- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2001

As the current academic year comes to an end, news of mass plagiarism at the University of Virginia has raised a number of disturbing questions about what can be done to discourage academic dishonesty and what to do when it occurs.
Normally, cases of plagiarism do not make the front pages of major newspapers, but the fact that 122 students at the University of Virginia turned in suspect papers for an introductory physics course did partly because the number was so large and partly because the University of Virginia has long prided itself on its honor code. Students there sign pledges that they will not lie, cheat, or steal, and the university means to hold them to their word. Those students who engage in acts of academic dishonesty, including turning in papers that they copied from friends or pulled off the internet, face the very real possibility of expulsion. A zero tolerance for cheaters is built into the system, and in large measure it has worked nicely. Even under the large cloud that presently hangs over the Charlottesville campus, students continue to take their final examinations without faculty proctoring, and without widespread worry that they will take improper advantage of the situation.
What, then, is one to say about the alarming number of students who cheated, and who were caught when Louis A. Bloomfield, their professor, ran a computer program designed to identify term papers with identical phrasings? The results not only astounded him, but opened up a can of worms that will certainly crawl far beyond the UVa. campus. Mr. Bloomfield was certainly in the right when he pursued the truth about an accusation that students had been cheating and when he brought the cheaters to the bar of justice. But one wonders what was going on in his popular course in "baby" physics (according to the New York Times, the average enrollment was 300-500 students each semester) and why it took a computer program to find out that students had been turning in virtually identical papers for at least five semesters. Those offenders who have already graduated are now in danger of having their degrees revoked. One wonders if other professors, in the social sciences or the humanities, should run similar programs, and what the fallout would be if they did.
The ideal way to conduct a college education was once described as having a teacher at one end of a log and a student at the other. Ideal, perhaps, but hardly economically feasible. Even Socrates had more students hanging on his every word as he questioned his antagonists in the public square of ancient Athens. But to attract as many students as Mr. Bloomfield apparently does is to put considerable burden on the business of education. This is especially true if his term paper assignments did not significantly change over five semesters.
If 35 years of teaching has taught me anything, it is this: One can only talk about the plagiarized papers one has caught, and not, by definition, about those that go undetected. In most cases, the culprits turn in work that is obviously not their own in language, organization, or sophistication of argument. Such papers are a sad combination of the desperate and inept. But even if one sets term paper assignments designed to discourage cheating, there is always the worry that the new technologies can thwart ones best efforts. My hunch is that at the University of Virginia, and at colleges and universities across the country, the next academic year will be spent in well-meaning discussions of what can be done to ensure that students turn in academically honest work.
I am not hopeful that a meaningful solution will emerge not so long as many students care more about their grade point averages than they do about genuine learning. After all, the pressure to succeed is enormous, and all the more so as costs and expectations escalate.
Still, I do not want to end on a gloomy note, because the truth is that the vast majority of students, at the University of Virginia and elsewhere, do their level best to give higher education an honest shot. For 162 years, the University of Virginia has stood tall where "honor" is concerned. Because UVa. has made it painfully clear that its honor code means precisely what it states, the message it is sending to students at Charlottesville and, one hopes, across the country, is that the academic life requires honesty above all else, and that those who cannot abide by this simple rule have no place in the company of teachers and students.

Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College.


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