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Cheating the System

Maddie Hanna | Friday, November 5, 2004

Returning from lunch one December day in 2002, Xavier Creary, a Notre Dame professor of chemistry and biochemistry, expected to find everything in his office just the way he left it, save for a few new phone messages and e-mails.

Instead, he found all of his graded Organic Chemistry exams stolen and all of the fall semester’s grades deleted from his computer.

Despite having backup grades on his computer, Creary was forced to change his method of grading. Because the exams were gone, he could not look them over and make a judgment on an individual’s semester grade based on performance on the final.

Since the exams were stolen after they were administered and graded, Creary believes that the perpetrator, still unknown, was simply bitter over the outcome of the course.

“[Stealing the exams] couldn’t have helped a student’s grade,” Creary said.

But Creary’s problems with cheating were not over, as a new incident surfaced the next semester.

“While I was in a review session at DeBartolo, a student came by and got one of the custodians to open my office, saying that they were from OIT and that I had called with an important problem that needed to be taken care of immediately,” Creary said.

According to Creary, the custodian became very concerned when the student never went near the computer.

Rummaging around by the desk, “the person may have very well gotten a copy of the exam,” Creary said. However, despite going through pictures of everyone in the class with the janitor, the invader was never caught.

Even though these incidents may seem extreme to some, Creary expressed no surprise.

“There is really nothing new. These things happened back in the 1960s,” Creary said.

And still do. Despite the seemingly low number of reported cases last year and a widely-publicized Honor Code, students, professors and faculty acknowledge that cheating is a problem at Notre Dame.

The University reported a total of 42 cases of cheating involving 46 students for the 2003-04 school year, according to Tom Flint, Faculty Honor Code Officer on the University Code of Honor Committee.

During the 2002-03 school year, 47 students were involved in 40 cases of cheating.

“Does that mean there are only 40 to 50 cases of cheating a year at Notre Dame?” Flint said. “Probably not, but we have no way of knowing.”

Flint said that approximately 1,000 cases of cheating per year would be expected at an institution the size of Notre Dame based on information from the Center for Academic Integrity, a national organization to which Notre Dame belongs.

“And that would probably be a conservative estimate,” he said.

The Honor Code

The most complicated problems arise from the gray areas where it is unclear whether a certain practice qualifies as cheating, Sociology department chair Dan Myers said.

For example, reusing papers, collaborating on homework and using dorm test files all fall into the gray area, he said.

These less-defined issues, such as the files of old tests, polarize the faculty, Myers said. “After years of teaching a class, there’s only so much you can ask about Chapter Four. And now everything’s out there, you know, sitting in Knott [Hall],” he said.

Dorothy Pratt, assistant dean in the College of Arts and Letters, was unsure of the Honor Code’s influence and the degree to which it is observed.

“We don’t know [how effective it has been],” she said. “Do we catch everybody? No. But I do know that at places without an Honor Code, cheating is rampant.”

Student adherence to the Honor Code also varies, Pratt said.

“I think they think they take it seriously,” she said. “I think sometimes they don’t – some kids that are caught tend to be surprised that the rule applies to them. It’s pretty odd.”

Flint said cheating is more than an individual choice.

“[The Honor Code creates] kind of a community of trust,” he said. “Breaking that trust is really an insult to the community as a whole, to the faculty and students.”

However, if someone is determined to cheat, the Honor Code won’t stop them, Myers said.

Creary expressed doubt that students adhere to the Honor Code’s policy of turning in cheaters.

“One of the principles in the Honor Code is that students are supposed to turn in people who cheat,” Creary said.

However, he acknowledged the challenge of this aspect of the Code.

“That is incredibly difficult. How do you turn in your roommate? Your friend? I don’t know if I could do that,” he said.

Since the Honor Code was rewritten three years ago, it is difficult to determine long-term cheating patterns, Flint said.

“Is the situation getting better or worse? I don’t really think we have much in the way of data to say that,” he said. “It wasn’t possible until two years ago to know what the situation was – there was literally no one in the University who knew how many cases there were.”

According to Flint, under the old system cases of cheating would go only to the department or college and then the respective dean, with no report made to the University as a whole.

As a result, the Honor Code, created in 1989, underwent a major rewriting.

“It’s not a good idea to be in a situation where no one in the University, and that includes the president, could know what was going on with the Honor Code,” Flint said.

Now, if cheating is reported, the case goes first to the honesty committee of either the respective department or the full college, depending on the department, Flint said. When the committee chair receives the report, the case is examined to see if there are grounds for proceeding to a University-level hearing.

“My guess would be that the majority of cases go to hearing,” Flint said.

Secondly, the description of the Honor Code changed as it pertains to penalties, Flint said. This entails the assignment of penalties by committees in terms of distinguishing between major and minor offenses as well as outlining the standard punishment.

According to the Academic Code of Honor Handbook, penalties for violating the honor code vary depending on the degree of the offense.

For minor offenses – cases in which the dishonesty was not premeditated and only involved a limited portion of the work submitted – the student receives “zero credit for the work with respect to which the violation occurred,” the Honor Code states.

Major offenses, in which the dishonesty involved a substantial portion of the work submitted and was extensively premeditated, signify a failure of the course.

Also, Flint said that the rewriting included the creation of the flagrant violation, where flagrant offenses “of an unusually grave nature” may lead to suspension or dismissal, the Code states.

However, in the past two years, “at most, there has been only one time when a committee suggested something could be a flagrant violation,” Flint said.

Last year, the cases were “pretty evenly divided” between major and minor offenses, according to Flint, with 21 major offenses and 25 minor. The year before, there were 22 major offenses and 19 minor.

Finally, the Honor Code was revised regarding the proportion of students on honor committees.

“In the past, it was simply recommended that honor committees have a majority of students. Now, there is an absolute requirement that any committee needs to have a majority of students,” Flint said.

The University Code of Honor Committee, also referred to as the Honesty Committee, oversees cheating cases and proposes changes to the Honor Code.