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Cheating Scandal at Virginia

June 30, 2005

An "alarmingly large fraction" of the first-year class of economics graduate students at the University of Virginia were involved in a cheating incident that came to light this month, according to the department chair.

Department officials said that some problem sets from textbooks used in introductory graduate economics courses have answer keys online. At least one student found answers for a course taken by all first-year students, and apparently shared the information with classmates. Though the solutions were apparently available, David Mills, chair of the economics department, said students should have “known it was off-limits,” but that they instead "used it without the professor being aware."

The extent of the involvement of individual students is not clear yet, but Mills said that it appears that "a good number of students, large enough that it was alarming" used the online cheat-sheets. He did not know the exact figure, but said it was a "large fraction of the [first-year] class," which consists of just over 30 students. Some of the students may now face investigations by the institution’s honor committee.

Virginia is one of 99 institutions nationwide that have honor codes, according to the North Carolina based Center for Academic Integrity. The main thrust of Virginia’s code is that there is only one punishment available for students caught lying, cheating, or stealing: "permanent dismissal from the university."

Mills said that he expects that one or two students might decide not to return after the summer, rather than face an investigation and possibly the ensuing trial from the honor committee and expulsion if convicted. He said he did not expect a mass exodus from the program. But Steven Stern, director of graduate studies in the economics department, said he expected the attrition rate to be "on the high side." Still, he said there will be no shortage of teaching assistants next year, as there are plenty of graduate students looking to make extra money.

Students guilty of cheating who decide not to return to the program in the fall, though, may not be totally off the hook. If the honor committee, which is made up of 23 students, believes that a former student was involved in cheating, “we would still pursue that student,” said David Hobbs, an undergraduate and chair of the committee. The purpose for following up is that a student who drops out can return later, whereas a student found guilty by a student jury is banned for life. “The overall idea is that the strict honor committee enforces the overall community of trust that governs the university,” Hobbs said.

According to statistics compiled by the committee, 11 students brought in front of the honor committee during the last academic year admitted their guilt and left the university, while 10 more were found guilty in a trial. Only two of those students were graduate students, and only 4 of 45 students dismissed in the last two years were graduate students. Some faculty members who did not want to be named expressed surprise to learn of a major cheating incident involving graduate students. “The committee deals with undergraduates much more often,” Hobbs said.

Graduate students were also surprised, although less so. Dan Carroll, a rising third-year economics graduate student, said that, from an economist’s perspective, he considered it a bad tactical move to cheat. “It isn’t worth the risk,” he said. He had never heard of graduate students finding answer keys before, and said he would be shocked if someone cheated on a test, but that “as far as for homework, that doesn’t surprise me at all.” He added that the idea a cheater would share his or her apparent competitive advantage with classmates is also less than stunning. “There’s sort of a communal feel in that everybody’s trying to help each other out a lot.”

The honor committee does not launch investigations during the summer, but the economics department has assembled a panel of its own. Stern, who said he is not yet ready to label the actions “cheating,” is the head of that group. He hopes that the newly formed department committee will soon figure out the extent of any problem, and “construct reasonable ways of dealing with it,” he said, which might be less severe than expulsion.

However, if names of offenders are turned over to the honor committee, expulsion becomes the only option for those convicted. For now, Stern said the best way to launch a preemptive strike on future cheating is to “have instructors make their own problems, just not assigning any book problems."

 

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