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.

Why does the system treat cheating like an academic issue, rather than a disciplinary one? That will be more clear if we look more broadly at how the treatment of cheating has changed in recent decades.

Nowadays, everyone who's concerned about academia talks incessantly about how computers and the Internet have made plagiarism so much easier. But not a lot of people are willing to talk (in public, at least) about the real source of the problem.

Let's be clear: computers and the Internet aren't the problem. They're a big net gain for the fight against cheating. They do make the act of plagiarism easier, in the sense that there's a wider array of things available for copying, and it's less work to hit "cut" and then "paste" than it is to copy things out by hand. But computers also make catching plagiarists easier -- and the technological edge for the good guys is a lot bigger.

There are some really impressive computer programs that will take your students' essays one by one and search the web for similar text. Search engine technology is so powerful these days that it does an excellent job of rooting out plagiarism. You can't even fool the machine by changing some of the words around -- it can identify text that's similar but not identical, allowing the teacher to compare the two and judge whether plagiarism has occurred.

If you wanted to change the words around enough to escape detection entirely, you'd have to essentially rewrite the paper. In other words, you'd end up doing the assignment honestly in spite of yourself.

This is how I caught my cheater. I ran my students' papers through one of these programs, and it spat out a link to the Web page from which one of the papers had been cut and pasted. The student had changed a few words around, but not a lot of them. (I felt a little insulted that the student hadn't invested a little more effort in escaping detection.)

Obviously this technology won't catch every cheater, but you'll catch a lot more these days than you would have caught in the old days before computers made text searching possible at all. Back then, it might have been a little harder to find something to copy -- but you could always find something, and what hope was there that the teacher would find the same original text that you copied?

The universal lament that the Internet makes it a huge challenge to catch cheaters is the opposite of the truth. Any college, department, or individual teacher who takes cheating seriously can easily obtain the means to catch cheaters.

And that's the rub. Catching cheaters is easy -- if you want to catch them.

But colleges nationwide have made a decision that cheaters aren't their problem. Oh, cheating is still technically against the rules. However, most colleges have abdicated the job of dealing with cheaters, delegating it to the individual teachers.

It used to be that teachers were responsible for detecting cheaters, but once they were caught, the offenders would be turned over to the school administration for disciplinary action. Most colleges nowadays just tell the teachers that the matter is in their hands -- the only penalty for cheating is whatever penalty your professor imposes. The teacher is the cop, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner.

Leaving everything up to the teacher is bad in more ways than one. Obviously it's never a good idea to make one person cop, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner in any context, but it's worse when it comes to cheating. Here, the biggest danger isn't that one person with undivided power will abuse it, but that he won't use it at all -- because if he's out there on his own, who will support and defend him?

It's no secret that educational lawsuits are common. Academia has adapted by developing defensive measures. For example, when I taught as a graduate student, the school had a policy that no grades could be changed (except to correct a clerical error) after the end of the term -- to prevent lawsuit-threatening students from demanding changes.

The abdication of dealing with cheaters from the administrative to the individual teacher level is just another defensive measure. When a student flunked for cheating sues, the college isn't responsible.

And the fear of lawsuits only compounds the difficulty of what is already a difficult decision. Even with the strongest possible intellectual conviction that it's the right thing to do, actually imposing a punishment on a fellow human being takes a certain amount of moral courage. It takes some guts.

The isolation of the teacher as the lone defender of honesty in the classroom only makes it much more difficult to do the difficult but necessary thing when the time comes. And this, again, is something I can testify about from personal experience.

I regret to say that when I confronted my cheater, I chickened out. At this point I was no longer a graduate student "teaching assistant" but an adjunct instructor, so the decision was mine to make. My department head told me that I was free to expel the student from the class, or flunk the student on that assignment, or just make the student redo the assignment. But she made it clear that she was offering me no guidance on which choice to make -- in other words, whatever I did, I had no one to support me.

I hemmed and hawed about whether to flunk the student from the course. With no guidance from the administration, I wasn't sure what was too harsh and what was not harsh enough. I was anxious that the student's crime should be adequately punished, but I also had some hope that with something less than the academic death penalty this student could be brought back to the straight and narrow.

A friend suggested what seemed to me like a good idea: sit the student down after class and say, "I take cheating in this class seriously. Is there anything about this paper you want to tell me?" If the student fesses up at that point, impose a lesser punishment; if not, expel the student from the course.

But the student didn't confess. I dropped the hammer, producing a printout of the Web page the paper had been copied from, and only then did the student admit to copying it.

And then I lost my nerve. I couldn't bring myself to kick the student out of the class, even though that was what I had resolved in advance I would do if the student didn't confess before being cornered. It wasn't a fear of a lawsuit that held me back; I knew I had this student dead to rights. I was just too much of a coward at that moment to look at this kid, who was certainly guilty but was also vulnerable and visibly scared, and do what I knew I should.

Instead, I said that the student could stay in the class -- on condition that the paper would be redone, honestly this time, and I would still give the paper a zero as punishment.

In retrospect, maybe it wasn't such a bad outcome. Of course I would rather be able to say that when the heat was on, I stuck to my guns; I'm not excusing my failure of character. But, objectively, offering a cheater the choice to either leave the class or redo the assignment and then still get a zero on it incorporates a certain element of shame and repentance that might be a healthy substitute for automatic expulsion. It's also more practical than automatic expulsion -- at my undergraduate college, we had an honor code that mandated automatic expulsion for any act of cheating, and the primary result was that nobody was ever turned in for cheating.

But whatever you may think of my improvised policy, does anyone think that this is the optimal way to determine the punishment for cheating? Cutting teachers loose from all support and then seeing how far their individual moral courage holds up under pressure?

I know there are still colleges -- I'd be interested to know how many -- where cheating is dealt with by the college administration as a discipline matter. Anything we can do to draw other colleges back to that system would be a good thing.

The federal government could start the process by sending the right signal: distinguishing between academic records and discipline records in its privacy laws.