Chapter 7

 

Secrecy

 

                   In the Anglo-American criminal law, an accused man is guaranteed the right to a trial in open court, with the newspapers and all other interes­ted people present.  This is not designed to pillory the accused, but rather to protect him from arbitrary procedures, from tyranny, from secret judgments secretly (and perhaps prejudicially) arrived at.  In addition, the public has a right to know what its govern­ment is doing, in these matters as in others.

 

                   Just the same, we recognize that juvenile offenders can be hurt by the publicity alone, and the existence of a record that may follow them through an exemplary later life.  Therefore the law arranges, in many cases, that their convictions may be "sealed," so as to become as nearly forgotten as possible later on.

 

                   Convicted adult felons, for example, may under the law be forbidden to become accountants, or owners of race­tracks and taverns; the "sealing" of a juvenile conviction prevents such a disability from fol­lowing a foolishly, tem­porarily criminal juvenile through the rest of his life.  Whatever protection the public needs against genuinely criminal ac­countants and publicans, it does not really need against a child who has gone wrong only once, and has learned.       But though the juvenile's verdict is sealed, his trial was public; people with long memo­ries can still be an embar­rassment later on.  There is no help for this, even where the newspapers make it a point not to name juvenile of­fenders in print.

 

                   In colleges, one analogue of felony is cheating.  Actually, student courts also deal with real felonies, theft and vandalism on school grounds, for example, and keep such matters out of the public courts as much as possible.  But most colleges manifest an am­bivalence in their behavior relative to these two sorts of offenses.  Professors regard cheating as more reprehensible than (say) trashing a dormitory corridor.  Both offenses are triable by a college court of some sort.  At Rochester the court that tries vandalism is a student judiciary whose proceedings are public (unless one of the principals requests otherwise), and the applied penalty is usually "pro­bation" plus, perhaps, res­titution and some social restric­tion.  The court that tries cheating, on the other hand, is a panel of profes­sors; the trial is always in camera and the punishment (and even the existence of the offense) is never made public, though in most cases the formal penalty is not much harsher than those of the student judiciary.  It may be admo­nition plus a lowering of a grade, or a failure in the course, which is, after all, only a species of restitution. But everyone is anxious not to publicize the honesty cases, and we don't.

 

                   We don't even notify the parents or other sponsors of the student, nor are the guilty student's academic advisors routinely notified.  Why should we be so tender of an offender whose offense is considered particularly hideous, and so casual and public about the vandalism, and yet apply prac­tically identical official penalties to the two?  It is even more puzzling when we consider that over half of all college students surveyed in the studies of, for example, Campbell (1935) and Bowers (1964), admit to having cheated in college at some time, and most often more than once.  Campbell's study, in particular, mainly concerns an experimental situation where students were led into temp­tation, not knowing they could be seen, and then observed to cheat at substantial rates.


 

                   Ask any student about the incidence of cheating and you will learn that it is widespread; it is a rare student who has not himself seen an incident of cheating.  Every survey in the literature agrees on this (cf. Knowlton and Hamerlynck (1967)). Most of this litera­ture seeks to find correlates of cheating and of honest academic behavior, without bothering to survey and quantify the preva­lence of cheating because there is simply no question that, even in "honor code" colleges, cheating occurs many times more than its formal detection and punish­ment, which is often enough.  Why then the shock and horror any time a "cheating scandal" reaches the newspapers?  Why the care to keep each college's "problem" under wraps?

 

                   One answer is that we suffer from a combination of ignorance and hypocrisy concerning the incidence of cheating, much as Victorian moralists were led to their astonishing official notions of the non-existence of sexual impulse in children ("innocent") and women ("decent"), except in aberrant, morbid states.  One has to say hypocrisy in the Victorian case, because almost every gen­tleman knew better from the experience of his own childhood, yet felt it necessary to deny that such behavior was consistent with an honorable and healthy life.  But it was ig­norance, too.  Childhood is a long time ago.  Perhaps each such gentle­man thought himself uniquely sinful, and while grateful for his own miraculous escape from acne, degeneracy and madness, repeated the official dogma because he believed it, mostly.  Here (as elsewhere) ignorance teamed with hypocrisy produced nonsense, in hushed tones.

