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2011 Winter Issue 6 (February 18, 2011)

Why this matters: the questions we need to ask

February 18, 2011
By Louis Newman, John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser

Integrity is a core value for all academic institutions.  Whatever other educational goals we embrace, whatever intellectual skills we teach, however successful we may be in preparing students for careers, we will have failed in our mission if we do not impart a commitment to honesty.  The cardinal academic sin for professors and students alike is to take credit for work that is not theirs.  It not only reflects lack of character, it makes a mockery of the whole purpose of education, namely, to develop our intellectual skills to the best of our ability, and to contribute to the production and transmission of knowledge.

At Carleton we have always had a strong culture of academic honesty, and we have always had instances of students who cheat—by turning in work that is not their own and pretending that it is.  There are lots of reasons why this happens.  The questions we face are why it appears to be happening more now than in the past and what we as a community should do about it.

Students need to understand how serious it is to violate these standards of academic honesty—even once, even if there was a “good reason” to give in to that temptation to cut corners.  And students need to understand the process by which the Academic Standing Committee (ASC) deliberates about these issues and reaches its decisions.

Faculty need to consider the ways in which they may unwittingly contribute to the problem—by assuming students understand what constitutes academic dishonesty and so not even talking about things like the proper rules for citation, by assigning paper topics on which students can readily find dozens of papers on the internet, or by failing to specify the sorts of student collaboration that are legitimate and those that are not.

And the College as a whole needs to consider how to bring greater transparency and accountability to the whole issue of academic integrity.  We could fruitfully begin by asking ourselves a series of questions:

--Should instances of academic dishonesty be recorded on a student’s transcript?

--Should there be periodic reports regarding academic dishonesty to the community, just as there are now reports about sexual harassment?  And if these data are made public, how granular should the analysis be (by gender? by class year? by department)?

--Should information about a student’s academic dishonesty be shared with that student’s adviser?

--Should students be permitted to drop a class while an academic dishonesty violation is under investigation by the ASC?
--Should students found guilty of violating the policy be invited (or even encouraged) to share something anonymously about their experience, as a way of warning others about the consequences of this behavior (and as a way of re-establishing their academic integrity)?

--Should some instruction about academic honesty be included in New Student Week and, if so, how?

--Should each faculty member be permitted (as they currently are) to determine the grade given to work that is determined to have been the result of plagiarism or cheating?  Since this results in situations where (at least potentially) students guilty of the same offense will receive different grades, should we establish some grading guidelines that would minimize these discrepancies? 

--Should Carleton institute an “honor code” of the sort that many other schools have which would require students to report on other students that they know to have cheated?

--Should students found guilty of academic dishonesty be precluded from receiving Latin honors at graduation?
These are just some of the procedural and policy issues that we as a community need to address.  I am grateful to the editors of The Carletonian for devoting extended space to these issues and for ensuring that a variety of perspectives will be represented.  The final conclusions we reach on these matters may be less important than the fact that they emerge from a deliberative, reflective and inclusive process that engages faculty, students and administrators.  I cannot imagine an issue more deserving of such careful consideration.

Louis Newman

John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies

Director, Perlman Center for Learning and Teaching

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