Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Ask the Administrator: Integrity of Integrity Policies
Our current academic integrity policy results in a student failing a course if they are caught plagiarizing. The instructors brings possible examples of cheating to department chairs who escalate to a committee hearing if they concur, so there's something like due process. Anyhow, our new Dean wants to change this so the first case results in a zero on that assignment, and the second results in failing the course. My problem with this is if it's announced to students (even subtly) that the policy has changed it's an invite for our students to start cheating as they know there's only a slap on the wrist the first time. The Dean's reasoning is that our policy is too harsh compared to other colleges. Do you think that's even accurate? Also how important is it that all colleges are on the same page about this in first place? As long as the policy is documented and reasonable who cares what other schools do?
I see several issues here.
One issue is the proper role of the dean. If she’s just expressing her opinion, then that’s all this is. If she’s trying to change the policy unilaterally, then that’s an issue all by itself, regardless of the merits of her position. If she’s trying to get a discussion going that might lead to the empowered body -- I’m guessing there’s a campus committee with jurisdiction over this sort of thing -- then she’s probably doing some good. Context matters.
Leaving aside the role of the dean, I’d point out the yawning chasm between a written policy and the way it actually works on the ground. A too-strict policy often leads to widespread evasion and the emergence of a huge, unaccountable gray area. I’ve seen this myself. A professor catches a student, but believes that even though the student is clearly guilty, the official penalty is too harsh. So the professor doesn’t report it, and instead metes out her version of personalized justice, whatever that is.
From the institution’s perspective, the “frontier justice” approach is a ticking time bomb. Sooner or later, someone will sue for “disparate impact” based on a protected class membership and denial of due process, and win. Better to have a policy that’s applied consistently across the entire college. My guess -- and I don’t know your dean, so that’s all this is -- is that the dean is trying to trade a strict policy that almost nobody follows for a slightly looser policy that faculty will actually use. Failing a single assignment certainly isn’t draconian, although experience tells me that most students who feel the need to cheat wind up failing the course anyway once they get an F. (I’d advocate a “zero” rather than an “F,” to distinguish an honest failure from fraud.) But if the looser penalty leads to greater faculty willingness to use the process, then that’s a good trade.
The point about other colleges strikes me as a weaker argument, precisely because so many cases get resolved informally. A strong official policy is usually honored in the breach. I’d rather have an imperfect policy that actually gets used than an ideal one that gathers dust on a shelf.
For the record, my personal position is that the dean’s recommended policy makes sense for garden-variety plagiarism, such as copy-and-paste papers. I’d want to reserve the option of going to a higher level for something more severe, like group cheating or hacking into computers to alter records. (I actually saw that once. We went directly to expulsion.) I wouldn’t worry too much about excessive leniency, only because in a more lenient system serial cheaters are more likely to be reported, and second and subsequent offenses can and should be treated more harshly.
Wise and worldly readers who teach: do you usually use the “due process” on your campus to report plagiarism, or do you usually handle it yourself? And if you avoid the official process, why?
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
The weakness of graduated punishment is that they can simply withdraw to avoid failing the class and no one can see the reason they quit.
At my current university, there's an elaborate due process system, but the faculty member gets to choose the penalty, and it does seem to get used more often.
Also, if the issue is cheating on an exam, especially a final exam, the difference between a 0 and an F in the course is likely merely semantic.
To address CCPhysicist's last comment: It's now part of our college policy that if you withdraw from a class while an academic dishonesty review is pending, it's considered a de facto admission of guilt unless the student successfully defends the charge, and the W can be changed to an F.
I've reported a number of cases, but I don't have a broad sense of how many other people do. I feel it's actually important to be vigilant as an instructor of future engineers. Prevention is better yet, though. ("I'm going to be running your submissions through MOSS, a plagiarism detector, so don't copy code from your friends." "I've run the submissions through MOSS and didn't find any cases. Congratulations; keep it up.")
Disparate impact cases are really, really hard to win outside of very specific situations, such as written employment tests. (See for example Michael Selmi, "Was Disparate Impact Theory a Mistake?", UCLA Law Reviewn 701).
Moreover, unless your institution processes many more cases per year than mine does, it would be pretty hard to have enough case numbers to demonstrate that disparate impact existed. You may rightly fear being sued, but the fear of actually losing such a case (one based on disparate-impact theory) is almost certainly misplaced.
I have no idea how common cheating is on the assignment level, but I have seen it frequently in my own classes, so I have to say I'm not convinced empty threats like these are particularly effective.
1) Graduated punishment that led up to the student being failed from the course. In this case, the graduated punishment helped me understand that the student had no intention of completing the coursework on his own merits, because he didn't even know what that meant.
2) Cheating on the final, in which a 0 on the test is the same as an F in the course. Obviously, there was no difference between the two policies there, so no worries.
The reason I prefer the graduated system is the one exception -- we caught a student from Nepal cheating, and had we failed him from the course, we would have had him deported (for failure to follow his student visa's requirements) back to a civil war. Since this was obviously a bit harsh, we all had a nice sit-down in which we discovered that the student had a lot of family issues and didn't feel comfortable talking to the Department, so he panicked. We settled on some extra credit and overall things ended up being way better.
So I like the graduated approach. It warns off the students who are warnable and lets those professors who don't fully understand the culture of cheating get used to the idea that some students are just like that.
The only case I had personally involved a student in 4th semester German who substituted a (very "literary") Thomas Mann short story for the essay he was supposed to write. Without changing the title. Obviously, this was not inadvertent and he failed the course.
Strictly speaking, University policy says I'm supposed to always turn them over to the University (unless the student and I agree on a punishment) -- but the process is rather bureaucratic and a pain, so I don't always do it. If it's a major case, I always use the official process.
When I avoid the official process, it has nothing to do with fears that the official process is too strict (actually, I fear it is too lenient, though I can't tell since they don't allow me any visibility whatsoever into the process once I hand things over to them). Rather, the reason I avoid the official process is because of the overhead of the paperwork.
I've given zeroes for the assignment, I've told the student to start all over and resubmit without penalty, I've fought to have a student fail the course, I've treated it as a technical problem as opposed to an ethical one. Frankly, with our current dean who I dislike and distrust, I would deal with any plagiarism on my own and keep it out of her sight--she'd only fuck me up and fuck me over.
I don't think 'academic integrity' is compromised by the occasional cheat. Academic integrity is built into (or not) course design, course content, grade design, the fit of the course into other department or college offerings, and so on.
For us this has always been a core value. In fact, if you look very closely, you will find embedded in our company logo the words “siyafunda siyakhula” – meaning “we are learning, we are growing”.