Reports in August that nearly half of a Harvard University government class called “Introduction to Congress” may have cheated by working together on a take-home final exam last spring have reverberated at Penn.
Administrators and student leaders are using the incident as an opportunity to reflect on the issue of academic integrity at Penn, and on whether such an incident could happen here.
“If it could happen there, it could happen anywhere,” College of Arts and Sciences Dean Dennis DeTurck said. “We like to think it wouldn’t happen here, but it is something we have to be careful of and do our best to prevent.”
As the Harvard story has unfolded over the past few weeks, it has become a focal point of national attention and discussion.
Michele Goldfarb, who heads the Office of Student Conduct — which deals with matters of student discipline, including academic integrity issues and other student misconduct — thinks the scandal will have far-reaching repercussions beyond the Ivy League and even beyond higher education.
“The Harvard incident will cause a lot of people to talk about academic dishonesty and its implication for the meaning of education,” she said.
A different culture?
While many around the world consider Harvard the paradigm of excellence in higher education, student leaders at Penn who deal with academic integrity do not think Penn has the same cheating culture that allegedly caused the scandal.
“There was a culture at Harvard where it was acceptable to collaborate on take-homes,” said Engineering junior Sharon Roth, co-chair of the University Honor Council, a student group that works closely with the OSC to promote academic integrity. “That’s not allowed here. Students know a take-home is an exam that should be their own work.”
The New York Times reported that such collaboration at Harvard was “widespread and accepted,” according to one student in the class.
Engineering and Wharton senior Andrew Staniforth, the Undergraduate Assembly’s academic affairs director, agreed with Roth that a similar cheating scandal would not happen at Penn.
“I understand the cutthroat nature of an Ivy League institution, but I’ve never felt the necessity to go beyond the realm of what is accepted,” he said.
Various media reports have quoted Harvard students alleging that Matthew Platt, the assistant professor who taught “Introduction to Congress,” was ambiguous about what type of collaboration was permitted.
While Penn student leaders interviewed thought professors at the University are better at clearing up similar ambiguity, they acknowledged that it is nevertheless a problem and needs to be discussed more openly.
“A lot of cheating occurs from miscommunication or misunderstanding about what constitutes as cheating in a particular course,” Wharton senior and Student Committee on Undergraduate Education Chair Scott Dzialo said.
Dzialo said professors should always do their best to clear up any ambiguity early on and outline their expectations regarding academic integrity.
Staniforth agreed, adding that “it’s the professor’s responsibility to make it clear at the beginning of the course or before assignments or exams what is allowed and what is not.”
Ultimately, however, Goldfarb said it falls on students’ shoulders to sort out any uncertainty.
“Everyone has to clarify ambiguity, but in the end it’s the student’s responsibility to clarify because they’re the ones responsible for the work,” she said.
Cheating at Penn
Despite the perceived sense among some that Penn does not have a cheating culture, the OSC has dealt with hundreds of academic integrity cases over the years.
In the 2011-12 school year, the OSC dealt with 66 cases of alleged academic integrity violations — one fewer case than it dealt with the year before.
According to OSC data, this number has remained relatively stable over the past decade, with the one exception coming in the 2006-07 school year. During that year, the OSC reported dealing with 165 cases of alleged academic integrity violations.
This spike was largely the result of an incident that occurred during a final project for Operations and Information Management 101, a Wharton class with mostly freshmen.
The final project instructed students to work in groups of two or three on a programing assignment. Collaboration between groups was prohibited, but professors found “excessive collaboration” in students’ work, 2008 Wharton graduate Jason Toff, a private tutor for the course at the time of the incident, told The Daily Pennsylvanian in 2007.
In the year of the academic integrity allegations against students in the OPIM course, 70 students were put on probation, 71 had to perform community service, 58 had to write an essay and 36 had to write letters of apology. The OSC declined to specify how many of these sanctions were related to the OPIM incident, citing student confidentiality.
Cases of alleged violations of academic integrity like this are brought to the OSC by faculty. The OSC then sends a confidential notice to the accused student informing him or her of the allegation.
Next, the OSC conducts “an extremely detail-oriented and thorough” investigation, Goldfarb said. Students can only be found guilty if there is clear and convincing evidence against them.
If this standard is reached, the OSC charges the student with at least one violation and enforces a set of sanctions “to get students to accept responsibility for what happened,” Goldfarb said.
“Our goal is to be as non-adversarial as possible,” she added. “We want to get students back on track without being overly punitive.”
Sanctions range from relatively light requirements like academic counseling to harsher punishments like suspension, withholding a diploma or expulsion. Four students have been expelled for academic integrity violations since the 2004-05 academic year, according to OSC data.
Students found to have violated University policy can either sign an agreement to comply with the OSC’s sanctions or appeal the ruling. A panel of three faculty members and two Honor Council students hear appeals in cases of academic integrity.
All academic dishonesty violations create a permanent disciplinary record that can be reported outside of Penn with the student’s permission. Students must sign a release to give employers permission to access their educational records.
“In many ways that may be the most serious for some of our students,” Goldfarb said. “It doesn’t end students’ potential at all in my experience, but it’s not insignificant.”
DeTurck likes to tell parents that their children should be entitled to “screw up once” in a somewhat major fashion.
“Students might have to face the consequences, but it shouldn’t ruin their lives,” DeTurck said.
The importance of academic integrity
Violations are treated so seriously because academic integrity “is so fundamental to what Penn is all about,” Goldfarb said.
While many note that cheating gives cheaters an unfair advantage over their peers who follow the rules, those interviewed offered several other reasons as to why academic integrity is vital to Penn’s mission.
One common idea is that cheating prevents genuine learning.
“We’re here at Penn to learn,” Dzialo said. “Cheating inhibits learning and is harmful to our own learning process.”
But the harm of violating the University’s academic integrity policies can extend far beyond the perpetrator. Some feel it can diminish the legitimacy of a Penn degree.
“If you cheat at your degree, I don’t know if you can say you earned it,” Goldfarb said. “But you’re also undermining the value of everyone else’s degree.”
She believes it is especially important to uphold the integrity of certain degrees in highly technical professions, like engineering and nursing. DeTurck said violations of academic integrity could have major safety ramifications in these two fields.
“We as a university deal in ideas. It’s our product, it’s our stock and trade,” DeTurck said. “You have to be able to trust the integrity of the process of creating and testing and owning ideas or attributing them. If we lose that, then we’ve lost everything.”
Cheating in the information age
Over the years, advances in technology have facilitated students’ ability to violate academic integrity standards and have blurred the once-clearer line between plagiarism and using public information.
Technology makes it easier for students to access information and share it with their peers, whether at home at a computer or at an exam with a smartphone. This easy access to information has made cheating more tempting, Goldfarb said.
Not only has technology increased temptation, but it has also complicated the rules regarding source citation and avoiding plagiarism.
Roth thinks Penn’s Code of Academic Integrity should be updated “to make it clearer for students” how to cite sources from the internet, specifically focusing on what is considered plagiarism.
DeTurck worries that, while the goal of the OSC’s policies will always be to prevent students from using other people’s ideas without attribution, their methodology may not be able to keep up with constantly evolving technology.
“Education hasn’t kept up with the fact that there’s just so much stuff out on the internet,” DeTurck said. “Academic integrity is no exception to that.”
The judicial aspects of academic integrity do not necessarily need to be updated, he said, but teaching students how to learn in this new age while dealing with academic integrity is constantly changing.
“Sometimes we just have to embrace our confusion and ignorance and figure out how to overcome it on our own rather than appeal to an authority,” he said. “It’s impossible to know everything that’s out there.”