The hall-talk at a conference of corporate recruiters this past week turned to recent major cheating scandals at a military academy and a major business school. Executives at the best companies are anxiously awaiting news of whether any of their new hires have been expelled or suspended. Both schools have formal honor systems. Significant numbers of students have been expelled; both academic communities are reeling from these events, not least because of the explaining to do. What does this say about an academic community? How could this happen? And how can we raise the integrity of our business schools?

Cheating is commonly regarded to be copying answers on a test. But it can take many other forms including “cut and paste” plagiarism, submitting work done by others, and collaborating with others where the assignment calls for individual work. Academic communities prohibit cheating because it erodes the integrity of grading and the certification of mastery. Even worse, the misappropriation of credit for work cuts at one of the core values of a university, the ownership and origination of ideas. Like the piracy of intellectual property, cheating purveys illegitimate goods and benefits those who had nothing to do with their true creation. Quite simply, cheating is theft. Kleptocracies are unstable societies; if we aspire to deliver a sound society to future generations, we must fight theft and cheating relentlessly. And it all starts in school.

Recent evidence from business schools is pretty alarming. A study ((Donald McCabe, Kenneth Butterfield, and Linda Trevino, “Academic Dishonesty in Graduate Business Programs: Prevalence, Causes and Proposed Action,” Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2006, Vol. 5, No. 3, 294-305.)) published last fall surveyed 5331 MBA students and reported that 54% of them had cheated in some manner. This was higher than rates of cheating in other graduate programs. Much was made about the culture of self-interest at b-schools, lax faculty monitoring, and the increasing pressures to perform. But the most significant finding in the study was that the propensity to cheat was strongly related to the perception that others are cheating. By implication, integrity is related to the perception that others are behaving with integrity too. In short, cheating and its opposite are examples of self-reinforcing systems.

How can you keep a good system good, or turn around a bad system of cheating? Well it helps a great deal to have good support for honor. And it helps to have clear norms of behavior and significant consequences for violating those norms.

At the University of Virginia, we have a student-run honor system that proscribes cheating—under this system there is only one sanction for cheating, expulsion. It seems draconian, since there is no allowance for the gravity of the specific offense, for first-time offenders, or for confusion about the rules. But defenders of this system argue that just like you can’t be a little bit pregnant, you can’t be a little dishonorable. Either you behave honorably and enjoy the trust of your peers, or you don’t. The UVA Honor System seems to command the attention of students here. In my 25 years at Darden, I have not been aware of one honor case—this doesn’t mean there haven’t been any; rather, they are few in number and the system discourages gossip.

Lots of schools have honor systems that carry significant sanctions. What is the missing ingredient that makes some of them successful and others not? I think the difference is a culture of vigilance and outspokenness for values.

Throughout the New York City subway system are posters that say, “If you see something, say something.” These refer to threats to public safety. But the principle is the same in respect to cheating at universities. Our common good is only assured by speaking up for the common good. I would urge students and faculty members to do so.

Say something, teacher, to state clearly and unapologetically that you expect independent work, that you despise the infamous term paper mills and social-networking test cribs on the Internet, and that you will be vigilant for patterns of cheating.

Say something, teachers and administrators, to emphasize the positive good from adhering to standards of honor, especially the benefits of a reputation of rigor and integrity that can accrue to a school and its MBA diploma.

Say something, student, to discourage your friend, room-mate, or class-mate from taking the first and possibly fatal step toward cheating. And say something to yourself when tempted there. Look for the opportunity to talk through your thoughts with others. Cheating loves isolation. To break a culture of cheating you must expose it to open examination.

Say something, anyone, if you see cheating.

Posted by Robert Bruner at 05/06/2007 06:05:08 PM