Sunday, November 21, 2010

Academic Honesty in the Garden of Eden

‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ 12 The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’ (Genesis 3:11-13)

This past week a major cheating scandal broke at the university where I teach. In a business capstone course, designed to bring together the four years of business curriculum for seniors nearing graduation, a mid-term exam was given in the business school’s testing center for the 600 students in the class. The professor noticed a double peaked curve in the grades with the peak of a normal bell curve centered in what should have been the statistical norm for the class but with a second peak located in the top grades of the class. Clearly, something was wrong here.

In a taped lecture, the professor observed that this pattern is evidence of an external force intervening in the testing procedure, academic jargon for cheating. The test questions had been taken from a test bank prepared by the publishers of the textbook. Such test banks offer potential questions which have often been tested by reviewers and sometimes in actual class applications before being released. It is a common practice in academia to use such test banks and I use them myself. However, I do frequently modify the questions before using them not so much out of fear for their adequacy as the desire to reflect my own particular approaches to course materials.

Apparently college instructors are not the only ones with access to such test banks. According to students in this class, a copy of the test bank from which this professor’s exam questions were taken was anonymously circulated to students in the course before the exam under the title “Study Guide”. And one of those students was conscientious enough to slide a copy of said Study Guide under the door of the professor’s office alerting him to the cause of the pattern he had noticed.

Technical capacities being what they are today, the 200 students who used the guide to cheat on their exams were fairly quickly identified. The professor delivered an emotional lecture in class in which he described what had happened, how he figured it out and what the result would be. Because the exam had been compromised, a second exam was created by the professor and his teaching assistants and all students were required to take a second exam. Those students who had cheated the first exam were encouraged to identify themselves within the week after which they would be allowed to take the second exam and their grade in the class would not be affected. But they would also have to complete the four hour academic integrity course offered through the Office of Student Conduct in order to graduate. Those who completed the course and did not get into trouble again would have their record sealed upon graduation as if nothing ever happened.

It was a generous response. Indeed, I have wondered if I would have been as generous in his shoes. And many of my students felt it was too generous.

But the response to this event has been absolutely astounding. One student, interviewed by the local ABC affiliate said, "This is college. Everyone cheats. Everyone cheats in life in general. I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in this testing lab who hasn't cheated on an exam. They're making a witch hunt out of absolutely nothing, as if they want to teach us some kind of moral lesson."

As if.

Some of my students defended their classmate when I read them this quote saying his comments had been taken out of context. No doubt, in a media world which tends to regularly confuse entertainment with the vocation of informing the public, racy comments like these may well have been taken out of context.

But these comments are substantively similar to a significant portion of the comments on sites ranging from the local news channel website to the LA Times and Washington Post sites. Over and over so many of these comments suggest the professor was somehow in the wrong for not writing a completely original exam. As the quotes attributed to the UCF student would suggest, everyone cheats and so it’s somehow the duty of a professor to find ways to avoid that.

Of course, such arguments fail on a number of grounds. First, they suggest something that is demonstrably not true here – that the professor knew or should have known that the students could gain access to the test bank provided by the publishers. In fact, the opposite was the case. Indeed, I was shocked to read that test banks are apparently available online at sites ranging from ebay to the publishers’ sites themselves.

This event will certainly cause me to rethink ever using a test bank again. Even so, creating exams worth giving, particularly the multiple choice exams amenable to administration in factory classes in testing labs, are inordinately time consuming. I am an instructor and thus have some limited time for test construction since I am not charged with publishing or perishing or pursuing grants for corporately sponsored research. For professors charged with the equivalent of bake sales and car washes to locate grants and provide the moneys necessary to operating a university system no longer appropriated by a socially irresponsible public – not to mention the research needed to attain tenure - this becomes a burden.

The willingness of publishers to make these test banks available to willing buyers (translation: students seeking to cheat on exams) is ultimately a breach of trust. There is an implied contract in the willingness to adopt texts and use the accompanying instructional materials that test banks will not be made available to anyone other than the instructor adopting the text. What an irony that the destructive power of compulsive greed driving global corporations today that recognizes no ethical limitations in its pursuit of profits should make itself known in this very immediate manner in the seminaries of free market fundamentalism which go by the name of business colleges.

