After an unusually high number of Honor Code infractions in the past several years, the Honor Board is taking more steps to prevent cheating by making both the Honor Code and the Board’s role on campus more visible to students.

Especially concerning for the Board’s two co-chairs, seniors Mfundi Makama and Ben Firn, were infractions that this semester resulted in the suspension of three students this semester. The relatively high number of suspensions, said Makama, is particularly worrisome.

“I think it’s just disturbing,” Makama said. “In two of the cases [that ended in suspension] someone literally got a paper from someone else and used it as is. And I think that’s very disturbing to have that happen at Wesleyan. And that’s very different from somebody who didn’t cite properly or someone who just copied a paragraph.”

Firn agreed, adding that it is offenses of this kind that have caused Honor Board members to reassess their role on campus and the policies of the Board itself.

“The level of predetermination and, you could call it malicious intent, is one of the biggest factors in the severity of our sanctions,” Firn said.

In the past, according to Firn, Wesleyan’s Honor Board sanctions have been relatively lenient in comparison with those of similar institutions at colleges and universities across the country. He is hoping to bring Wesleyan’s sanctions up to par with its peers.

“That goes hand in hand with trying to raise awareness,” Firn said. “Not only are they cheating the professor and their peers, but they’re cheating themselves out of a proper Wesleyan education.”

Part of this project is simply making clear to students which actions fall within the boundaries of cheating and which do not. For the first time, incoming freshmen this past fall were asked to take a 10-question quiz, which gave examples of academic scenarios and asked students to identify what does and does not constitute an infraction. Makama hopes that this kind of preventative measure will be useful in getting students from diverse backgrounds onto the same page when it comes to how the Honor Code applies to written assignments.

“We come from different schools and different levels of preparation on how to write,” Makama said. “I don’t think it’s sufficient, but it’s a positive step.”

However, all of the violations cannot be attributed to students being unaware of University policy. The three suspensions this semester come on the heels of several years that also saw increased numbers of violations. A 2012 Argus article reported a steady increase in the number of violations since 2008.

In October of 2013, Dean Michael Whaley noted in a letter to the faculty that, although violations had peaked during the 2011-2012 academic year, numbers from the 2012-2013 academic year were also concerning. During the 2011-2012 academic year, Whaley reported, 41 cases of academic dishonesty were adjudicated, which represented a 46 percent increase in the number of students from the previous year. During the 2012-2013 year, 32 cases were adjudicated.

“Data over the past several years reveal a troubling trend of increasing infractions, even when these data are adjusted for increases in enrollment over the period,” Whaley wrote in the letter. “We also remain concerned by the impression many students share that cheating is becoming more prevalent at Wesleyan.”

Makama and Firn also acknowledged that they have personally seen a rise in the number of cases they see as co-chairs.

When asked about possible reasons for the increase, the co-chairs suggested the increasing academic pressure at schools like Wesleyan, as well as an assumption by students that they will not get caught. Firn also noted that cheating has only gotten easier, as students are more often entering exams with smart phones and dubious academic resources are more available online.

“It’s just easier, with technology,” Firn said. “A lot of professors unfortunately have the same exam questions from year to year. Just the access of information makes it easier to cheat.”

Because of this increasing ease, in addition to trying to make students aware of what constitutes a violation, members of the Honor Board are trying to remind students not to succumb to temptation. This year, students were asked to re-acknowledge their understanding of the Honor Pledge before coming to campus.

“We’re going through a paradigm shift here,” Firn said. “Where we want people to not even contemplate cheating.”

  • Paul Bostwick ’87

    I see two threads tangled here:
    1) a thesis that when cheating is easier more people do it.
    2) a “scholarship standards for original work are sophisticated and not evenly disseminated” stance that would lead to more training.

    Of course my trouble is with both of them:
    1) Cheaters cheat and desperate people cheat. The implication that more cheating tools means more cheats plays along with the cheater’s self delusion that everybody does it – except maybe those that are too scared. That is not so. Non-cheaters don’t repeatedly size up cheating options and reject them, they just do their work.

    If we were gangsters this might be a reasonable stance, since your frame of reference is choked down to only include your peers. But among students this peer-set is correctly understood as a mix of serious scholars and a few corner-cutting advantage-seekers. When test scores and other so-called objective measures get prioritized those corner-cutters become more prevalent because a gaming approach can improve those scores enough to shift the demographics.

    2) This “the kids did not know the standard” really chaps. I’d totally buy it at a 2 year institution or a night-school with people re-booting their academic efforts. But within the first few tiers of American universities? For those supposed top students correct citation and honest participation in tests should “come with.”

    The occasional sentence that got put in without quotes or had them then was reformatted or lost its source and started to seem one’s own is an error. A serious error and a teachable moment one would think. Occasional as in: never happens to most students even once in an undergraduate career. Not occasional as in “2 strikes per at bat.”

    This “it is hard” model plays into the same upside-down logic as the “cheating is getting easier so it happens more” argument. There is no reason to plagiarize other than to make yourself seem better at the work than you would without borrowing. Doing your work and correctly attributing your sources is a minimal requirement for scholarship. Minimal. It is hard to have a professor read your work and find it wanting and then read how shallow or hard to follow and unsupported it was – but that is what the serious student signs up for.

    — a contrasting take —
    The “economic fire door” between a life in the middle-class and lower class that a first-tier undergraduate degree promises, raises the stakes too high. This promise of safety (and simultaneous threat of poverty and irrelevance) warps minds and has driven the over-subscription to secondary education. With that has come an increase in mercenary approaches to a degree (rather than an education.)