 

                   So with cheating.  In all the surveys and articles on the subject, I have seen only one (Milton, et al, 1986) in which the pro­fessoriate itself was asked how many of them had ever cheated to get a better grade; the answer was 36% . Students in the same survey reported 56%, and their parents 34%  I suspect that most of this 36% (and the 34%) imagines itself uniquely sinful, like the Victorian gentle­man, and that a good part of the other two-thirds has forgotten its youth.  For one thing, it is almost impossible to avoid seeing the short answers on a neig­hboring paper in an ele­mentary examination in physics or mathe­matics under the conditions prevalent in many exami­nation rooms; which of us has a memory accurate and incon­venient enough to remember surely whether we ourselves (in our day the most "success­ful" of students, after all) have invariably observed the rules?

 

                   What must be nearly universal in our (professorial) experience, though formally culpable only in a few honor codes, is having observed others doing these things without ourselves attempting to intervene.  Was this any more moral in the absence of a formal code than in the pres­ence of one?  Is it not the duty of every law-abiding citizen at least to admonish his errant neighbor, just as it is to teach his children respect for the law, even in the absence of any law compelling such action?                    

 

                   Where so many (of us as well as of them) are guilty and so few are caught and punished, it is natural that we consider it unfair to publicize the unlucky ones.  Especially because the publicity itself would be in many ways the heavier of the punishments imposed.  A juvenile felon with a sealed verdict does escape the heaviest part of his penalty by the fact of the sealing:  he does not go through life "with a record," even though his trial was public.  But the cheating college student, who recovers rapidly from the pain of having to take another course, or living outside the fraternity house for a term, would not only never recover, but would be plagued more severely as time goes on, by public knowledge of his college sin.  A sin shared, like Victorian sexual "sin," by the majority of his neighbors, yet in­frequently exposed.  Imagine if he ran for President!

 

                   We may recognize the hypocrisy, but we must take account of it, and not burden our "juveniles" beyond their desserts.  It is not only future politicians who may suffer, either.  On several occasions I have received calls or visits from parents of students currently being brought before the Rochester Board on Academic Honesty, students who had themselves notified their parents of their trouble, and who made me wish they hadn't. 

 

                   In some cases the father or mother is sure there was some mistake; their child couldn't do a dishonest thing.  Furthermore, he had told them this was a bum rap.  And so on.  My response of course is that the Board will hear the case and decide, and that in the meantime they might be reassured to know that for the offense charged, suspen­sion or expulsion has not in recent years been applied.  Unless of course there is more to it than the charges now before me mention...

 

                   In other cases the father or mother has received a confes­sion from the student, and is shocked and penitent on his behalf, sometimes professing extreme anger, assuring me that the kid will be made to suffer at home for this, until he learns his lesson.  My response of course is that the Board will hear the case and decide, and that in the meantime they might be reassured to know that for the offense charged, suspension or expulsion has not in recent years been applied.  Unless, of course, there is more to it than the charges now before me mention...

 

                   To both sorts of parents I would like to say that the offense charged is a common one.  The University cannot tolerate it for obvious reasons, much as the police cannot tolerate speeding and driving through red lights.  Just as repeated traffic offenses must result in loss of permission to drive, repeated academic dishonesty will result in loss of enrollment, i.e., expulsion.  It is immoral to go through red lights:  people's lives are put in danger.  It is immoral to plagiarize a paper, too, but horror is not the right response.  That only makes it worse.  It is exactly the most horrifiable parent whose child denies the obvious in our hearings, adding perjury to his other offenses for fear of moralis­tic parental retribution (and hypo­critical, too, in my informal judg­ment, in some cases I have seen).

 

                   Official morality requires horror and disgust in response to under­graduate academic dishonesty.  Those of us who must attend to the practical matter of keeping it down know that keeping it down is necessary for sound educational reasons (See Chapter 8, Why Bother?).  We also recognize that we are catching only a small number of the offenders, who live in a culture that does not share the horror and disgust most of the offenders themselves will later come to learn, or affect, when they have forgotten the details of their own youth.  We must teach them to behave, true, but it is not necessary to subject them to hypocritical and overly moralistic judgments.  They know why they cheated.  It didn't seem especially sinful to them at the time.  If we point out to them that this cannot be toler­ated, and if we apply some more or less painful sanction (plus the promise of real pain on a second offense), we will have done enough.  We don't have to teach them to falsify further, by ourselves lying about shame and horror.  Recog­nizing that the outside world will, like the Victorian gentleman, make entirely too much of the shame and the horror, whether falsely or ignorantly, it behooves us to keep the matter quiet, and to seal the verdict.

