Which is worse – the cheating or the commentary?

The Chronicle of Higher Education (and others) are reporting the largest cheating incident ever at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke. 34 students were caught having very similar answers on a take home exam. 33 were convicted of cheating, one of lying to the judicial board and four were exonerated.

Cheating by students always amazes me. Back when I started college, an old engineering professor explained to the class that the most benefit you were likely to receive from cheating was, maybe, an increase of one letter grade. However, if he caught you, and he was likely to catch you, you would receive an F and be suspended from school. He encouraged us to “do the math” and understand that it wasn’t worth it. I think this may be the right approach. Rather than trying to drill an honor code into students, we need to do two things: 1) encourage them to think about it as a risk management exercise; and 2) have all students grade a set of 30 papers.

The second suggestion may need a little explanation. I have graded thousands of papers over the past 10 years. The basic process of grading is to sit down for a several hour block of time and work through them all. When you are focused on a set of papers for a relatively short period of time, you find that you almost always recognize an answer if you see it again. If the words are written in the same way, if the argument is the same. I’ve graded programs where the syntax of two programs was strangely similar and turned out to be a case of cheating – even though the variable names had changed. If students ever experienced grading, they would be more likely to realize how hard it is to get copied answers by the grader.

One final note. As bad as the cheating was, I have an even harder time with the following from the Chronicle article:

James R. Bailey, a professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business, said in an interview on Sunday that it is possible that business schools, by the nature of the material they teach, breed a certain amount of academic dishonesty. Mr. Bailey is editor of Academy of Management Learning & Education, which dedicated an issue last September to ethics in business education.

“Business schools generally have a culture of competition and self-interest,” he said. “In our theory classes, we’re teaching theories of advancing one’s self-interest.”

“All the formal mechanisms in the world — honor codes, having everybody read it during classes, an ethics class — can’t overcome culture,” he said.

Besides, he pointed out, if students are collaborating on a take-home test, they may be building useful skills — even if it is against the rules. (“The professor’s asking for it when you give a take-home exam,” he said.)

“They were enterprising, they took initiative, and they worked together,” he said. “Aren’t those all the qualities we’re trying to encourage of business school students?”

Professor Bailey’s response to the incident should embarrass him, the journal he edits and the entire business education community. To excuse, and even promote cheating, and to blame the professor for assuming the students were mature enough to handle a take home exam, is probably the best indictment I could find against our business culture. The “cheating is okay and expected” attitude in school is the same one which encourages businesses to try to get around regulations and to promote the bottom line at all cost. It’s the same attitude that will kill people by ignoring product and environmental safety laws once these students are in positions of leadership at large companies.

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