By: Benjamin Koslowe | Editorials  | 

YU’s Academic Integrity: A Ship in Rough Waters

“If we can’t come away with some ethical behavior from man to man, all has been wasted. And if we can’t transfer that knowledge to business, then I’d be terribly disappointed.”

These were the words of Dr. Michael Schiff, the founding dean of Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business (SSSB). One cannot help but reflect upon these words in light of recent cheating incidents, some of which have been exposed, and others which any YU student knows about either firsthand or anecdotally. Hard data on cheating is hard to come by, but it is clear that significant numbers of YU students cheat on exams. Though cheating occurs at all universities, it is especially tragic at a religious institution like this one. By his own reasoning, Dr. Schiff would likely be logically compelled to conclude today that all, in fact, has been wasted.

Recent newspaper coverage indicates that the cheating incidents of late are but the most recent flare-up of a decades-old problem. Apparently, recently heightened efforts to crack down on cheating have been but flimsy plugs in the porous ship that carries YU’s academic integrity through the raging waters of a 4.0-minded atmosphere in America — the flood of cheating might be temporarily halted from time to time, but it will inevitably infiltrate the institution again by some other avenue.

There are two means by which YU administrators and professors in positions of power might eradicate the cheating problem for good. To row onwards with the ship metaphor: They either can get serious about patching up the ship, or they can invest in a new vessel.

The first means, in practice, would entail implementing the same tried efforts to curb cheating, but enforcing the rules smartly, strongly and comprehensively. For example, rather than simply recommending proctors for midterms, the University can require that all large classes administer exams in spacious classrooms and with proctors. Student leaders and teachers have also suggested installing video cameras in every single testing room as a potential disincentive.

Of course, cheating disincentives work only when they are supported by an administration with a reputation for responding seriously to cheating incidents. In a cost-benefit analysis of an ethically lax student in YU’s current climate, even if cheating were to be made difficult, the chances of there being an actual punishment are so slim that the most rational action may still be to peek at a neighbor’s answers or to whisper when the professor turns his back.

This cost-benefit analysis would change if the University took actions that would change its reputation vis-à-vis cheating. Picture the following theoretical email sent to the entire student body: “Last week, a student in General Chemistry was caught stealing answers during an exam. Following a prompt investigation, the Deans have found this student guilty. He has been placed on academic probation and assigned an ‘F’ in the course. Academic integrity is of the utmost importance to Yeshiva University, and breaches of this integrity will not be taken lightly.” Certainly, such a notice would seriously disincentivize cheating.

But perhaps patching up the ship is unrealistic. Maybe finances don’t permit ideal testing conditions, or maybe the logistics of YU’s bureaucracy of Deans, professors, academic standards committees, classrooms and proctors are such that serious preventative measures are too difficult to enforce.

What, then, of the second means? Is there an alternative vessel that can adequately replace the flailing ship?

One solution, which has been suggested several times over the years, would be an honor code. Indeed, this would take away responsibility from the Deans, who often insist that the cheating problem stems from culturally permitted behaviors such as general reluctance of students to report their peers by name.

Honor codes are systems by which universities formalize stances of trusting students to behave with honor. Though honor codes are rarities among American liberal arts universities, several prestigious universities use them, including Johns Hopkins University, University of Maryland, Williams College and Princeton University.

At Princeton, “all in-class examinations, including finals, midterms, and quizzes, are administered under the Honor Code. Students pledge their honor that they have not attempted to give or receive an unfair advantage during examinations. In exchange, faculty proctors are not present in examination rooms. Additionally, students pledge a responsibility to report all suspected violations of the Code to the Committee.” According to the University, “The duality of obligations emphasizes the importance of student to student accountability, a foundational value of the Honor system.”

This system is not just naïve wishful thinking. Princeton has operated with its honor code since 1893. Though hardly a scientific sample, several current Princeton students reported to this editor that their exam conditions are perfectly upstanding. Articles as well indicate that cheating incidents during classroom exams at Princeton are few and far between.

Might an honor code be the deus ex machina that Yeshiva University needs?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be yes. The argument proceeds roughly as follows. Yeshiva students are at least as ethically upstanding as their secular college counterparts. And for any system of ethical enforcement, if the system works with a certain population, then the same system would work with another population that is at least as ethical on the aggregate. So, since honor codes effectively maintain academic integrity at several other colleges, an honor code would effectively maintain academic integrity at Yeshiva University.

Upon closer inspection, though, the argument fails. Specifically, the universal conditional does not hold up, and for one simple reason — Yeshiva University’s brotherhood. YU’s students are almost all Orthodox. Almost all YU students are graduates of Orthodox Jewish high schools, proud alumni of Israeli yeshivot and seminaries. Whereas the student bodies of typical American universities are melting pots of strangers from across social strata and around the globe, Yeshiva University undergrads by comparison all know each other.

In a community where social circles stretch wide and where friendships run deep, it is a tall order to expect peers to report on their fellows. Inversely, in such an environment, a sudden paradigm shift of removing all proctors would likely result in a rather messy fallout, not unlike that of an abandoned candy shop after being ravaged by unaccompanied minors.

And so, here ends another Commentator editorial about cheating, bemoaning into the void of time about the seemingly unsolvable state of affairs. One wonders what some future editor will think when he dusts off folded yellowing pages and reads Commentator coverage from Fall 2018. Will that editor marvel at how far YU has progressed? Or will he relate to the familiar porous ship, still beating on, holding academic integrity afloat perilously as it always has and always will?