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Light Penalties for Cheating

Today at The New York Times Room for Debate forum is a four-part discussion of student cheating entitled “When Did Cheating Become an Epidemic?”  (I’m one of the discussants.)  The contribution from a recent graduate of Cornell is particularly disturbing.  It focuses not on student cheating, which he claims happens “a lot,” but on faculty response to it.  While at Cornell, he served on a “hearing board” with professors and had the opportunity to talk with them about cheating cases at length.

Here is what he heard:

“I listened to weak arguments about the pressures students face today and how we should take it easy on them and not consider suspensions because of the personal devastation it could cause. I winced through arguments for students’ innocence based on their ignorance of the rules of the road.”

In other words, little accountability and lots of sensitivity. And the recent grad doesn’t attribute the problem entirely to sentimentality or child-centered outlooks of one kind or another. No, the reason (or at least one of them) is more mundance. They didn’t really like “the ensuing hours of work it takes to prosecute students.”

Anybody who has served on disciplinary committees knows how much of a headache each case can be. I recall being called to testify before a panel when one of my teaching assistants caught a student in a survey course submitting a plagiarized paper. I reported the student and the student demanded a hearing. Her position was that even though she admitted to plagiarizing a paper, it was only one of three or four graded items during the semester, and it should have counted only an “F” and be averaged with the others accordingly. I had penalized her more than that, and argued that if it was only an “F” then the punishment for submitting nothing would be equal to submitting a copied work.

The committee listened and agreed with her. It didn’t help that my TA didn’t show up to testify.

There is a problem with such exaggerated leniency and rationalization. It makes the immediate case easier but encourages more students to do the same. It also treats students like children, not adults, as the Cornell grad states, and his conclusion is worth citing in full:

“Weakness—as expressed in these lazy and infantilizing justifications—was the categorical imperative of the professors I knew and served with. I believe that this weakness in the face of cheating probably has something to do with the 1960s and certainly underlies the decision to keep ethics courses optional and to merely slap at the wrists of students who break the rules.

“But we’re not going to beat this cheating thing with light sentences and a failure to engage students on morals. Sadly, though, this is what at least one leading college is doing, and probably more. In this recent graduate’s opinion, the time has come to toughen up.”

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