Their Cheatin' Hearts


You call it copying; today's college students call it collaborating.

Duke University's business school recently announced that 34 of its first-year M.B.A. students will be expelled, suspended or awarded failing grades for cheating on a take-home examination in a required class. The students were instructed to work through the open-book test individually, but 33 of them were found to have collaborated in groups, producing answers so similar that their professor was alerted to investigate (a 34th student was found guilty of lying, and all are expected to appeal). The incident was the largest ever reported in the history of the business school, currently tied for No. 12 in the nation, according to U.S. News.

Reaction to the scandal has tended to fall into two categories. One might be called the Enron analysis: Business students, like business leaders in capitalist America, see themselves as living in a dog-eat-dog world where competition is cutthroat and any means of succeeding, no matter how unethical by conventional standards, is justified—if they don't get caught. Proponents of this business-is-evil idea point to a survey published in the Academy of Management's journal last fall indicating that 56% of graduate business students had cheated in their academic work, compared with 47% of graduate students in other fields. The obvious implication: M.B.A. programs tend to be incubators of junior Gordon Gekkos, contemptuous of ordinary morality and convinced that, since everyone else is probably cheating, they would be fools not to cheat themselves.

The other reaction might be called "It's Not Really Cheating." An article about the Duke scandal in the current issue of Business Week speculates that getting together with fellow students to produce answers to a take-home exam might be more aptly described as "postmodern learning, wiki style"—a hip academic analogue to the "shared information" and "open source" team projects that bosses in the real-life working world reward. The article quotes Robert I. Sutton, a professor at the Stanford University Design School: "If you found somebody to help you write an exam, in our view that's a sign of an inventive person who gets stuff done."

Nonetheless, you have to be very postmodern indeed to excuse the violation of a professor's order not to share information, an order with which most of the Duke class complied. The Enron analysis is also problematic—for the truth is that cheating on tests and written assignments is at an all-time high, and not just in M.B.A. programs but across the board, at both graduate and undergraduate levels. The Academy of Management's study showed that nearly half of all graduate students on average, in such fields as law, engineering and education, cheated at one time or other in pursuit of their degrees.

Furthermore, the 56% cheating ratio for business-school students is only a few percentage points higher than the 50% of college undergraduates surveyed during the 2006-2007 academic year who reported they had engaged in "serious" forms of cheating—cribbing notes and copying during an exam, performing cut-and-paste plagiarism, submitting someone else's work as their own. So reports Donald L. McCabe, a business professor at Rutgers University who has conducted long-term studies of cheating for the Center for Academic Integrity and who also helped prepare the Academy of Management report. When you factor in forms of cheating that undergraduates don't consider serious—collaborating or getting help on assignments when asked for individual work or learning what was on a test from someone who took it earlier—the percentage rises to 67%, as Prof. McCabe wrote in an email.

Explanations abound. They include: new technology (cell phones, online term-paper mills, wireless Internet access in classrooms) that makes cheating and plagiarism easier than ever; professorial carelessness (giving the same tests year after year and thus feeding the fraternity house old- exams file); bad teaching that renders students cynical and insufficiently inspired to turn in their own work; and a lack of attention paid to the peculiar stresses of student life in the early 21st century.

Cheating and plagiarism were problems on campus back then, but there was far less of both. This suggests that the real crisis isn't technological or pedagogical—or ideological, as is charged in the case of business schools—but cultural and moral. Fewer and fewer students seem to believe that academic cheating violates their own internalized standards of honesty and good character.

"The grade is the coin of the realm—it's pegged to the perfect job and the perfect life," says Timothy Dodd, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity, which is coincidentally headquartered at Duke. "This revs up competition for grades, and when you add that to the community service and leadership skills that are expected of students nowadays, you end up with a time-management problem," Mr. Dodd says. It can tempt students to cut corners.

One disincentive to cheating that he advocates: ease up on tough grading standards. One might wonder whether there isn't enough grade inflation already and also whether today's relatively affluent and leisure-afforded students are really under more pressure than their forebears of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s who were often the first in their families to attend college and who typically juggled coursework with paying jobs and even family responsibilities. Cheating and plagiarism were problems on campus back then, but there was far less of both. This suggests that the real crisis isn't technological or pedagogical—or ideological, as is charged in the case of business schools—but cultural and moral. Fewer and fewer students seem to believe that academic cheating violates their own internalized standards of honesty and good character. And those internalized standards are exactly what many professors would like to see return.

"Campuses with honor codes have lower levels of cheating," says Prof. McCabe, whose studies of campus cheating involved more than 150,000 students at 150 schools. Yet even schools with honor codes have not been free of cheating scandals, the Air Force Academy and the University of Virginia among them. It should be noted that Duke's business school has an honor code that every student must sign before matriculating.

Which leads to a final observation: One way to instill an internalized standard of honesty is to put in place external standards that discourage dishonesty. Many professors and administrators are quietly doing exactly that: abandoning take-home tests and their temptations and devising cheat-proof exams (multiple versions of the same midterm, for example) or requiring students to submit their term papers through, a Web-based plagiarism screener. Stanford (its design school notwithstanding) has an honor code dating to 1921, but many professors nonetheless ask students to stash their electronic devices in their backpacks during tests. The Stanford Law School shuts off wireless Internet access at exam time.

Three years ago several business-school professors at the University of Maryland's College Park campus, after hearing reports of cheating on the midterm in a required accounting course, set up a sting operation. For the final exam, the professors posted a set of false answers on their Web site, which students could access via Internet-enabled cell phones as they took the test. The professors uncovered, obtained admissions of wrongdoing from and flunked 12 cheaters among the 400 test- takers. When the professors showed up at the next faculty meeting, they received a standing ovation.


Charlotte Allen. "Their Cheatin' Hearts: reprint." Wall Street Journal (May 11, 2007).

This article is reprinted with permission from The Wall Street Journal © 2007 Dow Jones & Company and from the author, Charlotte Allen. All rights reserved.


Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor for Beliefnet and the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus. She is a frequent contributor to numerous publications.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal

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