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Faking It in Today's Universities


Pittsburgh. -- I'm talking about college cheating: copying, cribbing, plagiarizing, exam pilfering, ghosted term papers, dry-labbing (faking lab data), employing ringers (getting someone else to take an exam for you) and all the other dodges that promise a good grade in the absence of the relevant knowledge.

Having taught for 33 years at four universities on two continents and an island, I'm encouraged to record here a few things that I think I've learned about (1) why college students cheat, (2) why they get away with it and (3) what can be done about it.

Some sociologists like to throw college cheating into a bag labeled "dishonesty," along with lying, income-tax fudging, resume puffing and stealing anything from an idea to an idol. But I don't believe that dishonesty is something that a person either possesses or does not, like red hair. Even if such a thing as inherent dishonesty does lurk in anyone but the habitual criminal, it explains only a small fraction of college cheaters.

Cheating is more a matter of circumstance than of moral bankruptcy. Today's masses of college fodder are not pursuing knowledge; mostly, they're chasing grades. They know that it's not quality of one's education that opens doors in today's society; it's the mere possession of a degree. And degrees are obtained by the mere passing of a certain number of courses. And in many courses, unfortunately, that means getting a mere number of "right answers."

Today's university classroom is too often the battleground for a conflict of captives. Neither the professor nor the student really wants to be there. The students are there because they want jobs, and the professor is there because he is forced to bear what he refers to as a "teaching load." Students can generate little respect for what they perceive as a kind of game in which the professor only pretends to be teaching; so they may well feel justified in submitting bogus evidence that they're learning.

It is a plain fact, despite university administrators' continual pious denials, that at most universities (but not at liberal-arts colleges), professors are hired primarily for a talent that has nothing at all to do with teaching: the talent for wringing research grants out of foundations and government. Because in most cases their salaries and promotions bear no relationship to their teaching, professors have little reason to be conscientious about it.

They may cancel classes without notice. They may fail to keep adequate office hours and show impatience when students do show up. They may recycle assignments and exam questions, year after year. They may give their final exams early in order to skip town or get back to their research, which they know is where their bread is buttered. They may hold "class discussions" that don't require any preparation on their part, or waste hours of class time just reading aloud from a book or showing movies. Some do these things blithely. Others try to hide their guilt behind arrogance or ill-concealed disdain for their students.

These and many other maddening examples of irresponsible teaching are by no means typical of the vast majority of the faculty, whether at Pitt or at any other decent university that I know of. But neither are the majority of students cheaters. Those students who are given a fair chance to learn and a chance to demonstrate what they've learned via fair examinations, don't feel desperate enough to risk cheating.

If college cheating is indeed rampant, and almost any student will tell you that it is, why are so few malefactors caught and even fewer punished? (Available statistics only suggest these conclusions, but anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.) My answers are that (a) it's easy to cheat, and (b) universities are chicken.

A recently published how-to book, to which I won't give free publicity by naming it, lists at least 65 dandy ways to cheat. Especially in large classes with faculty who don't care very much, they work like snatching candy from a baby.

Moreover, accusing a student of cheating takes guts: the kind of guts that policemen have but, by and large, professors do not. For one thing, confrontation is unpleasant, especially for an ivory-tower personality. For another, you've got to be pretty darned sure before you make an accusation. Hence, warnings must invariably precede action. It's as if a policeman had to say, "If I see you loot one more store, I'm going to arrest you." And when a professor does dare to go so far as to punish a culprit by giving him a zero on an exam or an F in a course, he must adopt the role not only of policemen, but of prosecutor and judge as well.

Add to these daunting considerations the universities' nervousness about potential lawsuits and you've got a great incentive for looking the other way, or at least for rationalizing that you can't be absolutely sure.

What can be done to stop cheating?

First, the universities must want to stop it; they show little evidence that they do. Many administrators, for whom the real institutional priority is research (it literally pays their salaries out of overhead), behave as if they wished that accusations of cheating would simply go away. When a particularly contentious case does clamor for their attention, their major preoccupation is not to fight for the integrity of the academic enterprise, but to avoid being sued or losing government funding. Hence, many universities have devised unbelievably complex quasi-legal procedures for dealing with accusations of student cheating. The colossal inconvenience of these procedures, compete with testimonies and affidavits, are yet another disincentive for instructors to challenge a suspiciously behaving student.

Attitudes and values flow from the top of an organization. If universities continue to show disdain for teaching by hiring and tenuring faculties regardless of their ability to teach, students will continue to reciprocate by showing disdain for the system. If, on the other hand, universities were to pay genuine respect to those instructors who teach with honor, then the faculties themselves might esteem teaching enough to work hard at it, ultimately winning the respect and hence the integrity of their students -- always excepting the few genuine crooks.

These, the universities must have the guts to prosecute with old-fashioned, common-sense directness: flunk 'em or kick 'em out.

Robert L. Wolke is professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, where he headed the Office of Faculty Development.

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