Opinion | Columns

'Lower-level cheating,' seriously?

A few weeks ago I read a piece in the New York Times about widespread cheating on Regents examinations by students in Stuyvesant High School (“Stuyvesant Students Describe the How and the Why of Cheating,” Sept. 25), and it got me thinking about our new academic integrity initiative. The article refers to a 2010 survey of 40,000 high school students, which reported that 59 percent had cheated on a test during the previous year. It goes on to describe a culture at Stuyvesant, a premier New York City high school, that is defined by rampant “lower-level cheating.”

Lower-level cheating? I never knew there was such a thing. In my world growing up, there was just cheating or no cheating. We weren’t clever enough to have gradations of cheating. Nor were our parents or our teachers. We didn’t distinguish levels of cheating and decide that some were acceptable and others not. This was, however, a long time ago—a time when many things were simpler. You were either a cheater or not a cheater. Simple.

Today everything seems to be more complicated. There are cell phones—phones that can take photographs, no less. There is the Internet, which has changed our concept of research; there are more collaborative work environments; and there is the unrelenting pressure to achieve academically. I think that in many ways, the past was simpler. Today, there are few sectors of society that we can regard as paragons of honesty and integrity—sports, business, politics, religion? So, the argument goes, how can we blame our students? How can we hold our students and our academic community accountable for the creation and maintenance of a culture of integrity and academic honesty when our society is so complex, our social organizations tainted, and our students so driven?

Do we give up hope? Do we shrug our collective shoulders and accept a world where cheating is rationalized and integrity considered an old-fashioned oddity? I think it is our obligation as members of the Columbia academic community to return to a simpler time, or at least to a simpler idea. Let’s agree that there is no such thing as “lower-level cheating.” Cheating is cheating. An academic community that honors integrity cannot tolerate cheating, no matter what the level. All of us must be responsible for ensuring that—no matter what the complications, no matter what the standards of other sectors of society, no matter what the pressures. We all must be committed to the creation and daily maintenance of a culture of academic integrity and intellectual honesty.

While the idea of either being a cheater or not might be a simple one, the task of ensuring the high standards of our intellectual community is more complicated. Many students complain that there is too much academic pressure, and while there is little we can do about this at the high school level, students and faculty can engage in open and frank discussions about how to work together to address the issue of academic pressure, either self-imposed or not. Students can argue that they think their futures are irrevocably defined by their GPAs. Faculty can explain how betrayed they feel when a student cheats in their class. While we can’t do anything directly about other sectors of society, faculty and deans can assume responsibility for defining expectations, setting standards, and providing clarity. We can explain to students why the cornerstone of any intellectual community is grounded in its devotion to intellectual honesty.

The development of academic integrity workshops is another step in the process that will ensure that every student will have an opportunity to learn about expectations concerning intellectual honesty, understand how academic dishonesty erodes our intellectual purpose, and be informed about resources available to our community. We will also have to develop a way of continually engaging students and faculty in this conversation about individual integrity and collective honesty. We will have to listen to suggestions and understand challenges.

In the end, however, there is another simple truth: Having academic integrity and being an honest person is a very personal decision. No matter how much we educate, how much we talk about the need for academic integrity, there will always be new technology, new gadgets, and increasing academic pressures. There will always be opportunities for cheating, no matter what the level. So even if we make a pact as a community to outlaw cheating—to create an academic environment marked by its collective devotion to honesty and integrity—in the end it will be up to each one of us to decide whether we are going to cheat or not. Simple.

The author is the Columbia College Dean of Academic Affairs.

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