Academic Dishonesty, A Memoir

 

 

            While the academic world, like any other world, enjoys many  forms of dishonesty, there is a rather special type called academic dishonesty, whose definition and means of control occasion recurrent controversy.  Even within this category there is more than one kind, and more than one class of perpetrator.  False professional research is common enough, and the most famous examples, like The Piltdown Man, have made great detective stories.  Others are more amusing than confusing, as when the new President of Cornell University in 1951 delivered a thoroughly plagiarized Inaugural address, later explaining it as the fault of his ghost writer, not himself.

            Less titillating but more often in the newspapers are stories of undergraduate misfeasance in college, the occasional cheating scandal at a military academy, the occasional lawsuit against a college for what the plagiarizing student, convicted and sent down for a term, challenges as an unjust penalty or procedure.  Behind these stories is a vast reser­voir of shabby offense, cheating and plagiarizing for higher grades, a problem neither particularly publicized nor particularly hidden, but one which college administrators and most professors must confront continu­ously, from day to day and from one examination or term paper assign­ment to the next.

            There is no particular connection between undergraduate cheating and a hoax like The Piltdown Man, or even a falsification of data concocted by some careerist in a medical school’s research lab.  Undergraduate cheating is carried on mainly by the dregs of under­gradu­ate society, people who barely escape with their B.A.s and do not grow up to be anthropologists or medical researchers.  Their pla­giarisms carry no price tag, as might a plagiarism out in the world of copyrights and torts.  Their cheating is a surreptitious borrowing from a neighbor’s exam paper, not a hundred-thousand dollar theft from the IRS.

            These are the offenses contem­plated by the many “honor codes” American colleges use, offenses watched for and punished by professors, Deans, or “honor boards.”  Every college has a more or less elaborate handbook on the subject, has had one for many years, and yet every genera­tion seems to find it necessary to revise or improve its code.  The problem will always be with us, so long as college degrees are worth money or honor, just as the problem of theft is inseparable from the institution of private property.  There are idealists, communists, who would solve the theft problem by abolishing private property, but most of us believe the cure worse than the disease, and look to other solutions, imperfect as they must be.  So with college degrees and undergraduate cheating.

 

                             **************************************************************************

 

            In the fall of 1964 I was appointed Chairman of an ad hoc Committee of the Faculty Senate of the University of Rochester, to study the problem of cheating and plagiarism at our University and to come up with recommendations for a better system than had been in place up to then.  We did our job and our recommen­dations were, by and large, adopted.  What they were is not to the point here.  The formal report, for anyone interested, is still available at the University of Rochester.  A (woefully abbreviated) revision of part of that document was later pub­lished more broadly, in Harper’s Magazine (1966), and my apparent exper­tise in undergraduate criminology has earned me many a college judicial assignment since that time.

            In fact, my own experience of academic dishonesty  went back to a time long before I began to study the matter sys­temati­cally for the Faculty Senate.  Though this was not then known to our Presi­dent, W. Allen Wallis, who appointed me to head the study, I had myself been convicted of an academic honesty violation at the University of Michigan when I was a student there in 1942.  The story, which I am about to tell, is not entirely typical of the run of what came before the honor boards of 1942 or 1964 (or today, for that matter), but I felt it my duty to mention it to Mr. Wallis, in answer to his letter of appointment.  It didn’t seem to trouble him.

            In the fall of 1941 I came to The University of Michigan as a freshman, and lived in a dormitory room with Marvin King, who had been a high school friend of mine in Detroit.  I was enrolled in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, intending to major in physics, while King was enrolled in the College of Engineering.  We were both notori­ously excellent students, and friends from down the hall were forever in and out of our room, asking us questions about the chemistry or math home­work problems.  King was in addition the expert in the “strength of materials” course, and mechanical drawing and descriptive geometry, since these were engineering courses he was taking, while I was known as the writer and humanist, the guy who knew the dates of Louis XIII and when the Renaiss­ance ended.  King and I both enjoyed our position as the bright boys on the floor, and were always glad—not to say proud—to help a lesser brother in his need.

