Policing Plagiarism Abroad

It’s not uncommon for colleges to discontinue academic programs overseas for financial reasons. But Centenary College, in New Jersey, is shutting down an M.B.A. program in Asia to contain a plagiarism epidemic. About 400 students are currently enrolled in the program at locations in Beijing, Shanghai and Taiwan.

July 27, 2010

It’s not uncommon for colleges to discontinue academic programs overseas for financial reasons. But Centenary College, in New Jersey, is shutting down an M.B.A. program in Asia to contain a plagiarism epidemic. About 400 students are currently enrolled in the program at locations in Beijing, Shanghai and Taiwan.

“The college is extremely concerned with the welfare of the Chinese students involved in the program, but must note that its review revealed evidence of widespread plagiarism among other issues, at a level that ordinarily would have resulted in students’ immediate dismissal from the college,” Debra Albanese, Centenary’s vice president for strategic advancement, said in a statement. “Despite that, in an effort to afford students every fair possibility, the college has opted to attempt to reach an amicable solution, in lieu of any such dismissal. The students were offered a choice to receive a tuition refund in exchange for a standard release in higher education or take a comprehensive exam in order to earn a degree.”

Students have until July 30 to make the choice, and so far, according to Centenary, all but two who've replied have accepted the refund. College officials declined to elaborate beyond the written statement, and did not answer specific questions in regard to what, if any, judicial procedures or preventative programs were in place at the satellite locations, or the nature of the academic misconduct uncovered.

A number of experts, however, said that the most surprising element of this case was that Centenary took the problem seriously enough to shut down its program. “For a lot of the American schools or foreign schools [in China], this is a cash cow,” noted Kathryn Mohrman, who is director of the University Design Consortium at Arizona State University and who has also been president of Colorado College and executive director of the Johns Hopkins University campus in Nanjing. “You don’t want to be too persnickety or you lose the revenue that comes from these programs.”

“I would certainly say,” Mohrman added, “Centenary is not the only school that has suffered this problem.”

Academic misconduct is a particularly pervasive problem in China, where it infiltrates the higher education system from the undergraduate ranks on up. Increasingly, commentators have speculated about whether the country’s reputation for plagiarism and research misconduct will hamper the rise of Chinese universities, per a recent series of news articles to this effect in the American (CBS News: “Rampant Academic Cheating Hurts China’s Ambition”), British (The Economist: “Replicating Success”), and state-run Chinese press (China Daily: “Academic Corruption Undermining Higher Education”). (A new post on Inside Higher Ed’s World View blog also explores the issue.)

An opinion piece published last week in China Daily, “The Onus of Plagiarism is on Individuals,” places the ultimate responsibility for plagiarism on the culprits, but also affirms the responsibility of universities to set strict standards in this regard. “Unfortunately, in our quest for instant success, honesty has been thrown out of the windows,” the author, Ben Lim Chiow Ang, wrote. “Professors and students alike take short cuts and blatantly copied other authors' work, partly or wholesale. Old-fashioned integrity is a virtue of a bygone era.”

“I believe it is time to go back to the drawing board for all the stakeholders in the academic circle,” he continued. “The right values of academic integrity must be embedded in the culture of our universities and colleges.”

The collapse of Centenary’s M.B.A. program in China raises questions of how best to address issues of academic integrity at remote and foreign campuses, where prevailing academic norms can differ from those at U.S. or other Western universities. But certain aspects of cheating are also universal.

“The more an educational experience is viewed as being purely instrumental, that is as a means to an end -- in terms of a career -- then it does seem that it is going to be readily subject to shortcuts, because from the student perspective there is a sense that everything is simply a matter of credentials,” said Gary Pavela, director of academic integrity at Syracuse University. Centenary’s program is typical of the bulk of U.S. programs at branch campuses, which are generally pre-professional in nature and which cater to students who see a distinct career advantage to enrolling.

“I think there needs to be some component of the educational enterprise that has something to do with the joy in learning in and of itself, the aspect of learning that is exciting and gripping and seems immediately to be relevant to a student, beyond [just being] some ticket that they have to punch to get a job in the future. And that’s a pedagogical issue,” said Pavela. He added, too, that personal trust between the instructor and student is crucial in preventing cheating and plagiarism. “And it does seem to me that there are risks in these programs, that the greater the distance between the teacher and the student, the greater the breakdown in trust,” he said.

“This issue of trust is a fundamental human, anthropological fact,” Pavela said. “We are highly cooperative in small groups and the more we broaden the group and create distance between members of the group, then the more creative we’re going to have to be to affirm trust.”

The issue of plagiarism at U.S. branch campuses or overseas locations represents a new twist on a perennial problem. Academic misconduct among international students at campuses in the United States has long been a source of concern for professors and foreign student advisers alike, and orientation programs to teach Western academic norms have become a fixture at many institutions. At issue are cultural differences in academic practice. Citation practices, for instance, vary widely around the world, and in fact in some countries it’s considered a sign of respect to parrot back the words of a learned scholar without attribution. And shared conceptions of what’s common knowledge – and therefore doesn’t merit attribution – can be vexed even within a single cultural context, let alone a cross-cultural one.

“If you’re in a situation where you have international students in your classroom in the U.S., or you’re at a branch campus with a classroom full of home country students, if you’re bringing in a new cultural norm for how you deal with cheating and your definition of cheating or plagiarism, not only do you need to say it and put it in writing but you need to say it more than once,” said Michael Smithee, an international higher education consultant who retired in 2005 from Syracuse’s’ Center for International Services. Smithee also co-wrote "U.S. Classroom Culture," a resource published by NAFSA: The Association of International Educators.

“You’ve got to be willing to repeat how you approach cheating and what cheating is, and be very clear, every time, so that by the time the course is done, the students will be tired of hearing it. And if they’re tired of hearing it, it probably means that they understand it a little more,” Smithee said.

One final lesson of the Centenary case may also be that institutional culture matters, too. “Sometimes, something like this happens and they put all the blame on the students, and sometimes something like this happens and they put all the blame on the teacher, and I like when they look at it culturally and say what are we doing as a culture that makes it so pervasive,” said Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity, based at Clemson University.

Although she wasn’t speaking to the specifics of what happened at Centenary, “Generally speaking,” Fishman said, “if you have a problem this large, it’s not just the student and it’s not just the teacher.”


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