By: Yardena Katz and Benjamin Koslowe | News  | 

Cheating Incidents Plague YU Midterms Season Once More

Several students allegedly cheated on a General Chemistry midterm on Oct. 31. Two weeks later, on Nov. 14, cheating was reported once again following a Money and Banking midterm. Both were Yeshiva College (YC) courses, with the latter course also cross-listed as a Sy Syms School of Business (SSSB) course. In addition, Stern College (SCW) Deans this semester identified incidents of suspected plagiarism in an advanced English course and a Computer Systems course. These incidents follow on the heels of efforts in recent semesters to curb a culture of lax academic integrity that has plagued YU’s undergraduate colleges for decades.

The General Chemistry midterm was administered to the course’s 38 students in Belfer 807 without any proctors besides for Prof. Jianfeng Jiang, who teaches the course. According to Jiang, he “noticed suspicious activities in the back of the room close to the window sides, such as low-voice murmuring,” and one student reported to him that “a few students dropped and picked up papers on the floor to exchange info” during the exam.

There were also no additional proctors accompanying Prof. Srikar Gopal Vinjamuri in the Money and Banking midterm, held in Glueck 308. The setup of the room allowed some of the 30 students to sit very close to each other and potentially place notes on their laps out of the professor’s sight. The cheating, which allegedly included note-passing and whispering during the exam, was reported to the professor, Dean Fred Sugarman of YC and Dean Michael Strauss of SSSB shortly after the exam.

Several days after the General Chemistry midterm, Executive Director of Pre-Professional Advisement Lolita Wood-Hill sent an email with the subject “cheating is rampant once again” to YU’s pre-health listserv. In the email, Wood-Hill expressed her disappointment in the “rampant” cheating, stating, “Ethics—truth, honesty, hard-work—are not just lofty ideals. Cheating compromises these values and one risks becoming morally bankrupt when the stakes become even higher as a clinician.”

Wood-Hill also emphasized in her email that “those who are not brave enough to turn in the cheaters are almost as bad.” She cited philosopher Edmund Burke’s aphorism “Evil prevails when good men do nothing,” and warned students that if they “are not willing to expose the cheaters then please don’t come to us with a complaint. We cannot fix an issue that you are unwilling to help us resolve.” Wood-Hill’s email concluded with an offer for “honest students” to anonymously report cheaters who “cut into the curve and affect YOU!”

As of the publication of this article, no students in either General Chemistry or Money and Banking have been prosecuted for breaches of academic integrity.

“When I graded the exams,” explained Jiang, “correct answers without work leading to these answers were not deemed ‘correct.’” In the Money and Banking course, Vinjamuri announced a retest, with the original exam counting for one-third of the midterm grade and the retest counting for two-thirds of the midterm grade. The retest was originally scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 21, but was moved to the next Monday after several students expressed that having an exam on the eve of Thanksgiving would interfere with their travel plans. Both Jiang and Vinjamuri stated that future exams would be more seriously proctored and administered.

Breaches of academic integrity are not a new phenomenon at Yeshiva University. Archives from The Commentator indicate that the University has struggled with plagiarism, answer-sharing and general cheating for decades. A news article in 1987, responding to two cheating incidents, offered a broad survey of cheating in YC at the time and an attempt at explaining why cheating was taking place.

In Fall 2002, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, a YU rosh yeshiva, delivered a widely-discussed sichat mussar in which he addressed rampant cheating. Among several critiques, Wieder urged that when students are “called in [to the Academic Standards Committee] for cheating, please walk in there without your yarmulkah, so no one should think that it’s the yarmulkah, chas veshalom the yarmulkah, that gave you the reshus [permission] to cheat.”

Later that same semester, a Commentator investigation, much like the 1987 investigation, looked into those factors that were enabling cheating. The article proposed several possible solutions, including an Honor Code which would “obligate students to report violations of academic integrity thereby placing responsibility with the students, sometimes through un-proctored examinations.” The article also suggested that all professors should be required to make their old exams publicly available to all students.