            One day in October, rather early in the term, a friend came to me with an outline he had made in response to an English assignment.  The teacher had asked the class to prepare a paper on something or other, but as a preliminary exercise to write out a formal outline of the proposed paper.  My friend had this scrappy page with headings labelled I, A, i, (a), (b), and so on, but it was all wrong from a syn­tactical point of view.  Things labelled in the same font should be parallel in importance, for example, and no heading should allow of but a single subheading.  I tried to explain to him that if he wrote a heading,  “A. The Reason”, and if there was but one reason, it was supererogatory to introduce the subhead, “(1) It is impossible.”  If there were two reasons, each requiring some text, he should write in his outline, “A. Reasons” and follow this by at least two suitably indented sub­headings, e.g. “(1) Impossibility” and “(2) Illegality.”  And so on.

            My explanations fell rather flat, as no doubt the teacher’s had earlier in the week, and the poor fellow was faced with having to turn in the outline on the following day.  So I took a piece of fresh paper and rewrote his work, or what I took to be what he was intending by it, so that the reorganized headings made sense on the face of it.  We discussed the new version and he seemed to understand.  At any rate, he saw that it was good, he thanked me, he departed.  This being but one of in­numer­able such encounters with fellow students who needed a hand, I soon forgot the matter.

            Ten days later my friend was back.  The outline had received a grade of B (I think), and here it was, but now he had the paper to write and no idea how to do it.  Since I had written the outline, he thought, I must know what it meant.  Could I explain what the paper was about so he could write it?  I did my best, first asking him what he had been intending to write in the first place, but I did not get very far.  The fellow was the very model of what we lit students called (derisively) “engineers.”  Illiterate, with a slide-rule forever banging about on his hip.   My roommate King, who was by no means illiterate, was also an engineering student, but stereo­types will never die, perhaps with good reason:  The chap I was dealing with did fit the stereo­type.  He said that if I hadn’t written that outline he wouldn’t be in this trouble.  The teacher expected the paper to match the outline, you see. 

            Well, I ended up writing the damn paper for him; it only took an hour and it got him off my back.  Also, I was a little miffed that the outline hadn’t received an A, and I wanted to improve on that.  I cannot now remember the subject, but I do know that I found it quite pleasant to inject what I considered a number of original obser­vations into what he seemed to have chosen for me to write on.  A week later we were both enor­mously pleased to have got an A on his paper, as he informed me and everyone else on the hall.  I was now famous for English as well as math and chemistry, and the resulting business picked up considerably as term-paper time approached. 

            I wrote at least one other paper before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and two or three more in December and January.  In one case I wrote the paper in the room of my client, and since there were a couple of bottles of beer on the window sill I drank one (at his invitation) while I was writing.  That was kind of exciting, as I was 17 years old and unused to alcohol.  Another engineer for whom I wrote a paper was so grateful that he pressed a dollar on me. (That was worth ten of today’s dollars.)  Except for these two cases, as I explained to the court that tried me a couple of months later, I took no pay for my labors.  I just loved to write, and to glory in being smarter than my neighbors.

            I was discovered by someone’s reporting my activities to John Arthos, the Resident Advisor in Winchell House, my dormitory.  Arthos was then a young professor of English who lived among the students and served as their counsellor and policeman.  He called me in, told me what he had heard, and obtained my confession.  He said, “This is serious, Raimi, serious as hell.”

            I had known it was illegal, of course, had known it all the time, but I hadn’t really thought much about it.  Now, with Arthos reporting me to some mysterious bureau in the lit school, I was suddenly fright­ened.  I had no idea what would happen to me, though I was com­forted a little by an older friend, Phil Nusholtz, then a law student there, who assured me that I would not be expelled.  I have no idea how he knew that.  My own mind was paralyzed with fear, and I know I was utterly ignorant of the whole University law and procedure in dishonesty matters.  I kept my secret for the two weeks it took for my summons to come to my mailbox, and years beyond.

            In due course I appeared before a panel of three students and three professors, and told them exactly what had happened.  The professors didn’t grill me particularly, but a couple of the students were pitiless.  They wanted to know if I had a file of papers about, labelled “A”, “B+”, and so on, ready for customers.  They wanted to know how much money I had made by these activities.  They filled me with fear, but at least one of the professors looked and talked as if my offense were less than capital, and that Nusholtz’ estimate of my chances of being expelled were correct.

