By: Judah Stiefel  | 

Joint Meeting Convened between Deans of YC, Syms to Discuss Solutions to Troubling State of Academic Integrity in YU

Last semester, several reports were filed to professors in which Yeshiva College students alleged witnessing their fellow students cheat on midterms.

Dr. Karen Bacon, Dean of Undergraduate Arts and Sciences, said, “steps are being taken to rework the university’s policy towards cheating.” These steps have so far involved a meeting between the deans of YC and Syms and the creation of a student-run academic integrity committee. “We are looking for changes to be student-initiated,” commented Dean Bacon.

Following multiple reports of cheating on midterms in the Fall 2016 semester, Associate Dean of Yeshiva College Dr. Fred Sugarman, as well as Dr. Sumanta Goswami,  chair of the Biology Department, spoke in many of the science classes about the importance of academic integrity and the university’s intolerance for cheating. The administration felt that this was necessary following a semester in which, in the biology department alone, cheating was reported in Biology Principles, Cell Biology, and even, ironically, in a Bioethics course.

Dovid Simpser, Vice Chair of the Syms Academic Integrity Committee, reported that in a recent survey taken by the committee that surveyed more than 200 students, many students claimed that they “feel the need to cheat,” and also admitted that most cheating happens before the test. This problem evidently spans the different colleges on the Wilf Campus.

Mr. Simpser outlined the root causes for cheating in YU. He referred to the university’s historically laissez-faire attitude towards violators of the academic integrity policies, as well as a lack of sufficient safeguards in the nature of testing environments and test formats to deter borderline offenders from deciding to cheat. Tzvi Levitin, a member of the newly formed student academic integrity committee, suggested, “[For many students,] sciences are about getting a degree, checking off boxes, and moving on. If students valued their education more they are more likely to learn and not to cheat.”

Dean Sugarman maintains that no teacher has reported cheating to him in years.  An anonymous student commented, “It has become rather common knowledge to students that test banks and copies of old tests exist for many classes, and there seem to be many reports of good old-fashioned answer copying on exams as well.” While students who use test banks might think that they have found a loophole which guarantees their academic success, it is in fact the consensus of the deans that the use of test banks, without the professor’s knowledge of their existence, is a violation of trust. It is extremely difficult for students to refrain from using test banks when they believe that it is a pathway to good grades and many of their classmates may be using them as well.

Dean Bacon said that professors are responsible to update their tests each year.  Dean Jacobson pointed out that, while this is the official policy of the university, and the policy is periodically reminded to professors, policing tenured professors on this issue is extremely difficult. “Many of the older professors don’t even use e-mail,”Dean Jacobson said. “How can the administration manage to force them to change their tests?”

At the joint deans meeting, a motion was made to find practical solutions to these problems of academic dishonesty. According to Dean Sugarman, several attractive suggestions were considered at the meeting, including changing midterm settings to resemble the more rigorous finals atmosphere. The difficulty of supervising tests in a lecture hall setting make midterms a breeding ground for academic dishonesty. The deans also discussed implementing new software programs to scramble test questions and answers.

Beyond these changes to testing conditions, it was also suggested at the meeting that an overhaul of the academic integrity code may be needed to set less severe consequences for cheating so that offenses, including cheating on quizzes, do not go unpunished. The administration has assembled a delegation of student leaders to provide perspectives and possible solutions to the current atmosphere of non-integrity. A meeting between these students and the deans is pending.

Harsher punishments for cheating might correlate with fewer reports of cheating. “[President Joel] came to a meeting and said that plagiarism should equal expulsion. Since then, guess how many cheatings have been reported,” said Dean Jacobson rhetorically, implying that the answer was zero. Dean Jacobson and Dean Bacon both advocated for a “two strike” system which they suggest will encourage professors and students to report cheating due to the fact that the punishment is less severe. Yeshiva College Dean Karen Bacon suggested that a possible cause for this pseudo-honor code among students is due to the fact that a student or teacher might react to witnessing an act of cheating by placing themselves in the shoes of the cheating student and decide that the consequences are too harsh for them to report the student. The compassionate witness may realize that the cheating student may have a problem, and also that reporting the student may help them; however, their empathy for the student may stand in the way of their following the protocols for academic integrity.

Dean Bacon said that beyond the moral implications, there are reputational considerations which are relevant when discussing cheating. Undergraduate programs are judged by graduate schools and employers based on the success of past alumni. Should students of YU learn to cut corners rather than earn their grades, they will not necessarily be up for the challenges of graduate school or employment. Turning out flawed students hurts the reputation of future graduates of the university. Dean Bacon added to this that “students should be looking to do what they are good at. If they are so stressed that they feel the need to cheat to get by, it shouldn’t be the field for them.” Eventually, when cheating is no longer possible, a student may discover that they have waded into water too deep and they are not able to swim.

Dean Bacon emphasized that there is a difference between mastery and performance. The goal of students should not be to simply acquire a strong grade in a course but rather to acquire the material. This important notion is now being passed on to the students. After speeches from Dean Sugarman and Professor Goswami, Biology Professor Somdeb Mitra emphasized to his class that “grades do not equal success. The purpose of test-taking is to improve one’s critical thinking skills.” Professor Mitra later emphasized that class settings are more effective in a collaborative style rather than a competitive style. Along these lines, Dean Bacon suggested that the best approach to these issues might just be fostering an atmosphere where integrity and mutual respect is the norm.