These Commentator archives are but select instances of reports about cheating in Yeshiva University’s antiquity. Commentator articles from dozens of different semesters point to a persistent cycle of cheating, reports of cheating and attempts by administrators, faculty and students to curb the cheating.

More recently, Deans of YC and SSSB, in response to reports of cheating in Fall 2016, called for meetings where Deans and students could brainstorm together about academic integrity, and for the creation of a student-run academic integrity committee. In Fall 2017, Yeshiva College Deans announced that midterms would take place with proctors and in large rooms where students could be spaced far apart from each other and that signs with the Hebrew verse “da lifnei mi atah omeid” [“know before whom you stand”] and the English phrase “Demand this of yourself, expect it of others” would be placed on the walls of classrooms.

SSSB that Fall 2017 semester, in response to cheating incidents, followed suit, instructing faculty to not reuse old finals, to not assign take-home exams, and to not use “test-banks, which are documents provided to professors from textbook authors that contain thousands of potential questions that can be used to create tests.”

The aforementioned academic integrity reforms did not eradicate cheating in YU. In Fall 2017, a Judaic Studies course in SCW cancelled its midterm following revelations that a student stole a copy of the exam from the professor’s office, and a Mathematics course in YC administered a retest after reports of suspicious behavior during a midterm exam. On a different plane, several posts from the past few semesters on Stern College: In the Know, a private Facebook group with over 2,700 members, indicate SCW and SSSB students offering money to their peers in exchange for full paper-writing services.

“My intention was not to place this burden on the shoulders of students only,” explained Wood-Hill to The Commentator when asked about her recent listserv email, “but to remind my future doctors that shining a light on wrongdoing is ESSENTIAL to their future work as physicians and leaders in their communities.” Professor Jiang, on the other hand, expressed regret at his “omission not to seek additional proctors for a classroom too spacious to handle.”

Jiang added, “I was in fact very disappointed that I trusted my students and hoped that they would do their best job in a clean test … Cheating is the worst thing that happens on campus. It diminishes the value of learning and makes the efforts of hard-working students meaningless. We will work very hard to crack it down.”

Professor Vinjamuri, in an email to his students, similarly expressed that “academic integrity is the cornerstone of Yeshiva University … any behavior that goes against the spirit of academic honesty will not be tolerated.” He also explained his belief that “it is in the best interest of all of us to take this remedial course of action [of taking a retest] to ensure that the highest standards of academic integrity are maintained.”

A student in the affected General Chemistry class from this fall semester remarked that he found it “very upsetting as a Yeshiva University student that people cheated and the Deans did nothing about it.” A pre-med student on the pre-health listserv similarly expressed frustration that Wood-Hill’s email “suggested that students are responsible to police cheating in their classes.” He felt that “the administration, not the students, has the responsibility to provide their students with a fair and comprehensive education” and that the administration has “taken too few concrete steps to limit cheating and to punish cheating students. Change needs to start with them.”

Other cheating incidents have taken place this semester as well. One student reported to The Commentator that a classmate of his, who was discovered to have plagiarized an assignment and admitted to his professor what he did, received no disciplinary repercussions from the University besides for a mark of zero on that individual assignment.

“The culture of leniency in dealing with student cheating encourages the student body to continue cheating,” complained the student who learned about his classmate’s punishment. “In many instances, students feel no moral impediment to cheating, a clear result of the chronic atmosphere of cheating at YU. Moreover, the leniency of punishment calls into question the priorities of the institution; by failing to adequately punish cheaters, the administration signals that it cares more about maintaining high GPAs and successful employment rates than the integrity and ethics that their graduates represent.”

According to SCW Associate Dean Ethel Orlian, in addition to the reported instances of plagiarism regarding an advanced English paper and Computer Systems assignment, at least two additional academic integrity breaches at SCW have been reported to her this semester. Dean Orlian cited the incorporation of “discussions of cheating into recent Orientation programs in the hope of creating awareness early on,” and discussions of plagiarism in first-year English Composition classes as developed efforts to prevent such instances.

As for formal policies regarding academic integrity, YU’s colleges currently have several means by which to handle cheating incidents. Academic Policies for Wilf and Beren indicate that proctoring procedures for YC, SCW and SSSB are roughly the same.

