Plagiarism in Paradise

Is cheating an epidemic at the 5Cs?
As elite educational institutions, the Claremont Colleges attract students of a high caliber with a strong motivation for success. In an increasingly competitive post-graduate atmosphere, however, the need for a high grade point average may overshadow critical academic inquiry. This can lead such students to acts of drastic and dishonest cheating, many of which go unnoticed.

Imagine a test-taking scenario in which, instead of sitting in a small classroom, you are sitting in a high-tech testing lab. All of your belongings are checked at the door. Cell phones, on or off, are not allowed, nor is any other electronic device. Cameras monitor the room to assure that you keep your gaze on the screen. These precautions may seem like overkill, but even this kind of security cannot prevent dishonesty. Under these very conditions, over 1/3 of students in a Business Management course was caught cheating on a Senior Capstone midterm exam at the University of Central Florida last fall. Out of 600 students taking the exam, over 200 admitted to have gained access to test questions before the exam and subsequently used that information during the test.

Could such a situation happen in Claremont? Are there cheaters and plagiarists amongst us? Both data and public opinion say yes. On the macro level, a 2005 study by Donald McCabe of Rutgers University showed that 68 percent of polled college students admitted to cheating, and many students believed that schools would not catch said cheaters. Undoubtedly, some administrators and faculty members do not realize the prevalence of academic dishonesty.

Individually, the Claremont Colleges, like many other institutions, take a strong stand against academic dishonesty in written policy. Each school has a section within its Student Handbook prohibiting academic misconduct. However, there are slight variations in each that make the actual handling of an incident differ on each campus.

At Scripps, academic dishonesty “is not tolerated,” and there is a very specific procedure for handling suspected cases of plagiarism. Steps include a call to the Dean of Students, a history check for prior academic dishonesty, and an extensive investigation, for which direct guidelines are given in the handbook. A major factor in deciding the consequences of plagiarism is the student’s willingness to admit to the act. Whether or not it is the student’s first academic offense is also taken into consideration. For students committing a first offense who admit to their wrongdoing, the handbook recommends that the faculty give the student a failing grade both on the assignment in question and in the course, although the professor is allowed to ask the student to redo the assignment.

The Scripps handbook also discusses the available option to move the case to the “Augmented Committee on Academic Review,” but only at the discretion of the professor. In the case of a repeat offender, the faculty is required to give the failing grade and refer to the committee, which can rule in favor of expulsion.

Pitzer makes similar condemnations of academic misconduct but, unlike Scripps, allows extensive leeway for faculty to decide the appropriate consequences. The handbook allows professors to “impose any academic penalty, including failure in the course,”, which stands unless the student appeals the decision in writing. At this stage, the matter moves to the Judicial Council, the same body that handles all other accusations of academic and non-academic misconduct.

Pomona “expects students to understand and adhere to basic standards of honesty and academic integrity” and delegates a large amount of responsibility to the assignment instructor. If the professor suspects that standards have been breached, he or she must consult with the student in question, as well as with his or her department chair, and impose whatever penalty he or she sees fit. Like Pitzer, Pomona leaves the penalty to the discretion of the faculty and only removes the charge if the student appeals. The case then moves to the Board for Academic Discipline, whose procedures are outlined in utmost detail within the handbook. The tone and style that Pomona uses in its handbook is as much to notify students of the procedure as to give faculty step-by-step instructions on how to handle the situation.

Claremont McKenna requires its students to sign a Statement of Academic Integrity, entrusting that they agree to hold high academic standards and not commit any offenses. CMC’s go-to consequence for cases of academic misconduct is some form of suspension, a point in the handbook that involves some of the harshest language out of all of the 5Cs. CMC makes no exception for first or second time offenders. Consistent with the other colleges, grade punishments are at the faculty’s discretion.

Finally, Harvey Mudd is the only school in the Consortium that has an Honor Code. A daring move, Mudd’s honor code combines expectations of both academic and social conduct. Instead of splitting these aspects, Mudd takes a holistic view that students should “act as responsible individuals.”

