Schools wrestle with student ethics
By Marc Parry - The Times Union
The cheating wasn't surprising. The subject was.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor Linda Layne last semester busted a student cheating on an open-note quiz in her ethics course.
She could have kept it private. Instead the anthropology professor went public with a fresh proposal for her nearly 200-year-old Troy institute: an honor code.
As ethics reform leads the political agenda in Albany, Layne's push is part of a parallel conversation about student ethics taking place at two top local campuses.
Under an experiment at Union College, some professors are now including ethics in everyday classes like chemistry and statistics. A Union committee is also seriously weighing a school honor code.
Surveys show 70 percent of students acknowledge some cheating on most campuses, according to the Duke University-affiliated Center for Academic Integrity. But serious test cheating at schools with honor codes is one-third to one-half below the rate at schools without them.
Bottom line: More and more schools are adopting honor codes.
"There's a strong feeling that we are not training people to be morally fit to be leaders," said Robert Baker, a Union College philosophy professor leading the honor code review on his Schenectady campus.
Honor codes have been around for years, in University of Virginia's case since the mid-19th century. The codes vary, but they can include signed pledges not to cheat, unsupervised exams, mandatory reporting of cheaters and peer decisions on their punishment.
It's a familiar concept at Skidmore College. Every year, one of the first things freshmen do at the Saratoga Springs school is pledge to uphold the 70-year-old honor code.
Making these codes work is more complicated than asking students to sign under some flowery academic language, though.
Will students really turn in their peers? Won't unproctored exams just provide another temptation for students already gaming the system with text messages and programmed calculators? Will students actually carry the lessons with them as they embark on their careers?
And what should the code govern? Just academics? Or every aspect of student life, from tests to tearing up a dormitory lounge?
Those are some of the questions Union College students and faculty raised in interviews with the Times Union last week.
"I don't think it would be a drastic change if we did institute one since there isn't perceivably a lot of cheating on campus now," said Shane Hubbell, 20, a student who was twirling his skateboard by the campus center mailboxes. "It seems a little unnecessary."
One particular cheating episode is partly responsible for Union's honor code push. As Baker told the story, an engineering professor found two students had shared work on a take-home assignment.
He failed them. But he also got creative and forced the students to research what other institutions are doing to teach ethics. Those students discovered the Center for Academic Integrity, which offers help developing honor codes.
Sophomore Sara Callahan thinks Union should give it a shot.
"I think people need to start taking more responsibility for their actions in general," said Callahan, who covered the issue for the student newspaper, Concordiensis. "And something like that would help."
Hearing that would probably make Michael Rapaport cheer.
The Union College alumnus got fed up with hearing about ethics scandals, from crooks like former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling (a Harvard grad) to athletes who take steroids.
Rapaport, a downstate lawyer with a home in Lake George, feels colleges need to educate students about real-world ethical situations. He gave Union several hundred thousand dollars to try.
The result is a new program, under way since the fall, in which professors get small stipends to incorporate ethics into their normal classes.
A statistics professor might talk about a pharmaceutical company fudging data so it looks like a drug does things it doesn't do, for example. Or a chemistry professor might talk about one scientist poaching another's idea and passing it off as his own.
Professors find it "incredibly difficult" to work in ethics, Baker said. They also find it rewarding because "students loved it."
Over at RPI, meanwhile, some students aren't in love with Layne's honor code idea.
When she brought up cheating in her ethics class, not one student said he or she felt a moral duty to report peers for wrongdoing.
And when she wrote an essay in the student newspaper proposing the honor code concept, the paper responded with an editorial under the headline "Honor code should not legislate personal values."
It pointed out that RPI already has rules about cheating and "the decision to take up a code of honor must be a personal choice."
"The opinion piece by the staff I found disturbing because it was implying that leading a life of integrity is like a lifestyle choice," Layne said. "I don't see it as a personal value. I think of it as a social value."
Unlike Union, RPI isn't formally considering an honor code right now, spokesman Jason Gorss said, though Layne said some student government folks are interested.
And that's how it got started at Skidmore: students.
It gave them "legitimacy as a full partner in community life," said Dean of Student Affairs Pat Oles.
Nowadays, Skidmore has lower rates of reported cheating than most other schools, Oles said.
Most of the roughly 40 cases taken up by the integrity board each year are social rather than academic violations of the code: drinking, theft, etc.
"Does that mean there's less cheating or less reporting?" Oles said. "It's not an easy thing to measure."
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