Sitting in the glow of his computer screen at 2 a.m. on Oct. 26, 1998, John Smolik, a University of Texas freshman, fires off an e-mail message to an online debate over academic cheating on the Austin campus.
Many of the 100-plus student messages argue that cheaters only hurt themselves. Not so says Mr. Smolik's missive, labeled "reality check!" "Cheating IS an answer," he writes. "It might not be a good answer, but none the less it is an answer."
Actually, Smolik "disagrees with cheating" and was simply playing devil's advocate, he said in a recent interview. But he allows that his provocative message put forward a widely shared view. And researchers agree.
Across America, college students and college-bound high-schoolers appear to be cheating like there's no tomorrow, student surveys show.
The Center for Academic Integrity in Nashville studied 7,000 students on 26 small-to-medium-size college campuses in 1990, 1992, and 1995. Those studies found that nearly 80 percent admitted to cheating at least once.
"We've seen a dramatic increase in the more-explicit forms of test cheating" and illegitimate "collaboration," says Donald McCabe, associate provost at Rutgers University in Newark, who founded CAI and did its studies.
He and others blame poor role models and lack of parental guidance for the growing acceptance of cheating in colleges. Easy access to the Internet, with its vast and often hard-to-traceresources, is another factor.
Add to that a pervasive change in societal values, and students can easily be snared if they lack a strong moral compass - as well as a campus where peers and administrators take a firm stand against dishonesty.
"Nobody cheated [in the 1960s] because of the peer pressure and likelihood of being turned in," claims Johan Madson, associate provost for student affairs at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. "Students of this generation are reluctant to turn their classmates in. They feel everyone ought to have their own right to do their own thing."
The problem is hardly limited to college campuses. Critics also point to widespread cheating in high school as a reason for colleges' current woes.
Who's Who Among American High School Students, which lists 700,000 high-achieving students, surveyed these top performers last year and found that 80 percent said they had cheated during their academic careers. Joe Krouse, associate publisher of the listing, says it is "the highest level we've ever seen."
Mr. Krouse taps adult behavior as a factor. "Because adults and role models in society do it, some students may have used those examples to rationalize cheating," he says. In a survey conducted in 1997-98, he also found that 66 percent of the parents of these top students said cheating was "not a big deal."
Colleges are watching more closely
Whatever the reason for cheating, its sheer volume is capturing the attention of more than a few schools. Most, chary of their images, downplay dishonesty, unwilling to air dirty laundry in public. Yet a few are confronting cheating by making it highly public - on campus, at least.
The University of Texas is the nation's largest university with about 50,000 students. It has roughly 180 academic-integrity cases pop up annually, says Kevin Price, assistant dean of students. The school is trying to raise the profile of integrity issues during orientation with skits, a 10-page handout on plagiarism, and a newsletter called the "Integrity Herald" for faculty.
Another sign of academic stirring: the Center for Academic Integrity, founded in 1993, already has 175 member schools and is drafting a framework of principles that could be applied nationwide to lower student cheating.
Schools like Stanford University, Georgetown University, the University of Delaware, and a half-dozen others are also buffing up or introducing new honor codes.
But Mr. Madson at Vanderbilt University says what is most needed is for students themselves to take charge and reject the attitude that cheating can be justified.
Students say time and workload pressure are major factors spurring academic dishonesty, followed by parental pressure. "It's definitely what you get assigned - and how long you have to do it - that right there determines whether you're going to cheat," says Smolik, the University of Texas freshman.
Anne-Elyse Smith, another freshman at Texas, reasoned in an online debate that it may not be smart to cheat, but it could be educationally valuable.
"People should hold themselves accountable to a standard at which they are comfortable, and get out of the education what they can," she wrote. "If that involves looking at one answer on a quiz, I think the person is more likely to remember that one answer since they had to resort to cheating to obtain it."
A little imagination, a lot of high tech
Whether copying another student's homework, cheating on a test, or plagiarizing an essay, cheating is limited only by imagination - and technology. Some program their calculators with formulas, but rig them to show an empty memory if an instructor checks.
But what alarms some campus officials the most is the Internet's proven potential for explosive growth in negative areas such as pornography - and the possibility that plagiarism could be next. Web sites sporting names like "Cheater.com" and "School Sucks" offer tools for rampant plagiarism at the click of a mouse. "Download your workload" the latter site suggests, boasting more than 1 million term-paper downloads.
Such savvy borrowing may be lost on some educators, but others, like librarians, are catching up. "Students are finding it so easy to use these sources that they will dump them in the middle of the papers without any attribution," says John Ruszkiewicz, an English professor at Texas. "What they don't realize is how readily [professors] can tell the material isn't the student's and how easy it is for instructors to search this material on the Web."
Anthony Krier, a reference librarian at Franklin Pierce College Library in Rindge, N.H., is one such literary bloodhound. Last semester, he investigated nine cases of plagiarism, three of them involving the Internet. One student had downloaded and passed off as his own a morality essay, apparently unaware of the irony, Mr. Krier says.
Some colleges are fighting back with explicit warnings, more detailed orientations, and classes on how to cite sources - and lawsuits. Boston University sued five on-line "term-paper mills" in 1997. The case was rejected by a federal judge last month. School officials vow to refile.
Last fall, the dean of the school's College of Communication, Brent Baker, wrote a letter to students urging them to protect their "good name" by reviewing carefully the school's code of conduct. To drive home the point, he attached a listing of 13 unnamed cases and the penalties - probation, suspension, and expulsion - meted out.
Likewise, the 152 reports of academic dishonesty for 1997-98 at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles "is higher than previous comparable years beginning in 1991," wrote Sandra Rhoten, assistant dean in the office of student conduct, in a letter in the campus newspaper describing violations and sanctions assessed.
"We had a full-blown, two-year campaign [starting in 1995] to educate people about the problem," Ms. Rhoten says in an interview. "Sometimes faculty feel alone in this. We're reassuring them that we take this seriously too."
The expectation of honesty
Being blunt is the idea. Talking about the expectation of honesty is constant. And along with explicit warning shots, freshmen at USC are getting more intensive and detailed training in what constitutes plagiarism and other forms of cheating, Rhoten says.
The school passes out brochures on plagiarism, has regular coverage in the student paper on cheating cases, and has beefed up orientation courses with training to explain subtler issues like unauthorized collaboration - the largest area of student honor violations at USC and many other campuses, Mr. McCabe and others say.
For instance, Lucia Brawley, a senior majoring in English at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., does not believe cheating is a big problem at her school. But when asked about the collaboration issue, she is less sure.
"With people I know in the sciences, there's so much to do and so little time, they help each other," she says. "You go to a lecture today, I'll go next week. You do the reading this week, I'll do it next week. It's a gray area."
Ultimately, though, it is students who will have to uphold academic integrity themselves, many say.
The University of Virginia has a student-run honor code whose "single sanction" for violators is expulsion. It is one of the nation's strictest. Even after more than a century, it remains controversial on campus. Of 11 cheating cases last semester, five resulted in expulsion. But the code has also created an atmosphere of trust that means students can take unproctored exams. "Many of our alumni attribute their success in life to this school's honor code," says Cabell Vest, a graduate student who chairs UVA's honor council.
At Vanderbilt, which also has a strict code, 20 academic dishonesty cases are under review, Madson says - triple the number a few years ago. But he is confident the school is creating an atmosphere less tolerant of cheating. "You just can't have an academic enterprise that isn't based on integrity and honesty," he says. "Nobody wants somebody building bridges to take shortcuts."
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