“I believe that it works. The kind of people who come to Mudd buy into it, they take it seriously. It was one of the biggest reasons why I came [to Mudd],” said an anonymous Mudd sophomore. This student projected that cheating in the Mudd culture would be rare. Even so, the school has a highly regimented system for conducting hearings on dishonesty, but, keeping with the holistic view, there is no specific policy with respect to plagiarism.

It is clear that the Claremont Colleges take a firm stand against academic dishonesty and impose serious consequences for those who violate policies, but how much do we actually cheat? “I personally know of many cheaters,” says one anonymous Claremont senior. “[I] see it often, find it frustrating, but at this point have come to accept it.”

This viewpoint is not unique. When queried, students were often unwilling to speak about cheating at the Colleges on record. “[I have] never heard it discussed on campus,” said an anonymous Claremont junior. “I’m sure it’s happening. It’s…college.” That students in Claremont are so uncomfortable talking about cheating on campus sends a mixed message. Has Claremont fallen victim to an invisible cheating epidemic or, conversely, are the Colleges an exception to the national trend?

One faculty member seems just as unsure. “I don’t know how extensive the problem is, other than I suspect it’s a serious problem…clearly it goes on,” said George Thomas, Associate Professor of Government at CMC. The biggest issues with plagiarism are how difficult it is to detect and what kind of impact stricter regulations and enforcement against it would have on college culture. “ “I’m somewhat skeptical of running all papers through a program to try to catch plagiarism. It might be taken as accusatory and I suspect that most students don’t cheat. And yet we need to have something more robust in place to catch the cases that do occur” said Thomas.

When it comes to actual rates of plagiarism and academic dishonesty at the Colleges, a straight answer is hard to find. When researching statistics on rates of cheating at the Claremonts, the Port Side did not receive warm responses. “I must decline to comment,” said Elizabeth Morgan, Registrar and Director of Institutional Research at CMC. The Registrars of Pitzer and Scripps forwarded requests to the Dean of Faculty, stating they did not have the relevant information. The lack of response here could be due to the possibility that such information does not exist, but the Colleges’ lack of transparency is troubling. One would hope that statistics are kept and that the Consortium is actively tracking such trends, though it seems that this may not be the case.

One question that inevitably arises is how the Claremonts can apply policy evenly if cheating is so difficult to catch. Although some universities use the controversial paper-reviewing website TurnItIn.com to catch plagiarism, copyright and ethical issues remain plausible. No one can keep watch on students 24/7.

Nevertheless, why cheat? This becomes the most difficult question of all. The Claremont Colleges maintain extremely rigorous standards for admission. Students have proven capable of handling the workload and understanding proper citation format. Rather, “students may be overwhelmed and decide to take a shortcut,” said Thomas. The pressure is intense; for today’s competitive job market, it seems that students must have a high GPA and do more than ever outside the classroom.

Whether a culture that unintentionally exists enables plagiarism through strict policy uncoupled by thorough action is up for debate. What is clear is that Claremont is not a bubble from national academic trends, and additional steps must certainly be taken to protect the integrity of our fellow students, staff, and faculty at the Consortium. Until we, as a community, are able to hold an open dialogue about the nature of cheating at the Colleges, despite the painful results it may yield, these problems will stay hidden underground, damaging us all.

Students are not blind to alternative solutions. Earlier this semester, Braden Holstege, PZ ‘14, presented a discussion on creating an Honor Code at Pitzer through Student Senate. Caroline Mimbs Nyce, CMC ‘13, made a passionate argument for an Honor Code at CMC in a piece for the ASCMC Forum. Although questions of institutional culture arise with the successful implementation of an Honor Code, these discussions are a good place to start. A Mudd-style Honor Code may not be the right solution for the rest of the Claremonts, but it could lead to solutions that effectively prevent academic dishonesty in the future.

Jonathan F. Rice, the International Managing Editor for the Claremont Port Side, is a senior at Pitzer College majoring in Political Studies with an emphasis in Global Politics. Originally from the Washington, DC area, he loves travel, critical thinking and free speech. Green tea and coffee fuel his adventures. Tweet him @j_ricecakes

One Response to “Plagiarism in Paradise”

  1. Samuel Rychers says:

    Obviously, this can be blamed on Pomona’s hiring of Jonathan Lethem, who has been an outspoken proponent of plagiarism in at least some extent. See http://harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081387


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