When Richard Quinn, a business professor at the University of Central Florida, accused many of his students of cheating earlier this month, he probably didn't expect to find himself at the center of a national media story. Nor did he probably imagine that he would be cast as the villain by some observers. In fact, though, trashing professors who accuse students of cheating is surprisingly common. And fear of such criticism, or even lawsuits, is one reason why many faculty don't go after cheaters.
Professor Quinn's accusations of cheating had barely hit the news when students on campus counter-attacked, saying that Quinn had lied about how he created his exams. Students produced a video purporting to support their claim, which quickly won a following on YouTube. Some commentators on the web also backed the students, saying they had done nothing wrong in accessing a test bank (even though these banks are not supposed to be accessible to students). A student news team ambushed Quinn on camera to ask about his supposed double standards.
All of this is more typical than you might think. Professors who bust cheating students can find themselves in very unpleasant battles. It is not unusual for students to enlist their parents to pressure university officials to get the charges dropped -- or for parents to directly confront professors. Nor is it unusual for today's helicopter parents to bring in a lawyer to help defend their kid from disciplinary action. In some cases, students punished for cheating have brought lawsuits against schools -- such as when a seminary student sued the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1999 after being suspended for cheating.
While there are no examples (I know of) where professors have been sued and held liable for wrongly accusing students of cheating, fear of legal hassles is widespread among faculty. More common, though, is a fear of unwanted and unfair criticism of their teaching -- or just outright character assassination. In my book The Cheating Culture, I tell the story of a visiting computer science professor at Dartmouth who was attacked by the Dartmouth Review for poor teaching after he accused dozens of students of cheating in one of his classes. The professor later charged that Dartmouth officials blocked his efforts to prove the allegations and then absolved all accused students in the case.
I've heard many less dramatic stories of professors who feel unsupported by university administrators after lodging accusations of cheating. Cheating is not a high priority issue for university leaders -- maybe because campus integrity is not a metric measured by U.S. News or anyone else -- and many would prefer that these issues be kept hush-hush. Also, students are paying customers and some come from families with a multi-generational brand loyalty to the school. Faculty, in contrast, are more akin to the hired help -- especially when they are adjuncts or visiting professors.
More subtly, faculty often complain that they are not well-trained or prepared to deal with cheating cases. That's not surprising, since universities typically don't invest adequate resources in educating the campus community -- either faculty or students -- about academic integrity rules.
If universities want to see less cheating, they need to make the investments needed to change campus culture around this issue. That means doing more to train faculty and staff, and better supporting faculty when they go after cheaters. Schools can also combat cheating by strengthening campus community and stressing fairness.
At the same time, though, faculty need to be held more accountable on academic integrity issues. Some faculty make it easy to cheat by using the same exams year after year, or not proctoring exams vigilantly, or giving written assignments that are easily plagiarized. Faculty often also do a poor job of raising and discussing academic integrity, which research shows can reduce cheating, and may otherwise teach in ways that help undermine honor.
One simple step would be to include questions about academic integrity in the teaching evaluations that students fill out. This information could help university officials figure out which faculty are doing a good job at preventing cheating and which are not, and then push for improvement.
Faculty members hate to play cop, but it's now part of their job. Schools should support them in this role and also demand that they take it seriously.