University gets tough on cheating

B Y - P A T - C U R R Y
A D D I T I O N A L - R E P O R T I N G - B Y - J E N N I F E R - R A I N E Y

Students who violate UGA's academic honesty policy run the risk of not only being expelled, but of having prospective employers find out that they cheated in college.

It was late, she was tired, the foreign language paper due the next morning was nowhere near being ready—and the information the UGA student needed was there for the taking on the Internet.

Drag, click, copy.

She figured her professor would never know the difference.

Scroll, click, paste.

She was wrong. The work, to put it bluntly, was too good. From what the professor had seen throughout the term, the student could not have written the paper herself. A keyword search on the Internet—a cheater's newest accomplice—produced the damning evidence as quickly as it had the ready-made research paper. The professor turned the student's paper and the Internet original over to UGA's academic affairs office, which handles all academic honesty cases.

Confronted by a student solicitor trained to investigate cases of possible cheating, the student, a senior, admitted her plagiarism and took the penalties recommended by her professor: an F in the course and a two-year notation on her academic transcript, which could tell the world—including other universities, post-graduate programs, and prospective employers—that she had been found in violation of UGA's academic honesty policy.

In the realm of possible outcomes, this student was actually lucky. A transcript notation is the minimum penalty that can be given for a first offense. The other two penalties for a first offender are suspension for a semester or outright expulsion. On a second offense, the only penalty available is expulsion. Which is not to say that this student got off easy. A transcript notation must remain on a student's record until they leave the University—and for at least two years after the incident occurred. For a senior, that means two years after graduation.

"Every student should be offended by academic dishonesty. It diminishes their own work and the value of their degrees, plus the obvious—it's wrong."—Program specialist Deborah Bell

"The first time I heard about the penalties, I said, 'Whoa, this is some serious stuff,'" says Suzanne Scoggins, a sophomore from Bremen, who is part of the team of student solicitors. "As long as kids know the consequences, the penalties are absolutely justified. You're not going to deter kids if it's just a letter-grade reduction or a zero on the test. It needs to be something kids can't overcome, or have to swallow really hard to overcome."

Researchers have been studying the issue of academic cheating for decades, and here's the bad news: it's getting worse. Last fall, in an eight-page cover story, U.S. News & World Report called cheating an "epidemic" that's rampant on campuses nationwide, citing surveys wherein three-fourths of American college students admit to having cheated at least once.

In 1994, UGA's University Council developed and adopted a policy of academic honesty, known officially as "A Culture of Honesty." Revised and reimplemented last fall, it outlines what constitutes academic honesty, creates a system for investigating allegations, and establishes a set of penalties for violations. From 1994-99, 375 cases had been reported, including 15 still under investigation. Of the 360 finalized cases, 204 students were found or pled guilty. Another 129 cases were dismissed, 22 were withdrawn by the faculty member, and five cases are inactive because the students left the University. The vast majority of cases involved unauthorized assistance and plagiarism; they came from virtually every program on campus, and involved students from every level, freshmen to doctoral candidates.

"I tell students on the first day that their most cherished possession is their honor. They can lose it by cheating. Once that happens, it's hard to get it back. It's not just cheating on the mid-term. It's about how to live one's life with honor."—Professor Loch Johnson

"Every student should be offended by academic dishonesty, and a significant portion of our students are," says Deborah Bell, educational program specialist in the Office of the Vice President for Instruction and one of those in charge of administering UGA's academic honesty policy. "It diminishes their own work and the value of their degrees, plus the obvious—it's wrong. It's naive to say that 30,000 students embrace the policy and there's no cheating going on. But we have to step up and say, 'Academic dishonesty is wrong, we have this policy, and you can be part of this community if you are willing to live by it.'"

The policy condemns cheating on tests, plagiarism, lying, giving or accepting unauthorized assistance, falsifying lab or research results, tampering with grades, and buying and stealing term papers. (For a more detailed review of the policy, see sidebar.) As of the 1999-2000 school year, the penalties were strengthened, largely on the recommendation of students on the UGA taskforce.

"They spoke up quite eloquently at University Council," says biology division chairman and botany professor Bill Barstow, who served twice on the academic integrity taskforce. "Students were adamant —they didn't want to be lenient. If you get caught, it's serious. It's like you can't be a little bit pregnant. This is tantamount to stealing."

Ann Crowther, assistant vice president for instruction, admits that when she took over the implementation of the policy last fall she was stunned by the severity of the penalties.


A Culture of Honesty
The University's academic honesty policy—known officially as "A Culture of Honesty"—outlines the conduct students are expected to adhere to. Academic dishonesty includes:

Plagiarism is submitting someone else's work and claiming it as your own. Buying a term paper is also considered plagiarism. Deborah Bell, who helps administer UGA's academic honesty policy, says plagiarism is one of the most difficult areas for students to understand. "I tell them, 'If you're talking about your car stereo being stolen or your roommate taking your favorite piece of jewelry, that would anger you. Plagiarism is the same thing.' I've never seen a case where someone put in too many footnotes." When it comes to buying or taking a term paper off the Web, Bell says she's "always surprised to find students think faculty don't have Web access like they do. At least once a semester, we get a case like that."

