Colleges Need to be Pushed to Stop Student Cheating

12/07/2010 04:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

High levels of student cheating have been the norm on college campuses for years now and a big reason is that schools don't take tougher action to address this problem. As I wrote in a previous post "all evidence suggests that most university leaders do not focus much attention on academic integrity issues. So many students cheat, and get away with cheating, because -- in effect -- schools let them."

A core problem is that neither faculty nor top administrators have incentives to take on student cheating. The integrity climate on a campus is not among the criteria used by U.S. News and World Report or any other entity that judges the performance of universities.

In turn, the lack of incentives to get tough on cheating means that universities simply do not invest major resources in this area. The bottom line is that we cannot and we will not dismantle the cheating culture on America's campuses until this issue moves to the front burner. And that won't happen until administrators and faculty have stronger incentives to take action.

How do we create incentives for action? Let me offer a few thoughts.

First, advocates for academic integrity -- both on campus and off -- need to become more adversarial. The integrity movement, which I see as fundamentally a movement about fair play and other humanist values, needs to take a page from the playbook of successful efforts to change campus priorities, both past and present. These include the success of women's groups in winning a bigger focus on sexual harassment and date rape. Or students of color insisting on more attention and spending on diversity. Or anti-sweatshop advocates getting schools to change where they source tee-shirts and jerseys. Or environmentalists pressuring schools on green building and renewable energy.

All of these movements have succeeded in getting administrators to change their thinking and ultimately their priorities and practices. They have used collaborative approaches to be sure, but also have been very adversarial at times.

What would it mean for integrity advocates to be adversarial? It might mean releasing studies that blast individual universities and specific college presidents for letting student cheating fester unchecked. It might mean organizing petition drives calling for tougher policies and more action, as well as writing tough public letters to school leaders. It might mean that student groups single out specific faculty who are lax on cheating issues. It might mean mobilizing alumni as part of a public pressure campaign against a chancellor. Heck, it might even mean some student-sits in administrator offices.

When it comes to campus issues, the squeaky wheel -- or the screeching wheel, really -- gets the grease. University leaders don't like being criticized, especially when their critics are right. And if the screeching goes long enough and is loud enough, they'll often take action. Integrity advocates don't do much screeching. And that has got to change.

Let me suggest another way to push university leaders, one that is even more dramatic.

I think it's time for both federal and state public officials to get involved in academic integrity issues. Cheating is an issue that public officials have every reason to care about. Let's not mince words here: Taxpayers spend tens of billions a year on a higher education system that is rife with fraudulent activity by students and distorted results. The research is unclear as to what exactly cheating means for society, in terms of quality of employees or future ethical behavior. But I think there are enough reasons for concern that public officials can feel justified in meddling here.

A few years ago, the U.S. Senate held hearings on steroid use and demanded that Major League Baseball get tougher on juicing athletes. In effect, John McCain and other senators said that if the commissioners didn't clean up the steroid mess, Congress would. Now, if Congress can get involved in that issue, where it has zero power of the purse, why not on the cheating issue? And certainly state officials could get involved in this issue, given their direct oversight of public universities.

What kind of action do I have in mind? For a start, I'd like to see public hearings and official reports that go after schools which take a lax stance on student cheating. I'd like to see tough talk directed at the higher ed sector as whole from the Secretary of Education, from senators, and from governors. I want to hear some threats -- threats about accreditation, research grants, and financial assistance.

I'd like to see policymakers single out some of the worst offenders among public universities and demand that they put in place plans to reduce student cheating and hold these universities accountable for progress.

And if that doesn't get results, I'd like to see some people lose their jobs. Heads should roll if things don't change. It is simply not acceptable that schools turn a blind eye while a majority of college students cheat.

My guess is that even a little saber rattling by public officials will begin to change incentives. After a few chancellors and college presidents are grilled in public hearings, or a few threats are made to cut off funding, people will start to get the message.

One might worry that the net result of all this will be a more punitive approach to integrity issues. I don't think that will be the case. University leaders anxious to reduce cheating will look to enact or scale up anti-cheating strategies that work. And super punitive approaches are not the most effective such strategies.

Universities can succeed in reducing cheating. But they first need to be pushed