs. David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, says that, nationally, “students cite a wide range of factors in explaining their cheating, including time pressures, the ease of cheating via the Internet, and the tolerance of cheating by faculty.” In general, once a few students begin cheating, others feel compelled to follow in order to “level the playing field.” Other oft-cited factors include competitive job markets and acceptance to graduate schools. What is it some say about CMCers? “We’ll sell our souls for a keg and an internship?” It is no challenge to see where the motivations to cheat originate.
Changing attitudes towards cheating will not be easy. The administration has already made steps in that direction through more frequent explanations of policies regarding academic integrity and a survey on the same topic that Dean Hess recently sent to the student body. But a top-down enforcement mechanism will not resolve the underlying problem. We, the students, embody CMC’s culture, passing along the lifestyle we uphold from one class to another. And so it remains up to us to decide what sort of culture we will leave here as our legacy. This is not a decision that can wait until we already have one foot out the door. It is both a challenge and an opportunity, and we must accept it now.
To explain how I think we might do this, let me make a comparison. In general, CMCers are fiercely proud of the school’s “lenient” alcohol policies, thanks to which red cups are practically a part of campus architecture. The lax regulation symbolizes the administration’s trust in us. They treat us like the dependable people we are, and in return we earn that trust. We drink responsibly and call our RAs when we need help, and after reading news about campuses across the nation, it’s apparent that we send fewer students to the hospital every year than peer institutions with far stricter policies.
I am not claiming a perfect parallel between our approach to Saturday nights and Monday morning classes. But I do think there is a lesson to be learned. We are capable of earning responsibility, and we are proud of the fact that we have done so. If we can do it at a party, we can do it in the classroom, too. My suggestions include student representation on the Academic Standards Committee, a student-written honor code, and a stronger curricular emphasis on academic integrity, seemingly common sense solutions that surprisingly are not in place. These ideas are just a starting point, yes. But we have to start somewhere.
I love this school. And that is precisely why I cannot accept that we have settled for so much less than we are—that we take seriously the professor who threatens to fail anyone who cheats in his class and then blatantly lets it happen; that we allow a friend to lose out on the job of her dreams because her Econ class was graded on a curve and someone else cheated to get the A; or that we sit back and let student after student suffer because other people break the rules. Cheating is not wrong just because it hurts some far-off institution called Academia. It is wrong because it hurts everyone around you.
So do not settle. Please, if nothing else, leave a comment. Change does not have its own voice. Give it yours.
After CMC publicly announced the misreporting of our SAT scores, Emory and Bucknell soon followed suit. It is not much of a stretch to imagine that the same will happen again. Harvard is not the only school where cheating is a problem, but rather one of the few honest enough to address it. Let us follow that initiative preemptively and try to preclude cheating at CMC before it happens. As far as I am concerned, the New York Times can write what it wants. What matters is not how it depicts us, but how we really are. And, quite frankly, I think we can and should be better.