The Ethical Dilemma: Redemption for a Cheater

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A Cheat By Any Other Culture: I am a professor at a large state university in the Midwest. A graduate student from my Fall 2014 class took photos of my midterm exam with a cell phone and then distributed the photos to others.

The same midterm was administered in Spring 2015 and then most recently in the semester. I only became aware of the situation two days after the Fall 2015 midterm when someone left me an anonymous letter along with eight photos of the exam. The informant identified himself/herself as a student currently in my class and indicated that the “majority” of the class has seen these photos. It wasn’t hard to figure out who took the photos since his name is shown in one photo of the exam.

This case was shocking to me and many others in the department. We referred the case to the university after speaking with the student. He acknowledged taking the photos, but insisted that he did not distribute them. (However, he could not explain how photos could go from his phone to others.)

This is probably one of the most egregious violations of academic integrity I’ve seen. After consulting with the department, I checked the box for “suspension or higher (dismissal)” as the recommended penalty in the referral paperwork. A university hearing has been scheduled in two weeks, where the appropriate penalty will be decided.

My dilemma has to do with the international status of the student. As per US visa laws, an international student cannot remain in the United States without taking a full course load. That means this student will have to be admitted into another school or return to his home country during the suspension period. In the event of a dismissal, he probably won’t be able to attend any reputable university anywhere in the world (unless he hides this history). But either way, this will significantly affect his life.

Nearly two decades ago, I came to the US myself as an international student (though from a different country), and I always empathize with international students and immigrants wherever they happen to come from. I know how cultural norms from one’s home country can shape one’s thinking and behavior for a long time and how challenging things can be for new immigrants.

Should I feel bad for him? If the hearing panel were to ask whether I recommend suspension or dismissal, what should I say?

—Very Torn

Dear Torn,

In answer to “should I feel bad for him?” I say yes, you should, and clearly you do. It’s tragic when promising young people throw away their shots at good careers and desired lifestyles for foolish reasons. But this student knew that what he was doing was against the rules, and he did it anyway, whether due to peer pressure, personal gain (I imagine he got something for sharing the test), or difficulty succeeding within the rules. Those are all excuses, and no excuse. Students who can’t or won’t adhere to their school’s established and clearly communicated standards of integrity don’t deserve the education or degree they were trying to achieve.

As for whether to recommend suspension or dismissal, if I understand correctly, dismissal would permanently terminate his ability to study in the US (and elsewhere), while suspension would allow him to resume, either at another school or after returning to his home country, once he qualifies to be reinstated. I suspect there are specific guidelines governing which transgressions are grounds for suspension vs. dismissal, and that you are not the only one voting on this—although perhaps your vote holds sway.

If you feel the student’s cultural background somehow ameliorates his transgression and that he deserves a second chance, opt for suspension. But also opt to do whatever may be necessary for the university to ensure that all students, particularly those from backgrounds typically prone to cheating, clearly recognize what constitutes a violation and what the punishment is. If the rules are inappropriate, they need to be modified. If they are appropriate, they must be enforced consistently and even-handedly. Students need to understand that if they commit the crime, they will receive the prescribed punishment.

There may also be ways professors like you can close gaps in the system, such as not using the same exam year after year. I truly can’t understand why this practice exists. Changing the order or the wording of the questions strikes me as simple ways to ensure that last year’s right answers will be wrong this year. It’s sad that such measures must be taken, but dishonest students must be thwarted to protect the ones who get things right or wrong honestly.

So do what strikes you as right based on your institution’s bylaws and your understanding of the situation. But also do whatever you can to get to the root of the problem and root it out—not just slap the hands of those who get caught. The issue and its repercussions extend far beyond the fate of this one student.