Of course, just outside the door of every classroom in our own business college is a television monitor blaring the Fox entertainment channel. This is a network which routinely fabricates information and repeats it frequently enough that willing audiences begin to think it’s news. Dishonesty in the name of fun and profit is the name of the game at Fox. So it’s not terribly surprising that the response from so many students on a steady diet of the same would be to blame the instructor for failing to anticipate his students would cheat and thus write an entirely original exam to avoid that inevitability. Fox is big on finding fault with others, particularly as a means of avoiding scrutiny of unethical behaviors of its staff and its own true believers.

But I have to wonder if the students who insist that cheating is inevitable, that professors must anticipate their students will be dishonest if given half a chance, really want to be seen that way. Does one really want their child to marry someone who believes cheating is inevitable and it’s the duty of anyone in relation with that cheater to guard against it? What business truly wants to hire an employee who sees cheating as an acceptable if not predictable pattern of behavior? What kinds of liability arise from hiring such an employee?

Ultimately, this scandal is not a question of job performance of college professors. It’s not even so much a question of the ethics of publishers. Under the banner of caveat emptor, American culture has long since agreed to give white collar crime a pass while pounding common criminals and demanding individual responsibility. While we shouldn’t have to, we’ve come to believe that dishonesty in business and its governmental hirelings is a given in our culture.

But this scandal is not about either of those concerns. Rather, it is about the character of an entire generation of students and the virtues that inform that character.

It is not unexpectable to see those accused of wrong doing blaming others for their malfeasance. It’s a fairly ancient pattern of human behavior as seen in the excerpt above from ethics laden story from Hebrew Scriptures set in a mythical garden. Adam, the prototypical human being, blames the mother of all living (Eve) for his own behavior, eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve, in turn, blames the serpent, the symbol of the competitor goddess cultures of the middle east. No one takes responsibility for their actions here (perhaps with the exception of the poor ole snake who has no one else to blame).

At some level, those behaviors are predictable. Prior to eating from the tree, neither of these prototypical human beings have knowledge of good and evil. Morally, they are children. And holding them responsible for their actions prior to maturing into adults capable of adult moral reasoning is unreasonable (and hence one of the numerous problems with Augustine’s construct of original sin based on this passage). But, as their response to G_d after eating the fruit suggests, adult human beings no longer have the luxury of naïveté. We are responsible for our behaviors even as we often attempt to avoid that responsibility.

In the current situation, it is possible that some of these students did not know the sources of these questions or the implications of a “Study Guide” emailed to them. In all fairness, that is not terribly likely, students today are simply not that naïve. And the moment they reached the third question which was identical to their “study guide,” they either knew or should have known they had been provided a cheat sheet and thus had an obligation to report it.

But in an academic world in which procuring degrees for jobs has supplanted becoming an educated human being as the raison d’etre of universities, any means to that end could readily be seen as acceptable, even if not clearly honest. Bottom liners rarely tend to think beyond the bottom line.

There are some sobering lessons here for any who have ears to hear. At some level, our college students are a reflection of the culture which has produced them. What does their willingness to cut corners, their laziness in avoiding study, their bottom line (what’s in it for me? – Kohlberg pre-conventional stage 2 moral reasoning) mentality and their willingness to engage in unethical and dishonest conduct to attain that bottom line say about us as a people?

From the perspective of the academy, can we in good conscience assume that our students will act in good faith and ethical integrity when given ever increasing opportunities to cheat? Does the increase in cheating incidence, the exponential increase in its sophistication and the rationalization of those behaviors once apprehended not suggest to us that we must approach our jobs as educators differently than in the past? Is the inquisitorial presumption - guilty until proven innocent - mandated under these circumstances?

As for the corporate interests with whom we must deal, do we have the luxury of trusting that materials provided us as instructors can be used without question? Can we honestly believe that the obsession with profits will not overcome integrity in assurances that these materials are not compromised?

These are troubling questions. . This event points to much deeper problems than a mere cheating scandal at a mega-university factory producing degreed worker drones. I do not have any answers this day. It is precisely this kind of event which produces the increasingly jaded cynicism about higher education I feel myself slipping into despite my best efforts to maintain a semblance of Pollyana in the mix. I wonder if there are others besides me who count down the day until retirement.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

1 comment:

Amy said...

"Over and over so many of these comments suggest the professor was somehow in the wrong for not writing a completely original exam. As the quotes attributed to the UCF student would suggest, everyone cheats and so it's somehow the duty of a professor to find ways to avoid that."

But if it is true -- as it appears to be -- that Quinn told his class he would be writing his own questions, in what way is it unethical to acquire additional help from the publishing company?

My first reaction was much the same as yours, but after learning what has come to light this week, I think the scandal is being approached all wrong.