 

                   Our purpose is, in the end, to reduce cheating in college, and to set the record straight as often as possible so that the grades students receive are by and large reliable.  Very heavy mandatory penalties, like guaranteed expulsion for the least infraction, will in the present state of student morality not do the job, because professors will then be reluctant to report any but the worst, or most patent, cases, much as 18th Century bakers did not ordinarily send child thieves to their deaths by reporting each stolen bun.  Publicity, too, is an un­reasonably heavy penalty.  Perhaps it shouldn't be, but the present state of official morality is sufficiently unrealistic to make it so.  If we added the penalty of publicity to our present penalties, our judicial system would simply not get used as it should, and many more infractions would get winked at.  Therefore sealed verdicts are best.

 

                    But now we run into the problem of sponsors, a different matter from the problem of "the public."  Yes, the verdict should be sealed, and not follow our students through life in the exaggerated form cherished by gossip; but a student's parents, if he is indeed a youngster with his expenses and tuition paid by them, should perhaps be told of the transgression.  I am quite sure that a questionnaire sent to all parents, asking if they would wish to be told of a dishonesty accusation or verdict against their child, would produce a 99% vote in favor.  Are they not entitled to this sort of information?  They get his grade report each term; if we are obliged to let them know this much, how are we entitled to conceal something as intimately related to those grades as academic dishonesty?

 

                   Before attempting an answer, we may consider another sort of sponsor:  any agency other than the parents, who pays the tuition and expenses of the student.  In particular, the University of Rochester has a Naval ROTC unit, which gives scholarships and stipends to certain students who, after four years in a regular degree program supplemented by a small number of Navy-taught courses and a period of appren­ticeship, become officers in the U.S. Navy.  When an NROTC student is suspected of having cheated in a course in Naval Science here, he is brought before a disciplinary Board of Navy officers exactly as if he were already enlisted (and perhaps at sea) and charged with some dereliction of duty.  For the offense of dishonesty he is, if found guilty, invariably dismissed from the Corps. 

 

                   None of the Service academies tolerates academic dishonesty, and the newspapers have recurrently reported incidents in which potential Army, Navy, or Air Force officers were deprived of their commissions, sometimes on the very eve of graduation, and in sur­prising­ly large numbers.  The armed services see no reason to apply lower standards to ROTC students in line for those same commissions just because they are being educated in a civilian environ­ment. 

 

                   During my recent term of office in the Rochester Board on Academic Honesty there was only one case of cheating in an NROTC course that came to my attention.  Our rules required reporting such incidents to me, and so it was in this case, but the Captain also told me that no matter what the College of Arts and Sciences would do it was the duty of the Navy to hold a "Board," i.e. a hearing of their own.  Rather than subject the student to two proceedings, the Provost of the University said he would be satisfied with just the Navy pro­ceedings, provided a representative of his office could participate as an observer and then report to the Provost that the Navy's verdict and penalty sufficed for our (Univer­sity) purposes.

 

                   And so it went, and indeed the Navy's penalty --- dismissal from the Corps, with loss of scholarship and so on --- was more than sufficient by our College standards.  The verdict was kept with our own records as well as the Navy's, and the case was closed.  We es­tablished by this a precedent that will be maintained, that offenses in NROTC courses, when discovered by Navy personnel, will be judged preemptively by a Navy Board with a University observer, and the report filed with the University, unless the observer believes the pro­ceeding to have been unfair or insufficient, in which case we reserve the right to apply our own procedures as well.

 

                   But then the Captain asked me whether we would not in our turn report to him any case initially coming to us, that involved an NROTC student.  After all, he said, the Navy wanted honest officers, and dishonesty is as culpable in a physics course as in a Naval Science course.  Annapolis and West Point teach physics too, as well as the military sciences, and cheating in physics is punished there just like cheating in leadership or logistics.  Why should it be different in Rochester?  Would I want to suppress evidence of the dishonesty of a future Navy officer, one I was counting on to defend me and my neigh­bors in a dangerous world?  There are lots of young men and women who aspire to the opportunity and the responsibility of a Navy com­mission; why maintain that opportunity, that responsibility, for a proven cheat?