Unauthorized Assistance
Unauthorized assistance is defined as giving or receiving help in connection with an exam or other academic work that hasn't been approved by a faculty member. That means a student can't copy someone else's answers for an exam, a lab experiment, or any other assignment, or let anyone copy his or her work. It also means students can't tell other students what kind of subjects will be covered on a test, finish someone else's assignment, or turn in a group assignment and say everyone did his fair share when that didn't happen.

This section of the policy covers such instances as giving false reasons for not completing assignments or attending an exam; falsifying or fabricating lab data; altering academic work after it's been turned in; and altering grades, lab or attendance records, including signing the attendance log for another student if attendance is counted toward a grade. It also covers damaging computer equipment or lab equipment to alter or prevent the evaluation of academic work; unauthorized use of another person's computer password; giving false information in regard to an investigation; or submitting the same work more than once for different classes, unless it's been approved in advance.

Stealing such items as exams, grade records, books, term papers, and lab data is strictly forbidden. Viewing these items on someone's computer without permission is also considered theft.

"I was really taken aback," she says. "If the penalties don't send a strong message that we take academic honesty seriously, I can't imagine what would. I absolutely support the policy, but I have some concerns about the consequences. There will be students who are not bad human beings, who have never cheated, and who get boxed in with health issues, financial problems, or just too much going on. They come up to an exam or paper and make a bad decision. These penalties truly can change a student's life forever. That's why we're running as fast and as hard as we can to get the word out. Students cannot afford to make bad decisions."

Peter, who just got his Ph.D. from UGA, says cheating at the University is fairly widespread. "People copy answers, use cheat sheets, and plagiarize," he says. "I've seen people print the same assignment out twice and two people turn it in. I've copied homework and given my answers to someone else. Professors are aware this goes on, but they don't try to prevent it."

"I constantly run into faculty who say, 'It's too late by the time we get them. I'm not here to teach honesty; I'm here to teach engineering.' I think if no one has done it, all the more reason for us to do it."—Rutgers professor Donald McCabe, founder of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke

In reality, UGA professors take a wide variety of measures to reduce opportunities to cheat. Students say it's common for professors to tell them to leave all their belongings at the front of the classroom during an exam, to put extra space between students during exams, and to walk the aisles to monitor the test-takers. There's no end to the places students will come up with to hide notes, so some professors make students turn their ball caps backwards so the brim can't be used as a crib sheet.

Barstow, who teaches freshman and sophomore introductory biology—both large lecture classes—has seen all sorts of creative attempts at cheating.

"I've seen students with telephones and ear pieces. I don't know if they're cheating or not," he says. "So I tell them no phones, no beepers, no calculators, nothing but a pencil in my exam."

Loch Johnson, a Regents Professor in political science, has students bring blue books to exams. He then collects them and redistributes them in case a student has penciled notes in the back. Johnson uses a new text and a new set of tests each term. He hands out peer assessments for group projects to make sure everyone pulls his weight, and he tailors papers, such as having a student contrast his own political views to that of a public official, so they can't be plagiarized. He also talks to his students about the importance of personal integrity.

"I tell students on the first day that their most cherished possession is their honor," says Johnson. "They can lose it by cheating. Once that happens, it's hard to get it back. It's not just cheating on the mid-term. It's about how to live one's life with honor."

Why do college students cheat? Rutgers professor Donald McCabe, who is also a founder of the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke, has asked thousands of students that question. More than 75 percent of the nearly 2,000 students he helped survey at nine large public universities in 1993 admitted they were guilty of "one or more instances of serious cheating."

"My hypothesis is that college students arrive from high school—where virtually everybody does some kind of cheating— and expect things to be different," says McCabe. "Because they don't have a lot of experience, they look around to see what other people are doing, and look to professors for reaction when cheating occurs in the classroom. If a student sees a lot of cheating, feels the professor doesn't do anything about it—and he needs to keep a certain GPA—it doesn't take long for the student to say, 'I have no choice. I may not like it, but I have to do it, too.'"

Several UGA students interviewed for this story said that the B average needed to keep a HOPE scholarship puts a lot of pressure on people.

"If I lose it, all hell would break lose," says Megan, a junior from Tucker, who is studying public relations. "I wouldn't cheat, but it could drive some students to do that." She knows one student who cheats on a regular basis. "We're all waiting for her to get caught. She's really blatant about it. It's just how she's gotten by."

Ayano, a junior from Japan who is studying chemistry, doesn't buy the argument that students cheat because they're pressured by their parents to make good grades. "It's not so much grades as it is laziness," she says. "People always want to find an easier way to do things. People in my chemistry classes have lab results and tests from the previous semester. I'm an international student, so I don't know where they get them, but it doesn't seem fair that they have these things to study with."

Faculty say they know that a certain amount of cheating goes on, though they differ in their opinions as to how much. They have serious concerns about how easy the Internet makes it for students to commit plagiarism. Still, there is a reluctance among some instructors—at both UGA and on campuses across the U.S.—to turn students in for cheating.

