Let’s Talk About Race and Academic Integrity

Race has been missing from conversations around academic integrity even though the issue is racialized through and through, Antar A. Tichavakunda writes.

June 30, 2022
A student taking a test has answers written on their hand.
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About 2,000 students from 98 universities responded to a survey about their views of academic integrity and cheating recently conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan. The findings, which can be filtered by race, provide fodder for a racial analysis of academic integrity. For example, Black and Asian/Asian American students reported being accused of plagiarism more than any other group (12 percent for both groups, versus 6 percent of all students). Further, Black students were the most likely to report being accused of cheating in college (9 percent of Black students reported being accused of cheating in a college course, compared to 6 percent of all students). Such findings should push us to take race seriously when we talk about academic integrity.

Am I just trying to make this about race? No. Academic integrity is already about race. From the assumptions behind who looks like they are cheating to the punishments given for cheating to the technology that monitors cheating to what counts as cheating, the idea of academic integrity is racialized through and through.

Racist Surveillance

In researching my recent book, Black Campus Life: The Worlds Black Students Make at a Historically White Institution (SUNY Press, 2021), a Black woman I interviewed—the only Black woman in her major—told me she never cheated. During one exam, she caught a non-Black student peeking at her work. When she noticed the student copying her, she grabbed her exam, stood up and walked to the opposite side of the room to take the test elsewhere. Her rationale for moving was not about academic integrity but about racist stereotypes. She moved because she was worried the professor would accuse her of cheating off the other student’s test. Why? Because she assumed that the professor would be racist, concluding that the Black woman, not the non-Black man, was the offender.

The measures she took in response to the other student’s gaze are telling. Race and gender shaped her experience. Racist and sexist beliefs shape assumptions about who looks like they are cheating and who is likely to be believed in front of a non-Black instructor. Professors are not empty vessels in the classroom—they bring with them beliefs and stereotypes about different racialized groups.

Race also matters in proctoring software built to monitor students during remote exams. Proctoring software does not always accurately assess people who have darker skin. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison and in other cases, students have been barred from or have had to pause from taking tests because of software failing to recognize faces of people with darker skin. The technology itself certainly is not racist. Yet, as scholars such as Ruha Benjamin and Safiya Noble have shown, the algorithms and codes structuring such technologies can perpetuate racial biases and stereotypes.

Zero-Tolerance Policies

We can be too punitive in thinking about academic integrity. Of course, context matters. But for me, I won’t be failing a student for one copy and paste too many when the option of a redirection and a resetting of expectations is right there. Often, the problem lies in pedagogy—not the student. A zero-tolerance policy around plagiarism or academic integrity can do more harm than good.

If zero-tolerance educational policies have taught us anything, it is that they tend to disproportionately harm Black and Latinx students. The same goes for academic integrity policies. The people who make the decisions about which transgressions are forgivable and which transgressions are necessary to report and punish do not exist in a race-neutral vacuum. Even within a zero-tolerance policy, instructors might find certain offenses, depending on the offender, more tolerable than others. Decision makers, from faculty members to student conduct officers, hold beliefs about identity that—if uninterrogated—could potentially be racist and discriminatory.

The Racialized Reality of Unfair Academic Advantages

Some students take exams and do homework with unfair advantages. Consider test banks—the files of old midterms and finals for various courses within a major. From personal experience, and from my research on student life, I know historically white fraternities and sororities sometimes have test banks that members can use. The same goes for long-standing engineering societies and fraternities on campus. These resources, however, aren’t for everyone. They’re for members. The demographics of such organizations, of course, differ by institution. At predominantly and historically white campuses, however, you can bet that the members of the oldest organizations with the largest test banks are predominantly white.

Collaborating or cheating on exams can adversely impact Black students at schools where they are in the extreme minority. In my book, I studied an engineering school with a less than 5 percent Black student population. As one woman told me about the school of engineering, “There is rampant cheating, which is why [during exams] the white people sit with the white people. And the Asians sit where the Asians sit.” For Black students, who were usually one of few or the only one in their classes, it would be harder to collaborate on tests even if they wanted to. Access to unfair academic advantages that some might consider academically dishonest is shaped by race.

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“Academic integrity” and “academic honesty” are fraught terms. When you consider how access to exclusive academic resources for courses is shaped by race, discussions around academic integrity change. To take the discussions further, we need to come to terms with the fact that discourses and policies around academic integrity are not race-neutral.

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Antar A. Tichavakunda is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Cincinnati and author of Black Campus Life: The Worlds Black Students Make at a Historically White Institution (SUNY Press, 2021).

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