Michael Gaynor
November 15, 2012
The mind-boggling (yet unreported) St. Joseph's MBA program cheating scandal
By Michael Gaynor

When a cheating scandal occurs, a school needs to punish the guilty as well as to prevent collateral damage to the innocent, especially when an instructor is part of the problem. It invites judicial review if it fails to be fair to all, but it cannot afford to tolerate plagiarism.

This year cheating occurred at St. Joseph's College in New York as well as at Harvard in Massachusetts and other educational institutions around the world.

How cheating is handled is critically important.

Supreme Court Justice (and Harvard graduate) Louis Brandeis opined that "sunlight is the best disinfectant," and Harvard rightly choose sunlight instead of shade when confronted with a cheating scandal.

Robert F. Kennedy, another Harvard man, famously said that if you have a problem, hang a lantern on it.

Last August Harvard did exactly that with its embarrassing cheating scandal.

Howard Gardner, who teaches psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (cognoscenti.wbur.org/2012/10/02/harvards-cheating-scandal-as-a-play-in-four-acts): "On August 30, [2012], Harvard Dean Jay Harris announced the largest cheating scandal in memory — and possibly the largest ever at the University. Like others connected with Harvard — I have been there for over 50 years — I was shocked but not surprised. Shocked because the number — close to half of the students in a large class — was stunning. Not surprised, because I have been aware of the rise of cheating throughout the country and, with colleagues, have documented an apparent thinning of the ethical muscle of ambitious and privileged young Americans."

Gardner noted that "[p]arents have already threatened to sue the University" and opined that "if there is one thing that you can certainly bet on, the University will do its utmost to keep this matter out of the courts — at whatever cost."

Maybe, yes. Maybe, no. When a cheating scandal occurs, a school needs to punish the guilty as well as to prevent collateral damage to the innocent, especially when an instructor is part of the problem. It invites judicial review if it fails to be fair to all, but it cannot afford to tolerate plagiarism.

Gardner explained that the scandal at Harvard was the result of a "perfect storm": an "unprofessional and apparently mercurial teacher," "unguided teaching fellows," "the course's reputation as a 'gut,' especially convenient for students with little interest in the intellectual content," and "three prior open book exams which had set precedents for various forms of collaboration."

How well Harvard ultimately deals with the scandal is to be determined, but at least Harvard put a lantern on its problem, UNLIKE St. Joseph's College.

When it came to the plagiarism scandal in the MBA Program at St. Joseph's College earlier this year, there was heat instead of light, much less a spotlight and an effort to protect the innocent from a "mercurial" instructor who had discovered plagiarism in homework assignments, unsuccessfully tried to discourage repetition instead of immediately putting a stop to it, then investigated the innocent as well as the guilty, and devised a final exam that he graded a full grade point lower for the entire class than he had graded the midterm exam. Greatly insulted and embarrassed and no longer trying to be "a buddy" to his students, he even denied partial credit for partially correct answers.

On Election Day 2012 St. Joseph's College put on the front page of Newsday an invitation to an open house at its Long Island Campus rescheduled for November 11 at 10 A.M.

Getting the word out on the rescheduling was a good thing.

That invitation showed that St. Joseph's can act quickly and effectively when it chooses to do so.

Unfortunately, St Joseph's has not gotten the word out about the plagiarism scandal in its ACC 675 courses at both its Long Island and Brooklyn Campuses last spring or taken appropriate action to undo damage to innocent victims and to deter future plagiarism without violating the rights of adults to buy and read whatever books they choose. The Brooklyn campus was involved because another instructor's class was in the remote classroom and a Brooklyn student used the solutions manual to cheat.

Astonishingly, St. Joseph's first did nothing and then did either too little or too much.

One might expect that no student involved in a plagiarism scandal in an MBA program would graduate as scheduled, but that was not the case.

St. Joseph's was both too lenient and too harsh — too harsh with innocent students whose only sin was taking the same course as plagiarists and being caught up in an instructor's temperamental reaction and too lenient with those who participated in plagiarism.

To top it off, St. Joseph's then overreacted in revising its general academic integrity policy in draconian terms.

What happened at the Long Island Campus — where the problem was greater — boggles the mind.

A man who had graduated from the MBA program less than two years earlier was teaching the course. It was his second semester teaching it. He wanted to be a buddy to his students and he hoped that none of then would use the solutions manual available online for about $160 to do homework that he assigned. (The instructor had only three students during his first teaching semester, when plagiarism apparently did not become a problem, but eighteen in his second, when things went terribly wrong.)

The inexperienced instructor did explicitly warn against plagiarism, but — shocker — his warning was not universally heeded by all eighteen students.

Instead of taking strong action against plagiarism immediately, he told his students that there would be no problem if it stopped.

Later he offered amnesty to the first one to confess!

The handbook for St. Joseph's College of Arts and Sciences requires a professor who suspects cheating to discuss those suspicions with the student. If the student does not give a satisfactory answer, then the professor is required to notify the college authorities. That is especially important because the student may have been punished for cheating before. A second time offender presumably will be dealt with more harshly by the dean's office.

The instructor did not follow the school's policy.

Instead of acting immediately, he temporized...and made things much worse.

The plagiarism continued, in truly insulting fashion. Outraged, the instructor told the class that sometimes it even included typos and mathematical errors in the solutions manual.

Something had to give, and it was the instructor's good sense.

The plagiarism should have been dealt with immediately, before it spread, but it was not. Instead of returning homework on the expected weekly basis, the instructor kept it and offered his own my-dog-ate-my-homework excuses.

Then he exploded and offered amnesty to the first to confess, soon followed by an emailed questionnaire to all students, even those who had not been involved in any plagiarism or given cause to suspect them.

So much for the presumption of innocence!

Then came the final. The average grade on it was a full grade point lower than the average grade on the midterm (which preceded the plagiarism and the instructor harshly denied partial credit for partially correct answers.

It's no surprise that the instructor isn't teaching this semester or scheduled to teach next semester.

It is shocking that the administration overreacted by revising its academic dishonesty policy to prohibit even possession of solutions manuals.

MBA students are adults and this is the United States of America, where adults are supposed to be free to buy and read whatever books they want, even solutions manuals.

The sin is plagiarism, not owning a book or reading it.

But this sentence was added to the Plagiarism Statement/Academic Dishonesty policy: "Students who possess and/or use solutions manuals, instructor's guides, test banks or other supplements intended solely for the instructor's use will be found guilty of academic dishonesty."

St. Joseph's overreacted: prohibiting students from possessing a book because such censorship might reduce plagiarism is an absurd overreaction.

As with Hurricane Sandy, there's a badly mishandled mess to clean up...and the sooner, the better.

© Michael Gaynor

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Michael Gaynor

Michael J. Gaynor has been practicing law in New York since 1973. A former partner at Fulton, Duncombe & Rowe and Gaynor & Bass, he is a solo practitioner admitted to practice in New York state and federal courts and an Association of the Bar of the City of New York member... (more)

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