"Some decide to just give the student an F and call it a day," say Johnson. "They feel that's an adequate punishment and they don't want to get caught up in the bureaucracy to pursue a case through formal panels. But one of the most compelling reasons to go to the student judiciary is that there may be a pattern of cheating that an individual professor doesn't know about. It could be that the student is cheating in all their classes."

It's a major mistake, Johnson says, for faculty members to take these matters into their own hands. "It undermines the whole deterrent," he says. "There have to be severe penalties because this is a serious matter."

Another reason to support the system is that it protects a student's rights.

"We tell faculty, 'Don't deny a student due process,'" says Bell. "They may think they're doing the student a favor, but they could come back a year later and say, 'I got a zero and no one heard my side.' The faculty and our office shouldn't be judge and jury. We leave that up to our panel. The solicitors could decide there's no basis and dismiss."

Solicitors are specially selected and trained by UGA's judicial affairs office. Following a national trend that's considered critical to the policy's success, UGA involves students in every step of the process. As soon as an allegation is reported to Crowther's office, two student solicitors are assigned to the case. Their investigation determines whether the charge is dismissed or goes forward. If the student admits guilt, the case is closed and penalties are assessed. If the student denies any guilt but the solicitor finds there's a basis to the charge, it goes to a hearing. The solicitors present their findings to a hearing panel made up of two faculty and three students. If the accused asks for representation, another student presents his or her defense.

"It's imperative that you have students involved in a process like this," says Scoggins. "It's better for the accused. They trust us more. One of our strongest tools is age, and the fact that we're peers. We're not trying to win or lose a case. We're trying to find out what happened."

That can be a fine line to walk. Hearing panelist Kim McKenzie, a pre-law senior from Snellville, says the responsibility of deciding a student's future weighs heavily on her.

"It scares me that I have that much control over a person's life," she says. "We don't go through training to determine if they're lying. I don't feel comfortable having the power to kick someone out of school whom I've seen for an hour and a half. We don't know what kind of student they are; we don't see their transcripts. If you had a panel full of people who are purists on the code, you could ruin someone's life."

Trained by the judicial affairs office, student solicitors determine whether a case should be dismissed or merits a hearing.

For that reason, the policy has an appeals process that can go all the way to the State Board of Regents. The panel may also assess a more lenient penalty than the minimum, if they feel the circumstances warrant. McCabe and other national leaders stress that, policies and penalties aside, the only way a university can reduce cheating is to create a culture of honesty. That won't happen without the active involvement of faculty.

"It's my opinion—and it's not shared by everybody—that teaching students about honesty and fairness is an important part of an education," says McCabe. "I constantly run into faculty who say, 'It's too late by the time we get them. I'm not here to teach honesty; I'm here to teach engineering.' But I think if no one has done it, all the more reason for us to do it."

Bob Boehmer, a former practicing attorney who teaches legal studies in UGA's Terry College of Business, helped develop the current academic honesty policy. The challenge, he says, was to make sure it was not perceived as an imposition of arbitrary, even anti-academic, rules.

"When you start talking about reinforcing the need for academic honesty, some people say, 'You're turning my classroom into a prison cell as opposed to an academic environment.' The education of the faculty needs to be done in a way that explains the underlying purpose—to promote academic inquiry and the educational process, and not to impose rules just for the sake of rules."

Johnson, who runs a congressional internship program, says ethical behavior should be taught alongside factual data. "It's a theme that has to be reiterated time and time again," he says. "There's not a thing any of us teach where there's not an ethical dimension. We fail as professors if we don't explore that as well as the empirical, factual information. What if a chemical company was working on a drug and most of the experiments went well, but 20 percent showed horrendous side effects. Should they go forward? A good UGA student would say, 'We can't go forward with this.'"

While many faculty currently include information about academic honesty in their syllabus and bring it up before exams, Crowther says more needs to be done. Starting with college application materials, she believes academic honesty must be intrinsic to all facets of the university experience. Last summer's orientation for incoming freshmen included a session on academic honesty, but it wasn't required.

"If I'm not able to change that between now and the next orientation," she says, "I'm certainly not doing my job."

While many students say that their professors do not, in fact, discuss academic honesty in class, most appear to know that a policy exists—and, interestingly, think it is more severe than it actually is. In random interviews at the Tate Center, GM found that students believe that, if they get caught cheating, they will be expelled.

McCabe says the next step is to be persistent in creating a culture of honesty and let the system take hold.

"You need a group of seniors who entered when the policy started. That's the minimum before you can see dramatic change," he says. "I have enough data to say that we're seeing just a hint of progress. Students are more willing to at least undertake discussion of the problem and see the problem fixed. That's encouraging. Bottom line is, if somebody said my job is to develop an honor code at Rutgers, I'd turn it down. It's a formidable task. I applaud Georgia."

Pat Curry is an Athens-based freelancer.

Back to Top . Up Front . Features . Alumni Profiles . Class Notes . Back to Current Issue