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Vigilante Justice on Plagiarism
Faculty members complain constantly about plagiarism and trade stories about strategies to combat it. Loye Young thought he had a solution. On his syllabus at Texas A&M International University this fall, he wrote: "No form of dishonesty is acceptable. I will promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating, or stealing. That includes academic dishonesty, copyright violations, software piracy, or any other form of dishonesty."
Many professors use the syllabus to warn students about enforcing plagiarism rules, but few promise public humiliation. Young, who owns a computer business in Laredo and doesn't depend on a teaching job for his livelihood, thinks humiliation is part of the justice system. He noted in an interview Wednesday that "there's a reason that trials are in public."
When he caught six students in his management information systems course cheating, he wrote about it on his course blog (which he maintained on his business's Web site), naming the students and telling the world that he had caught them and that they would receive an F for the course and be reported to university officials.
"Plagiarism is manifestly unfair and disrespectful to your classmates," Young wrote on his blog. "There are students taking the course who are working very, very hard to learn a subject that in many cases is foreign to them. A plagiarizer is implicitly treating the honest, hard-working student as a dupe. Of course, the plagiarizer is the dupe or else would not need to plagiarize."
When university administrators realized that Young had followed through on his threat to fail and publicly humiliate the students, they put the failing grades on hold -- the cases are now being referred to an honors council for consideration and the F's may or may not stand. But action against Young was quick: He was fired. The university says he violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law known widely as the Buckley Amendment or FERPA, which generally bars the release of educational records about students without their permission.
Young says that FERPA is being used to cover up the real reason the university wanted him out: that it was facing an instructor unwilling to stay quiet about students' academic dishonesty. "People here are told that students should be babied and that we need to keep 'em in to get enrollment and state funding," he said. "Well, I want students -- when they complete my course -- to actually know something, and they can't if they plagiarize everything."
That his actions distressed many at the university as much as the plagiarism, he said, shows the extent of the problem. "This beehive needed whacking," he said.
Adding to the buzz has been an e-mail message sent to department chairs by someone in the administration (the provost denies knowing anything about it, and an article Wednesday in the Laredo Morning Times attributed it to deans) in which the chairs were reminded to tell faculty members that any F grades for plagiarism should be reviewed by the honors council and that professors need to always think about students' due process rights before seeking to punish them.
Several faculty members, speaking privately because they didn't want to anger administrators, said that they were taken aback by the way the university appeared to be viewing plagiarism as an issue requiring more due process for students, not more support for professors. For the university to follow the dismissal of an adjunct with this reminder, they said, left them feeling that they couldn't bring plagiarism charges. Further, many said that they believed it was a professor's right to award an F to a plagiarizer and that this should not require an honors council review.
Several e-mail messages are circulating among faculty members, expressing concern that their right to assure academic integrity is being undercut. Despite how widespread a problem plagiarism is among students, these e-mail messages say, the university is looking the other way and sending a public message to students that they are the victims when a professor takes plagiarism seriously.
Young said that the plagiarism in his course was easy to detect. He said that the essays he found to be copied didn't read like student writing and seemed to be an odd combination of sources. He said he just put some of the essays into Google to find the sources, on Wikipedia, in the archives of term paper companies, and so forth.
"If students don't know that they will be prosecuted, this will not stop," he said. "You need to have a deterrent, and it needs to be public."
Not all faculty members share that view. Some who don't like the way the university is dealing with situation still think Young crossed a line by going public with the names of students. Robert Haynes, an associate professor of English and president of the Faculty Senate, said Young was "not adequately prepared to deal with the challenge of students he perceived as cheating." Haynes acknowledged that Young's dismissal, followed by the memo now in circulation, has left many professors worried. He said that the events are "subject to the interpretation" that the university isn't interested in tough enforcement of rules against plagiarism, but he said he didn't think that was true.
"We are interested in combining rigor and compassion. and we don't want to compromise on either," he said.
It's important, Haynes said, that professors not "be subject to second guessing for ordinary decisions," he said, and that includes grades. At the same time, he said, it was important for students to know their appeal rights.
Pablo Arenaz, provost at the university, said he was distressed that some faculty members are concerned about the university's commitment to academic integrity. Asked whether a professor has the right to award an F to someone caught copying, Arenaz said that was "up to interpretation." He said it was important that everyone respect students' due process rights when plagiarism is suspected.
He stressed, however, that the reason Young was dismissed was because he violated students' privacy rights. Asked if university policy states that violating FERPA is grounds for dismissal, Arenaz said he didn't know.
"The university believes in academic integrity and upholds academic integrity," he said.
Arenaz, asked if he thought plagiarism was a major problem at the university, noted that he has only been there for a few months, and said he wasn't sure. "I don't have a feel for it at all. If I put five faculty in a room, I would get different interpretations of what it is."