Cheating not easily controlled

Retired CSU, Chico, professor of journalism and frequent CN&R contributor

Recently I sat in on Academic Senate (renamed after the old Faculty Senate took on too many non-faculty members) deliberations aimed at producing a policy governing how to deal with classroom cheating and plagiarism at Chico State University.

Student leaders went to Provost Scott McNall about a year ago to report widespread cheating on campus that they think is eroding degree quality. McNall passed this hot potato to the senate, which operates as an advisory body to the president on campus issues. The senate found itself bogged down trying to define cheating as well as what procedures to follow once a student has been charged. For one thing, student rights must be protected, which has even prompted talk about defense lawyers at disciplinary hearings.

To be clear on the concept, as they say, the sometimes spirited talk was about how to deal with cheating, not how to stop it. Cheating is basically a human-nature thing: There will always be people who reach for an unjust reward, even if doing so involves dangerous risk.

While listening to the discussion, my mind drifted back maybe a dozen years to another heavy senate debate centered on human nature. The senators considered a ban on sexual relations between professors and students. After a hard struggle with the topic, the group decided—if memory serves—to frown on such liaisons but forgo a ban because, absent bedroom police, it could not be enforced.

A cynic might speculate that a so-called culture of cheating has grown up in our nation’s universities because it is adaptive to the “real world,” where lying, cheating, and harvesting unearned rewards reflect the New Morality norm. Effective cheating involves learning devious peripheral skills needed to get ahead today, especially in corporate and government work. The cynic might add that student outrage over cheating resonates more as a cry for help by a few who still cling to belief in an outmoded meritocracy—that those who work hard and do the right thing always achieve success.

In other words, the battle has already been lost, or enough so that Doonesbury has currently picked the Walden College graduation to lampoon this “loathsome trend.” His back turned, the president tells any cheater present to go in shame, and all but one grad leave.

Media reports say it took 30 years for UC Davis to come up with an acceptable cheating policy. If such is indeed the case, Chico State President Paul Zingg would have been well advised to ask permission from Davis to adopt its policy and thus avoid further senate pulling and hauling.