Universities Wimp Out on Fighting Cheaters

Loye Young has gotten some attention in the education blogosphere by trying to punish cheaters with public shame -- and getting fired for it.

As a junior professor at Texas A&M, Young posted on his course blog the names of six students he caught plagiarizing papers. He had warned his students in the course syllabus that he would "promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating, or stealing."

Trouble is, that's against federal law, which forbids disclosing any student's "educational record," including disciplinary matters. So Young was fired.

This privacy law is not an obscure provision -- at least, it's not obscure among the teachers and administrators who are bound by it. I can testify to that from experience: when I taught in academia, how to deal with plagiarism was a regular subject of concern and conversation -- and everyone knew the limits imposed by the federal privacy law.

Those conversations became very different for me the day I actually caught a student cheating and had to decide what to do about it. I'm afraid I didn't handle it the way I should have -- but more about that in a moment.

First, let's lay down some general principles. Young should have followed the law. But obviously it doesn't follow that the law is a good one. As Edublogger Joanne Jacobs incredulously asks, "should plagiarism be a private matter between the professor and the cheater?"

You would think that question would have gotten more attention long ago. The heart of the matter is that the system treats cheating as part of your "educational record," making no distinction between academic records, which ought to be confidential, and disciplinary ones, which shouldn't -- because cheating undermines the integrity of the entire academic community, just as criminal punishment isn't confidential because crime undermines the civic community.