By: Avi Strauss  | 

Academic Integrity Dialogue Opened Between Deans and Students

On Wednesday, YU’s new academic integrity initiative was launched by the Dean’s office in concert with student leaders to discuss cheating on campus and methods to prevent it in the future. Oscillating between conversations about the definition of cheating, the types of cheating that exist, and practical solutions to prevent it going forward, the meeting was intended to be the first of several in an open and honest discussion to curtail the issue on the uptown campus.

The hour-long midday meeting featured all five deans responsible for academics uptown, as well as Dean of RIETS and Undergraduate Torah Studies Rabbi Menachem Penner, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Torah Studies Rabbi Yosef Kalinsky, the majority of the academic advisors and a select group of students from a cross-section of the Wilf undergraduate population. Professors were intentionally not invited to the meeting so that students would be encouraged to speak freely.

The forum opened with a brief introduction by Associate Dean of Operations and Student Affairs Fred Sugarman, who thanked students for reaching out to him about ongoing issues. He stressed that “academic integrity here should be beyond reproach”, as we are in a yeshiva.

Dean of Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences Karen Bacon echoed Dean Sugarman’s sentiments, emphasizing an “ethical high-road” in which “people should be honest in all of their dealings,” including academics. She also bemoaned the deterioration in the relationship between students and professors that occurs when cheating is an issue.

Lastly, before the forum shifted to an open floor for student remarks, Rabbi Penner framed the context of the conversation, saying cheating “makes people question what our mission is.” After listing several biblical prohibitions involved in the act of cheating, he called for creating “a culture where we show we are serious about these issues.”

Rabbi Penner continued, declaring, “the university has responsibility to prevent people from cheating” and that we must be concerned with the long-term consequences that cheating might have for people in the workplace. Starting to cheat while in college, he said, only makes the proposition of cheating in business more likely.

Yeshiva College Student Association President Tzvi Levitin then led the transition to the open forum part of the meeting, mentioning the “cognitive dissonance” students may experience in recognizing that the act of cheating itself may be wrong while rationalizing the act in specific instances.

The students who were present contributed by relaying their experiences of witnessing cheating in their classrooms, expounding on the thought processes of students who engage in these acts, and by suggesting possible solutions to the problems that they’ve witnessed.

Syms Student Council Vice President Binyamin Zirman highlighted the immense pressure on students to perform well on tests, specifically in classes where grades may be entirely based on two examinations. “You can miss every class, not participate or pay attention when you do show up--it’s just creating an environment where the pressures and temptations to perform well are concentrated on a few moments a semester,” he said.

Other students, like YC Junior Akiva Schiff, mentioned that cheating was not simply confined to the classroom on test day. He divided cheating into two categories: that which happens in the preparatory stage before a test or paper is due, and the in-classroom instances of cheating.

Various types of in-class cheating were detailed by students, including sharing answers when professors were attending to questions from other students and texting images and questions to accomplices. One student even mentioned students turning in “decoy phones” to skirt cell phone collection rules.

Other students mentioned the issue of test banks and studying from old tests, triggering a discussion about the definition of cheating itself. Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Joanne Jacobson cleared the air, saying accessing information that is readily available online, like test banks, is not cheating, while reminding everyone that “cheating is lying and stealing” and gives the perpetrator an unfair advantage over other students.

The deans responded to the various statements and concerns of students as the meeting progressed. Many comments referenced the campus “culture” that provides for such things to occur.

As a matter of culture, outgoing Dean of the Sy Syms School of Business Moses Pava stated that he didn’t think cheating was more rampant at YU than at any other university, whereas Syms Associate Dean Michael Strauss remarked that an undergraduate at Princeton University told him that students don’t even let their eyes wander during examination at the Ivy League university, out of fear of expulsion.

In response to this, Syms Academic Advisor Debbie Pine stressed, “we might not have more cheating than other colleges. But we need to remember, we aren’t other colleges” -- a point that appeared to gain universal acceptance from all corners of the forum.

At times however, discussion was more tense, with some implicitly blaming the students for not being more active in combating cheating as it occurred during tests. However, Academic Advisor Sara Schwartz emphatically pushed back against this notion. “It’s not the students’ job to maintain academic integrity. It’s not their job to police each other in the middle of an exam,” Schwartz said, arguing that students are under enough pressures in a testing environment as it is.

Another issue raised during the forum involved the question of graduate admissions, with some expressing concern the issue of integrity could have a negative impact on Yeshiva undergraduate applications.

At one point during the session, Dean of Students Chaim Nissel pushed to shift the conversation to practical solutions that can be enacted to prevent some of the instances of cheating.

A flurry of suggestions targeted at different types of cheating were offered. Many students agreed that more proctors and a midterm system that mimicked the finals process would go a long way towards suppressing instances of classroom cheating. One student noted a marked difference between his first and second semester science lecture in this regard, with extra proctors added for test days and dividers placed between students during laboratory examinations.

Others called for greater awareness about the short and long term consequences of cheating, with one suggesting the implementation of a program similar to the “Alcohol-Wise” educational seminar, a mandatory online course for all YU students which informs students about the consequences of alcohol consumption.

One student, referring back to the “culture” issue discussed at several points during the meeting, called for “disrupting” that culture by informing the student body when disciplinary action is taken against any student for an act of cheating. Earlier in the meeting, when Rabbi Penner questioned if any disciplinary action had been taken against cheaters in the past five years, Dean Sugarman confirmed that no students had been expelled from Yeshiva College for cheating, while Dean Pava cited an instance from last year where a Syms undergraduate was expelled.

While the deans voiced approval for the notion of actively disrupting the culture of cheating, the conversation shifted to the proposition of placing cameras in classrooms. This would serve as a proactive measure to discourage students from cheating, while providing a recourse for review when students report instances of cheating after exams. Dean Pava predicted that this will become a reality on a number of universities in the next five years.
As the clock approached 1:00, the deans thanked everyone for coming and Dean Sugarman concluded the session, emphasizing that it was only the beginning of the discussion and making clear that the issues brought up would be taken seriously.