Cheating at Yale: rules versus reality
By Sheela V. Pai
French history Professor John Merriman has seen many unique papers
during his tenure at Yale, but there is one that particularly sticks out in his
"I was reading a student's paper, which started with poor writing, then all of
a sudden I was reading Flaubert. Then again there was poor writing, and all of
a sudden I was reading Dick Brodhead's beautiful writing," Merriman said,
surpressing a chuckle. "It was rather funny."
But for this student and the many other Yalies caught in the act each year,
cheating and plagiarizing are no laughing matter. Allegations ranging from
improper citation of sources to systematic theft of ideas can land students
before the Executive Committee (ExComm) to face formal charges. Cheating
offenses span a broad trajectory, and different students and faculty members
assign varying degrees of importance to each. Despite the clear criteria set
out in Yale College Undergraduate Regulations, deciding on the gravity
of the offense and selecting a corresponding punishment is often a subjective
process for the ExComm.
Neither political science Professor Rogers Smith, who chaired ExComm two years
ago, nor Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead, BR '68, GRD '72, consider cheating
to be a serious problem at Yale. Although most faculty members would agree, the
range and degree of measures some have taken to prevent cheating indicate a
lack of consensus on how serious and prevalent a practice cheating really is.
It is assumed that most undergraduates don't cheat, but what do most
undergraduates actually consider cheating to be? Undergraduate Regulations
provides a clear answer to this question, but the various concerns felt by
different professors reveal that the issue may be a great deal more subjective
than Undergraduate Regulations would have us believe.
`An insult to other students'
According to the most recent ExComm report available, which provides
data from the 1996-97 academic year, 10 students were brought before the
committee on charges of academic dishonesty that year. Of these 10, one was
reprimanded, three received probation, five were suspended, and one was
acquitted. Music Professor Craig Wright believes suspending a student for
academic dishonesty is a severe and adequate punishment. "It sends a clarion
call that if you cheat, it's serious business, and there are serious
repercussions," he said.
Despite the steady number of cases of cheating and plagiarism brought
before ExComm recently, Brodhead insists that cheating isn't a serious problem.
"[The members of ExComm and I] are concerned by what we see, but we are not
concerned by the volume of what we see," Brodhead maintained. "Every time the
number of cases of cheating goes up in the [ExComm] report at all, members of
the faculty ask whether this indicates a rise in the phenomenon of cheating.
But when we have looked back over four or five years, it never seems that there
is evidence of a coherent upward trend."
Wright agreed, stating that he doesn't sense "a wholesale climate of
dishonesty." He still wonders, though, whether he may be naïve to the
"real" situation of cheating among his students. "I guess the
dilemma for the instructor is, does he really have his finger on the pulse of
student activity, participation, and student work in general?" Wright
reflected. "I'd like to think that most students aren't cheating, but I can't
swear that they don't."
Some professors, however, aren't content to gamble. An anonymous biology major
in Professor Stephen Dellaporta's genetics class described the dramatic steps
Dellaporta has taken to discourage cheating. These Draconian measures include
not allowing students to go the bathroom once the test has started, refusing to
answer questions, constant warnings against "wandering eyes," and videotaping
graded exams before they are handed back to students. Fed up with what he
considers to be the cheating ways of many of his fellow pre-med Yalies, the
student is pleased with Dellaporta's zealous efforts. "I understand why he is
doing this. I've been in classes in which the TAs will try to help students by
answering their questions and will, along the way, give them an unfair
advantage," he said. "I am actually glad for these measures because I don't
cheat and I like it that no one else can cheat now either."
Merriman, on the other hand, tries to be laid back about monitoring his
students even as a proctor, assuming that the vast majority of students in his
classes do not cheat and will not be tempted to. "I think I should be there as
a proctor, as a reassuring presence, to be of help to the students and not to
spy on them. However, if I do find someone cheating, I'd take it to the highest
possible level because I think it is an insult to the other students," he
`It's my academic future or an hour of guilt'
Some students have clearly had firsthand experience with cheating. Last year,
Rebecca Pace, BR '00, had a harsh encounter with plagiarism in an introductory
macroeconomics course. Pace placed a completed problem set in her TA's
box at the end of lecture one day, only to be confronted by the TA a week later
about her "missing" problem set from the week before. It was clear that Pace's
work was stolen and had probably been handed in under the thief's name to
another section leader.
Pace was upset about not only the theft of her work but also her section
leader's frustratingly apathetic reaction to the situation. "[My TA] just said
that in a class of 300 people there is nothing she can do," Pace said. "I felt
discouraged and disgusted that someone would not just take my work and copy it,
but put their name on it. It's just malicious."
