By: Avi Strauss | Editorials  | 

To Take Academic Integrity Seriously, Show That You’re Serious

Over three years ago, as I was scribbling away Calculus solutions during my first midterm in college, I remember noticing students sharing their papers over the long desks of a Belfer lecture hall. While I heard cheating was a problem in college courses, I certainly didn’t expect it would be so brazen. I was shocked, but didn’t report it to my professor.

Since then, along with several friends and peers who found similar incidents in their courses abhorrent, efforts have been made in recent years to severely cut off, if not end entirely, the scourge of cheating on campus.

Throughout my college career, I never seriously thought about whether cheating—and brazen cheating, for that matter—is a YU-specific problem. To me, this seems like the wrong question to ask. How other institutions successfully enforce honorable behavior or regrettably allow subpar ethical standards ought not have any bearing on our quest for academic integrity. In addressing our own cheating, which has persisted for decades, we should not mimic others’ solutions as we institute our own effective standards.

I firmly believe that the majority of YU students do not cheat nor have an inclination to cheat. But pervasive and unpunished cheating stretches curves, rewards misbehavior, betrays the trust between student and college, creates an impression of grade inflation that damages our collective admissions to graduate school, and above all should not be occuring at a Jewish institution.

In the last few years, three meetings have been conducted between students, deans, and academic advisors to discuss the state of academic integrity on campus, and to work together to suggest ways to improve it. I’ve been a student contributor in all three of these meetings, and feel confident commenting on these matters with the proper background.

And even though I understand that the mills of higher education may grind slowly, it seems clear that not enough is being done and what is being done is being done too incrementally. Signs reminding students of academic integrity are nice, but don’t offer much in the way of preventing the cheating occurring on campus.

Much of the sentiment of university faculty has been to bemoan the state of affairs in regards to cheating while highlighting the need for students to do more to help identify cheaters. Putting aside that it is unfair to place this responsibility on students, students have gone above and beyond in reporting cheating and suggesting reform.

Yet, after two years of discussions and meetings, only one real reform in the delivery of tests has been implemented—the addition of proctors to some of the larger courses. And even that reform didn’t stop cheating from occurring last semester in Calculus I, one of the courses specifically designated for additional proctors.

Moreover, calling out cheating in the middle of a test, identifying one of their peers for serious consequences, can be very uncomfortable for a student. I’m aware of many instances of students reporting cheating after an exam, but there is often little a professor or dean can do after the fact. The best solution is to institute pre-emptive measures that ward off cheating, coupled with a sincere effort by faculty to identify cheaters during exams—they shouldn’t need students to do it for them.

The issue is that those affected most by cheating, those students who are making sincere attempts to assist in its elimination from campus, have no means by which to coerce faculty change.

Before I conclude, I’d like to list some of the suggestions made by students in the meetings referred to at the beginning of this editorial. If implemented, I would all but guarantee a positive change towards more academic integrity on campus:

--    School-wide, mandated use of for all courses, whether lab, lecture, or seminar. Turnitin screens papers for plagiarism, and the more the program is used, the larger its database of papers—in this case, papers submitted by YU students—becomes. YU already owns the program, so mandated use of the program would be an effective use of resources the faculty already has to combat cheating.

--     Tiered disciplinary action that could offer alternatives to expulsion for first time offenders. These punishments could include academic probation that limits how many courses a student may take in a semester following cheating or restricted registration that prevents a student from registering for the following semester’s courses until everyone else has registered for theirs. Some might consider this “going easy” on cheaters, but these punishments would at least be a fair warning shot that cheating will not go unnoticed or unpunished.

--    Alternate versions of midterm and final exams. To prevent in-test cheating, professors could prepare two versions of the same test that scramble questions into two distinct orders. Exams can be distributed to students in an alternating fashion. Versions of the test can even be color-coded for professors to easily recognize that neighboring students have different tests and to make it easier to distinguish between the two versions when grading.

--     Taking actual disciplinary action against cheaters and announcing to the student body when disciplinary action was taken. Based on statements made by the Deans in the aforementioned meetings, there have been only three instances of disciplinary action, all in Sy Syms School of Business, implemented against any undergraduate student in at least the last six years, if not more. This is incongruous with an acknowledged campus-wide problem. While it may be uncomfortable to discipline students with a serious punishment, professors and deans need to agree that even giving the impression of cheating is guarded against, and that students who violate the trust of their professors will be sent straight to the Dean’s Office. An email notifying the student body when such action is taken would go a long way towards changing the culture on campus.

Certainly the above is not a complete list of solutions, nor do I think that they would outright solve cheating on campus. I also regret that it would take measures like these to force students to abide by basic codes of conduct. Unfortunately, however, rewritten integrity statements, emails reminding students to not cheat, and other piecemeal measures are just not adequate. The continued widely acknowledged problem with cheating after an effort to quell it proves as much.

If change is to happen, students need to understand that their professors and deans will implement every reasonable measure possible to stem cheating. Perhaps this will lead to an adversarial relationship between some faculty, deans, and students. But it will certainly lead to a positive relationship with the student body in the long run, when there is a mutual understanding that cheating will not be tolerated.

If we’re not going to institute more changes at a more rapid pace now, until acknowledged cheating vanishes from campus, when will we?