            It must have been March, maybe April, before the verdict came in.  The letter, which was either from the Dean or from the court itself, said that for the following academic year (1942-1943) I was to be “on proba­tion,” meaning that I was ineligible for any organized extracur­ricular activity such as athletics and student government, and that I was on official warning that any further infraction of Uni­versity regulations would be dealt with more severely than this one had been.

            I was, in 1941-42, a member of the “freshman staff” of The Michigan Daily, the student newspaper, justly renowned in those years for its professional-quality journalism.  Once a week I served on “night desk,” composing headlines, correcting proof, and watching the AP ticker bringing in last-minute stories of the progress of the war.  I was at The Daily the night the news came in of the victory in the Coral Sea, when the Ameri­can fleet for the first time stopped what had seemed an inexorable Japanese march towards Australia.  Each important bulletin on the AP ticker was preceded by a little ringing bell, calling us to stand around and watch as the words unrolled before our eyes.  The night editor would rip the sheet out of the machine and hand it to one of us if he planned to run it, saying perhaps, “One column, two lines, Number 14,” or whatev­er the formula was by which he described the headline he wanted.  Late in the night we would proofread the columns, replace the erroneous lines with fresh hot Linotype and put the paper to bed.  Then, on a quiet and empty Maynard Street, trying to feel like Thomas Wolfe, I would walk back to Winchell House alone.

            All this was taken from me by the terms of my probation, which began in the fall of 1942.  Exactly how it was supposed to be enforced I never really knew; having been told that extracurricular activities were forbidden me I simply never went back to The Daily.  The punishment hurt, even if nobody else knew of its existence.  As it happened, though this was no consolation, I only served half my term: By February I was in the Army.

            One memorable detail, on my punishment.  When in June I received my copy of my college transcript, with my grades on it, I found that at the bottom of the page there were a number of boxes in which various special comments were, if appropriate, entered.  Language and distribution requirements passed, and so on.  One box, headed Faculty Action, now contained the following handwritten entry, “Probation 1942-43 for assisting another student in an Engl. Comp. class.”

            Since transcripts were routinely mailed to parents too, I was terribly worried by this.  I hadn’t told anyone except Nusholtz and my brother about the matter, and would now not only have to explain what I had done but also why I had kept it a secret all this time.  But all I got from my parents, when they received their copy of the tran­script as mailed directly from the Registrar’s office, was praise for my good grades.  I rapidly took the blueprint from them, thinking to sequester it before they got to the fine print, but found that the probation notation had been obliterated on their copy by a white sticker exactly the size of the “Faculty Action” box, imprinted with a notice that this was an official, authorized copy of the transcript.  And the whole area was then embossed with the seal of the University.  Nobody would ever suspect there had been a box, or legend of any kind, beneath this display.

            It was only a few months later that I had a copy of my transcript forwarded to the U.S. Army Air Forces, to which I was making application for officer training.  Presumably the one they got was similar­ly edited and sealed, for I was accepted in the program of my choice and became in due course a Lieutenant, therefore (as the saying went) honor­able by Act of Congress.

 

                             **************************************************************************

 

            I never discovered what punishment, if any, was received by the engineers for whom I had been writing those papers.  I hardly knew them, actually; they were just guys from down the hall, and I told almost nobody of my own trouble.  As members of the College of Engineering they were subject to a formal Honor Code, and not just the ordinary academic law that governed the rest of us.  One requirement of their Code was that they had to write signed dis­claimers of cheating on every paper they turned in.  I was curious, in later years, about whether this perjury added to their plagiarism had implied a stiffer penalty for them than for me.  Also, whether they had even been arraigned.

            Therefore when, twenty-two years later, I was appointed to study the honesty question at Rochester, I wrote to John Arthos in Ann Arbor, who had in the years following the war become an old friend, and asked him these questions.  He replied that he had forgotten the entire incident, beginning to end.

Ralph A. Raimi, 1989

Revised 8 May 2003