A Cheating Scandal With Diplomatic Dimensions

Saudi Arabian students are snared in a grade-change scandal at Montana Tech that became a diplomatic incident.

June 25, 2015

This is a story of how one university’s massive cheating scandal became a minor diplomatic incident.

In January of 2012, Montana Tech reported that 36 of its students were involved in a grade-changing scandal in which an unidentified former employee altered grades and removed courses from transcripts. As The Montana Standard, the local paper in Butte, reported at the time, the university identified 126 grade changes, 119 cases of courses being removed from transcripts and 19 cases in which courses were added. The paper also reported in its Jan. 7, 2012, article that the university intended to turn over the results of its investigation to local and state authorities for possible criminal prosecution.

That scandal came back to life this week when the Associated Press reported on Saudi Arabian embassy memos released by WikiLeaks suggesting that almost all of the students who were involved were Saudis studying in the U.S. on government scholarships and that their government attempted to shield them from potential criminal liability.

The AP reported on a memo describing a Jan. 4, 2012, meeting between top Montana Tech administrators and Saudi diplomats at the Saudi embassy in Washington in which Chancellor Donald Blackketter reportedly suggested that the students be flown out of the United States. The memo says that a Saudi diplomat subsequently “issued travel tickets to those students … to return to the kingdom so they don't face jail or deportation by the American authorities.”

Another Saudi memo cited by the AP indicated that the employee who changed grades had accepted “gifts” in exchange. In an interview with the AP, Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Douglas Abbott said he recalled the gifts as being “small tokens of appreciation” and the employee did not accept money.

In a written statement provided to Inside Higher Ed, Blackketter described “innuendos or accusations that Montana Tech conspired to fly students out of the United States” as being false and suggested that the university had an obligation to inform the “sponsoring agency” in advance of the likelihood that the students would be punished.

“The visit Doug Abbott and I made to the sponsoring agencies was to inform the agencies of pending Montana Tech sanctions and to remind them that it was almost certain sanctions would be given,” Blackketter said. “Furthermore, we reminded them that when sanctions were imposed, the students’ SEVIS [Student and Exchange Visitor Information System] status would be terminated and students would be required to return to their home country. I informed the sponsoring agency that preparations for this action were needed. This visit to the sponsoring agency was even more critical because we determined the extensiveness of the grade changes only after students left for the holiday break, and many of the involved students were not on campus. We used all means available to promptly contact the students.”

Blackketter said he kept the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security and local police informed of completed and pending sanctions against students as the investigation unfolded over multiple weeks in late 2011. “While bribery is a crime, academic dishonesty is unethical, but not a criminal violation,” Blackketter wrote in his statement. “No students involved in the grade-change incident committed a crime in their academic violations (according to conclusions of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security and Butte-Silver Bow law enforcement).”

The chancellor said that some of the students involved were expelled, others had their diplomas revoked, and others were allowed to return to the university, which is part of the University of Montana system.

Blackketter declined, through a spokeswoman, to answer questions following up on his written statement.

Tricia Bertram Gallant, a lecturer at the University of California at San Diego who studies academic integrity issues, said the case reminds her of one at Diablo Valley College a number of years back in which dozens of students reportedly paid bribes to student workers to change their grades. But generally she said this type of case is more common overseas in countries where corruption is more rampant.

That said, she noted that after reading research done by UNESCO on corruption in education internationally, "I thought how much longer will it take for that to infiltrate the U.S., Britain, Canada and Australia, with the amount of international students we have coming to our schools. I’m not surprised we have had a story along those lines.”

The number of international students in the U.S. has increased by 72 percent since 2000, while the number of Saudi students in particular has increased more than tenfold, driven by the Saudi government scholarship program. According to the Institute of International Education’s annual Open Doors report, there were 53,919 students from Saudi Arabia at U.S. universities in 2013-14, compared to just 5,273 in the year 2000-1.

Researchers have found that international students' self-reported rates of cheating are higher than for domestic students (self-reported cheating rates are also especially high for fraternity and sorority members). Bertram Gallant said an article she's co-authored similarly finds that "being an international student is a 'risk factor' for being reported for cheating [by others]. Does that mean that international students cheat more, does it meant that faculty are looking for it, does that meant they cheat poorly so that they’re noticed more easily than a domestic student? We don't know -- the numbers don’t tell us that -- but they do say that we have an issue."

Nasser Razek, a clinical faculty member in the higher education administration program at the University of Dayton, has found in his research that Saudi students in the U.S. are much more likely to report engaging in academically dishonest behaviors than are their American counterparts. For example, they're more than twice as likely to report getting questions from someone who has already taken a test (32 versus 15 percent) or to report receiving substantial unpermitted help on an assignment (53 versus 24 percent). Razek noted, however, that the type of extreme grade changing reported at Montana Tech is not something he's encountered in his research of Saudi student behaviors.

Context is key to understanding the problem, Razek said. Before the creation of the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Program in 2005, only Saudi students with excellent English skills would be likely to get a visa. But suddenly anyone with a high school diploma could come here to study on a full scholarship. Universities lowered their standards, conditionally admitting scores of Saudi students without TOEFL or SAT scores pending completion of an intensive English program.

Students don't intend to cheat from the outset, Razek said, but they can find themselves in a situation where they feel unequipped to do the course work and where they fear having to return home with the shame of having lost their scholarship.

One behavior that Razek says is very prevalent in his research participants is "paper writing -- someone else being paid to write papers for the Saudi students, or do homework for them, specifically for longer research papers where they lack the skills of using the libraries and doing the research in English."

They don't see it as something bad, he said. "For them, it’s the only way of survival. They say, 'after one year in the English Language Institute, I can’t write an email without 20 or 25 mistakes. How can I write a research paper of 25 pages?'"


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