Dean's Alumni Messages
Summer 2010 Message From the Dean
It's Built on Trust – Academic Integrity and the Value of the Hofstra Diploma:
Join the conversation!
Dear HUHC alumni,
Those who pay attention to higher education and the value of a college degree know that these are difficult times. I'm not talking about having to weather the worst economic downturn since the depression. The crisis concerning me today involves the long-term integrity of an undergraduate education given recent evidence that academic dishonesty is on the rise.
How widespread is the problem? According to a recent New York Times article (NYT, Gabriel, July 5, 2010) over 60% of students participating in studies involving academic integrity admit to having cheated on an exam, paper or other assignment. Confirming what just about everyone knows, the article points out that technological advances are prompting a proliferation of cheating that begins in grade school and carries right through the collegiate degree. Even worse, it is now becoming apparent that many students don't even see their actions as dishonest. Techniques like cutting and pasting are so easy and so ubiquitous that they risk becoming the norm. As a result, critical segments of the broader public, including employers, are beginning to lose faith in the integrity of the educational process and the college degree in particular.
This is understandable. What value is there in a degree held by a student who bought many of his or her papers from an easily accessible website? How can an employer know whether the person holding a degree has actually earned it when test answers are passed from one student to another via camera phones and text messages? What graduate school can count on a student's readiness to pursue specialized training if the applicant hasn't mastered work basic to a B.A?
In light of these changing circumstances what are colleges and universities doing to combat cheating on college campuses?
Most colleges and universities attempt to grapple with the proliferation of cheating by turning to ever more sophisticated software and high tech surveillance equipment designed to stop students from using cell phones, digital cameras and other everyday devices for illicit purposes. The same NY Times article mentioned above describes how one university created special exam rooms with multiple cameras and proctors who have the capacity to zoom in and record "suspicious behavior."
I don't know which I find more frightening, the fact that the public is losing faith in our degrees, or that our colleges are signaling via their actions a complete lack of trust in their students.
It would be nice to think these problems are not present at Hofstra. But I'm certain you know that's not true. If national studies are to be believed most of us know someone who cheated during their undergraduate years. If we're being totally honest, some of us crossed that line at one time or another. We have to assume that this increasing propensity for academic dishonesty affects all colleges and universities, including Hofstra. Moreover, it is a line that a greater percentage of us are willing to cross, even if only once or twice. Our greatest concern then is not merely with cheating per se, but rather with the fact that technological innovations and changing cultural sensibilities are leading a much greater percentage of otherwise law abiding students to consider dishonest academic practices acceptable. As a result, our focus needs to be on strategies that effectively nudge the behavior of the vast majority of students back in the direction of academic honesty.
To date Hofstra's response to the problem has been like most other institutions. We've relied on technological innovations like Turnitin.com to "fight fire with fire." We have established policies and procedures that make clear the negative consequences that befall cheaters who are caught. The problem, however, is that taken alone these "catch and punish" strategies do little to change student behavior.
One expert's studies show that sophisticated anti-cheating technologies mainly produce ever more sophisticated cheaters. Some even argue that relying only on sanctions and gizmos amplifies rather than reduces the negative consequences of cheating by further eroding a basic sense of trust between professors and students which is central to academic life. I agree, and believe we won't turn this situation around until we find new ways to extend the trust which is so central to academic life.
Few realize how much of academic work is absolutely dependent upon trust. Consider for example, the natural sciences. Science simply could not proceed were it not for a basic trust that the vast majority of scientific claims are reported honestly and accurately. If we really want to combat the growing indifference to a culture of cheating we must surface, reinforce and build upon a commitment to honesty which is vital to who we are and what we do and shared by virtually all members of the Hofstra community, even those who cheat.
Some readers will ask, however, "But haven't there always been cheaters? And aren't cheaters, by definition, dishonest? What would motivate them to adopt a commitment to honesty and trust when they engage in dishonest behavior that is destructive of trust?" The answer to that question can be found in the old Pogo slogan "We've met the enemy, and it is us!" Most of us have friends who cheated. Some of us may even have engaged in such behavior ourselves. I doubt, however, that more than a few of us could be characterized as "serial cheaters." While it may be true that 60% of students acknowledge having cheated at one time or another, it is wrong to think that cheating is happening 60% of the time. Aside from a few pathological individuals, the vast majority of us are not serial cheaters. Almost all of us want to do the right thing—the honest thing—and when we stray it is usually under duress and most often we are embarrassed or ashamed of what we've done. If our goal is preventing the vast majority of otherwise honest students from succumbing to new temptations we would do well to leverage this preexisting commitment to honesty. But how?
Studies show that fewer students stray when they belong to communities that regularly publicize their commitment to academic honesty via public conversations, educational programs, honor codes and other activities. Such programs create counter pressures toward honesty, and reduce the number of students who view academically dishonest behavior as acceptable.
Why would such a strategy work? It works because most of us want to belong to a community where we are trusted and where we can trust others to play fairly. Unlike the catch and punish strategies mentioned above, strategies focusing on regular and visible discussion of academic honesty aim primarily at changing behavior by making it harder for students to feel good about themselves while cheating.
Though such a strategy may sound unrealistic it isn't. It has been implemented in institutions that are large and small, public and private. What is unrealistic is the notion that we could ever eliminate cheating using surveillance technology and software programs alone. Institutions that have followed the path I'm advocating reduce incidents of academic dishonesty by reducing the number of students who would tolerate it in themselves, their friends, or in others
With all of this in mind I am pleased to report that Hofstra is launching just such a community-wide conversation about academic integrity. In an open letter inviting the entire Hofstra community to join the conversation, President Rabinowitz said:
"No institution can succeed in its pursuit of academic excellence if there is any question about its commitment to academic integrity. For this reason I am asking the entire Hofstra community to join in a campus-wide project the goal of which is to confront the problem of academic dishonesty head on. . . . My aim is to establish Hofstra's reputation as a leader among institutions of higher education on this issue." (President Stuart Rabinowitz, letter, August 25, 2010)
President Rabinowitz' call was seconded by similar messages from Provost Herman Berliner and Vice President for Student Affairs Sandra S. Johnson. In addition, the Deans of Hofstra's Colleges and Schools have called upon their faculty and students to join the conversation. We're all convinced that active public discussion about the policies, programs, and resources pertaining to academic integrity will do much to make visible Hofstra's commitment in this area. Moreover, by engaging faculty, students, administrators and alumni in these conversations we will ensure that new ideas and changes in policies or procedures are seen as tools for affirming an identity embraced by the whole community, rather than as merely new punitive strategies.
I urge everyone in the Hofstra community to join this conversation. It's especially important that alumni voices be heard. You know how important an institution's reputation is to the value of your degree. Only by coming out on the right side of this issue can we ensure that the value of the Hofstra degree will continue its upward climb. With hard work, honest conversation, and your help, I have no doubt that it will.
So, please consider this newsletter your invitation to join the conversation. Go to the new website (Academic Integrity), or follow the discussion on our blogsite and facebook page. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.
Warren G. Frisina, Dean