 

                   My reply was legalistic, and I must say it was a relief to be able to reply that our rules forbade telling anybody about our proceedings, except for those who, like the professor in the course and the Dean, absolutely needed to know as part of the proceedings them­selves.  We don't tell parents, either, I explained, and we don't even tell our own offices of student assistance (i.e. scholarship aid).  I said I would look into the wisdom of this policy, however.                

 

                    I then put the Captain's question to the Provost, and I put it to a subcommittee of our Faculty Senate which, as it happened, was newly appointed to study our academic dishonesty procedures and to  recommend amendments if needed.  I received no answer:  no answer from the Provost because he was awaiting the recommendations the Senate committee, and, later, none from the committee because it chose to evade the question.

 

                   Since that time we have had several cases of NROTC students who were punished (rather mildly, as is our style) for offenses in non-ROTC courses, by our usual proce­dures.  It just happened in passing that I noticed that they were NROTC students; this made no difference to the nature of the offense or to the outcome.  The Navy did not find out.  Were we contributing to the deterioration of our armed forces?  Were we, the Board on Academic Honesty, being honorable?

 

                   For now the answer is of course, yes, we are being honorable, since we are only keeping our contract with our students, that contract being what is now written in our regulations, requiring us to keep all these proceedings secret.  Contracts are sacred because their violation can injure all persons who expect them to be honored, people who are not even signatories.  The professor who reported the student expected the matter would be contained within our Board, the Dean's office, and himself; if he knew the NROTC would be informed he might have behaved differently.  We have no right to disappoint his legitimate expectation.  Likewise the student's.

 

                   The real question is whether we should have the present contract, and I believe the answer is already hinted at in the comment about the behavior of professors who report incidents to the Board on Academic Honesty.  Secrecy of proceeding encourages more reports; there is no doubt about it.  Entirely too few incidents are reported as it is, since such reports are troublesome, and the detection of dishonesty is already troublesome enough.  Where the student culture sees rampant cheating undetected and unpunished, as is the case in most of our high schools, the problem grows out of all bounds.  Were this to happen in those colleges that have NROTC programs, the Navy would be even worse-served by those programs than it is now, where only the occasional punished cheater is not reported to them.  The alternative is to have hordes of unpunished and undetected cheaters not reported to anyone at all.

 

                   The analogy between our civilian universities and West Point or Annapolis is poorly drawn.  The severity of their punishments is no bar to their professors' reporting observed incidents of dishonesty.  The culture of their professoriate is not the same as that of the civilian colleges.  One might wish other­wise, but must face the facts.  The secrecy of our proceedings protects our juveniles from the (ignorant? moralistic? hypocritical?) condemnation of later years, which is on balance good; it incidentally encourages better law enforcement in college, which is also good.  That it protects some NROTC students from punishments they would have had to endure in the service academies may not be all to the good, but its other virtues more than compensate for it, I believe.

 

                   In offering this opinion I am not deliberately sacrificing the naval defense of the United States to some other ideal.  In the winter of 1942 I (the author of these lines) was a second-year student at the University of Michigan, and was tried and suitably punished for an academic dishonesty offense; the story is told in Appendix 2 below.  Of course I was wrong, and I was impressed with my error by both the trial I underwent and the formal punishment that followed, and it all taught me something.  But publicity was not part of my punishment, which ended with my entry into the United States Army Air Forces, where I served three and a half years.

 

                   I became a Lieutenant in 1944, as it happened, and I do believe my entire military service was as honest as the day is long.  Such dishonesty as I had exhibited in 1942 was quite unrelated to my competence and honor as an officer, I think.  Maybe there were others less vain and more cir­cu­mspect than me, who should have had my position and responsibilities.  Maybe my 1942 performance showed a flaw the Air Force would rather do without.  This is possible, but the transcript the University of Michigan sent the Air Force in support of my appli­cation for officers' training made no mention of my trans­gression, and I was grateful.  And I cannot believe the Army or the nation it was defending suffered in conse­quence.