Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ask the Administrator: Integrity of Integrity Policies

A returning correspondent writes:

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.