Both Wright and Professor Frederick Ziegler, who teaches organic chemistry,
agree that problem sets are a peculiar problem, since there is a thin line
between group work and just copying another student's answers. Ziegler tries to
delineate this boundary for his students. "I actually encourage students to
work on problem sets together," he explained. "My only request is that they
don't hand in exactly identical papers." Ever since an incident in his class
involving a student who stole someone else's problem set, Ziegler has made his
students place their completed problem sets in locked metal boxes.
Wright worries, however, that the group work ethic students develop while
doing problem sets together may be detrimental. "It sometimes becomes difficult
for students to get away from the group mentality when they get into test
situations," he said.
But what is it that makes students cheat? One student explained, "I
make it a point not to cheat, but in one instance I figured,`What the hell?
It's my academic future or an hour of guilt.' I chose the hour of
According to Brodhead, this is a classic case of miscalculated options.
"The choice was between having his academic record register what he achieved
and having a judgment made of his moral character," he said. "That's not the
same as an hour of guilt."
`I didn't get very far'
According to Smith, the plagiarizing of essays constitutes a gray area similar
to the problem set situation. In the case of plagiarism, the punishment is
specially tailored to the seriousness of the violation. "If a student has
plagiarized as a result of ignorance [because he or she was genuinely confused
about proper citation methods], usually a lesser penalty is assigned," Smith
said. "The Executive Committee also has records of [past cases] considered and
the conclusions that the committee reached, and regularly refers to those
precedents in deciding how to decide a particular penalty in a case at hand."
In contrast to its delicate handling of cases of plagiarism, ExComm, according
to Smith "always applies [the two-semester suspension penalty] in instances of
conscious, deliberate cheating."
Often, students violate regulations unintentionally simply because they do not
know they exist. In cases of students unknowingly failing to cite required
sources, ExComm will often give a light penalty, despite the fact that
Undergraduate Regulations clearly explains that "It is...up to you to
learn the standard practices of documentation. The Dartmouth College pamphlet
Sources, Their Use and Acknowledgement has been given to you, and you
are expected to have familiarized yourself carefully with its contents."
There are more obscure rules. For instance, many students do not realize that
"to revise and extend a paper from an earlier course may well be academically
appropriate; but before doing so you must seek explicit permission from your
History major Denise Ho, BR '99, never realized she had to request her
professor's permission under those circumstances. She believes this is due to
the fact that she "did try to read the Undergraduate Regulations when
they were sent to me in the mail as a freshman, but I didn't get very far."
Merriman himself was unaware of the regulation stating that "verbatim
memorization of long stretches of text is a highly implausible excuse
for...coincidences [of argumentation from a textbook]." He said, "That would
have never occurred to me, frankly. I wouldn't have known that. But I guess
that's when common sense comes into play."
Smith admitted that it is typical for both students and faculty to be somewhat
ignorant of the extent of the regulations. "Yes, in principle [students and
professors should know the rules], but the reality is that most people don't
read such rule books and most teachers don't discuss them in detail," he
To avoid this type of confusion in his department, Professor Langdon Hammer,
BK '80, GRD '89, the director of undergraduate studies in English, has
organized talks with the faculty, detailing the procedure for dealing with
students suspected of cheating. He was motivated to have these talks not
because there is a cheating problem in English courses, but because he doesn't
want "students to be falsely accused of cheating, if that is at all avoidable.
I want to make sure that when professors discuss plagiarism cases, they do so
in a confidential and respectful manner."
Hammer believes that the detection of a plagiarized work or of an instance of
cheating shouldn't be regarded as a success, but rather as a sign of failure on
the part of professors."It seems to me that a success would be for instructors
to effectively communicate to their students the importance of appropriate
forms of citation and acknowledgement and integrity in writing, such that
students will not be submitting plagiarized work, but, more importantly, will
not wish to," Hammer said.
To avoid misunderstandings between students and faculty, many schools,
including Stanford, Princeton, and Dartmouth, have instituted "honor codes."
These codes typically prevent professors from "tempting" students to cheat,
such as by giving closed-book take-home exams, and allow students to take their
exams without the supervision of a proctor as long as there aren't any student
reports of incidents of cheating.
Neither Brodhead nor Smith envisions an honor code in Yale's future. "I am not
opposed to that sort of system in principle, but I also go by the rule, `if it
ain't broke, don't fix it,'" Smith said. "Though we don't have a formal honor
system, I trust that there is a shared understanding among students that
cheating is wrong and that, in itself, constitutes an informal honor code. In
my experience, even though sometimes Yale students are under severe pressure
and tempted to cheat, most are excited about their own ideas and most people
are far more likely to write their own papers and do well than cheat."
Photo collage by Patrick McGarvey.
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