According to Dean Strauss, the Dean’s Office of SSSB regularly informs all faculty and adjuncts to follow certain testing procedures. These procedures include such recommendations as not reusing old exams, not using test-banks, not offering take-home exams, requiring students to leave their cell phones on the front desk during testing and for professors of larger classes to request proctors to help ensure that students do not cheat or communicate with each other during exams. Strauss also recommends that teachers who assign papers should utilize Turnitin, a plagiarism detection website.

Several YC professors and Dean Orlian of SCW confirmed that though proctors are recommended for midterms, they are not mandatory. Finals at YC are optionally proctored, while finals at SCW are organized by a Director of Examinations who ensures that a minimum of two proctors supervise each final exam and that smaller classes are assigned to take finals together in one larger room. However, multiple SCW students have confirmed being administered their finals in smaller classrooms with one proctor as recently as Spring 2018.

Finals for all undergraduate colleges are administered under strict conditions, usually with proctors. For over ten years, through the end of the Fall 2017 semester, Elizabeth OuYang served as Final Exam Director for Yeshiva College, a role which entailed interviewing and assigning proctors, handling examination deferrals, time conflicts and special accommodations. In 2015, OuYang was appointed to the same position for SSSB on the Wilf Campus. Last year, OuYang explained to The Commentator that, as a Yeshiva University outsider, her role “brings more objectivity and credibility to the process.”

As of the Spring 2018 semester, Dean Fred Sugarman serves as the Final Exam Director for YC while OuYang continues to hold the position at SSSB alone. The Commentator was unable to confirm the University’s motivation for OuYang’s reassignment.

According to Dean Shalom Holtz, the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Yeshiva College, all faculty receive several e-mail messages prior to midterm and final exam periods alerting them to the possibility of employing proctors to support exam integrity.” Dean Karen Bacon, the Dean of Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as well as other YC professors confirmed that despite the availability of proctors, many professors do not take up the offer.

In addition to formal preventative measures, YC currently has an Academic Standards Committee that meets periodically to discuss the state of academic integrity at the University. According to Prof. William Stenhouse, the Chair of YC’s History department and the head of the Academic Standards Committee, the committee of two undergraduate students and five professors meets with the Deans two or three times each semester to discuss old strategies and to brainstorm new strategies for preventing and dealing with cheating.

When a cheating incident does take place, students and faculty from all undergraduate colleges are instructed to report details to the Dean’s Office. According to the Academic Policies, accused students who initially admit to the allegations will receive an “F” in the course in question.

When an accused student denies any wrongdoing, an ad hoc Academic Integrity Committee of three faculty members is gathered to conduct a hearing, evaluate the case and recommend to the relevant Dean what punishments, if any, should be administered and whether or not the student should be dismissed from the University. Finally, the Dean decides to either accept, reject or modify the Committee’s recommendation. Written copies of the final decision are sent to the Deans of the undergraduate schools and to the Office of the Registrar.

Prof. William Lee, who has taught English at YC since 1983, remarked that “the atmosphere of an institution or a community can encourage or discourage cheating. In YU, we seek truth; we give credit to each individual for his or her work.” Lee cited “the halakhic position of R. Moshe Feinstein” which “couldn’t be clearer: cheating and plagiarism are theft of mind and therefore prohibited. So cheating should always be rare at YU. But it’s not; we have cycles where it’s rarer and cycles where it’s all too common.”

Though Prof. Lee expressed that cheating is inevitable, Prof. Marnin Young, Chair of Art History at SCW, said that he “doesn’t really understand why cheating continues at YU. It’s simply shameful that it does.” Young advised for greater faculty attentiveness to potential cheaters, stricter administrative enforcement of punishments and the adoption of a student-enforced Honor Code as potential remedies to cheating. “In the end,” he said, “cheating only hurts the students.”

“Any university should remain attentive and vigilant, never assuming that cheating has gone away,” said Prof. Lee. “It will never go away.”


Photo Caption: Furst Hall

Photo Credit: The Commentator