Bright young things

05.12.1312:32 AM ET

The Ivy League’s Cheating Problem

Last week, Barnard and Columbia were rocked by reports of cheating during final exams. But who’s to blame?

Earlier this week, two cheating scandals erupted at New York City’s prestigious Columbia University and its sister school, Barnard College, smearing their sterling reputations. On Wednesday, The New York Times reported rampant cheating in a popular English survey course at Barnard; apparently, students had been cutting corners for most of the semester, taking advantage of the loose structure of the class and its laid-back teacher. Three days later, Columbia became embroiled in its own scandal when it was revealed that a professor had leaked hints about a final exam to students in his section of Literature Humanities, a.k.a. Lit Hum, part of the Core Curriculum that is described by many graduates as the hallmark of a Columbia education.

The latest incidents at Barnard and Columbia come only eight months after allegations of widespread cheating at Harvard, which resulted in the expulsion of dozens of students. Of course, cheating is an evergreen issue in education, but it incites particular shock and horror when it occurs at the most highly esteemed of private institutions. Finger-pointing inevitably ensues, along with heated debates among students, parents, professors, and administrators. But when cheating is systemic, the issue of whom to blame is rarely black and white.

Early on in the spring semester at Barnard, some of the roughly 120 students taking Major English Texts II reportedly whispered and texted answers to each other during weekly reading quizzes, in which they were required to identify passages from poems or books. When the course’s instructor, Peggy Elsberg, caught on, she appointed several seemingly reliable students to grade the quizzes, only to eventually discover that students were allegedly bribing their peers for good marks.

Ostensibly, Elsberg’s approach to dealing with the early cheating incidents—by having students grade each other’s papers—was at best naïve and at worst lazy, say Barnard students and graduates, especially given that cheating has long been an issue in the course.

“Students knew that the syllabus was the same from semester to semester, and that was a huge problem,” says Eloise, a recent Barnard grad who took the class as a sophomore. She added that the course fulfilled one of Barnard’s nine general education requirements and was thus considered to be relatively easy. “We only had to write two short essays over the course of the semester, so the majority of your grade was based on those quizzes,” she said.

One English major who took the course several years ago said Elsberg warned that class about cheating at the very beginning of the semester, citing a previous incident in which a student had told her that others were sharing answers during an exam. “She interrupted the test to say she knew who was cheating and would give them a zero if they didn’t come clean,” the student said. “At the end of the exam, seven students turned themselves in.”

Clearly, academic integrity has been compromised on many occasions in this course—and Elsberg didn’t do enough to prevent it. But there were other factors that made cheating easy, namely that Elsberg had no teaching assistant and that students were seated less than a foot apart from one another, if they had a seat at all.

“We were literally thrown in there like sardines in a tin can,” said Eloise.

It was only after Barnard’s deans got wind of the cheating this semester that they made sure the Major English Texts II final exam was conducted in a large auditorium, with students forced to leave their bags and cellphones at the front of the room.

Experts in the field of education are appalled the cheating went on for as long as it did and think both the Elsberg and the university should be held accountable.

“Sure these students should have ethical standards, but cheating is going to happen when no standards exist to prevent it,” said Brian Backstrom, president of the New York Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability. “It’s a statement by the university of what is expected. Quite frankly, they could have had the capacity to institute a more rigorous system to prevent cheating. They demonstrated that when they gave all the final tests in the auditorium.”

Still, Backstrom thinks the students should be disciplined for their actions. “I think any student who cheats should be expelled, whether the university is a bunch of dunderheads or not,” he said.

But Linda Treviño, professor of organizational behavior and ethics at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, disagrees. “I’m more inclined toward trying to make a learning experience out of it if at all possible,” she said, adding that institutions need to take responsibility for creating a strong culture of academic integrity. In a book Treviño coauthored with other professors, Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do About It, she argues that implementing a strong honor code helps, but it’s not enough to simply hang rules on a wall or, as Barnard does, make students sign underneath an honor-code stamp on exam books.

“I went to an honor-code college where I never saw anyone cheat in four years and took all my exams unproctored. That kind of system is pretty utopian and rare these days, but it exists,” she says, adding that it works best in small schools.

One such school is Davidson College in North Carolina, where prospective students are required to write an essay explaining what the honor code means to them. “Students applying are told that’s part of the school’s culture, and if they don’t want that, then they should go somewhere else,” says Treviño. “Every faculty member and school leader has to be equally committed, and that’s not easy. But just like any other culture, you have to keep it alive through rituals and other things that make people respect it. That way, it becomes a partnership between the school and students, who are more or less running the show.”

With only 2,438 undergraduate students at Barnard, that kind of honor code shouldn’t be impossible to implement.

It’s harder to do so at a large university like Columbia, however, where the Lit Hum professor reportedly gave his students a handout before their final last Friday identifying 10 passages that were likely to be on the exam. The Columbia Spectator reports that “every passage on the handout was within a page or two of a passage that appeared on the exam.”

As a result, the university mandated that the ID section was excluded from grading.

“We have no other choice at this time but to take pragmatic measures to ensure the integrity of the grading,” Lit Hum chair Gareth Williams wrote in an email to The Spectator. “We intend to do everything possible to make sure this does not happen again.”

With additional reporting by Miriam Rosen.