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Colloquium Will Not Eliminate Cheating

By Bill Jackson
opinion editor

Tomorrow night a group of people will meet in Kresge Auditorium to discuss academic honesty at MIT, which is a little like discussing scruples in the Bush campaign. I mean, you can discuss it all you want, but the people you want to reach aren't going to be there. I was going to go myself, but I have to copy the answers to a problem set from a friend of mine.

As a freshman I was somewhat impressed by the symposium/discussion method of dealing with issues. As a sophomore I found it repetitious. As a junior I began to see it as a bit boring. Now that I'm a senior I have found that the very sight of one of these symposium posters can replace my favorite chemical sleep aid. We discuss and discuss and I highly doubt we actually get anywhere as a result. Let me tell you about some of the ideas that are going to come up at the discussion and why common sense dictates little need for debate in the first place.

My personal favorite is the idea of the honor code, which boils down to each student saying "I really, really, really promise not to cheat." By itself it's a silly idea, an idea devised by the type of people who can't imagine themselves cheating anyway. If someone is willing to cheat -- to take an unfair advantage from his or her classmates and still look them in the eye -- why is that person going to hesitate to sign any "honor code" MIT asks all students to sign?

The honor code is a showpiece, a flowery idea with little real substance because by itself it has no teeth. MIT likes the idea because it takes no effort to install and maintains a status quo while keeping the real problem quiet. As former UAVP Paul Kirby recently wrote, President Chuck Vest has been disturbed by people asking him questions about MIT's level of cheating as he travels around the country. An honor code would give Vest a quick answer to these questions without even having to break his champagne-drinking rhythm. Don't fall for the idea of an honor code as a quick fix. To anyone dealing day-to-day with classwork at MIT in the '90s, it is clearly not an answer.

This showpiece will only work if it is backed up with a serious statement from the administration not only explaining that MIT feels strongly about academic honesty, but also describing in no uncertain terms what will happen to violators. Then -- and here comes the painful part -- cases of convicted cheaters will have to be publicized.

MIT's current policy favors hiding not only the names of guilty parties in cases of cheating (that's fine) but also the circumstances surrounding their convictions. As a result, students never hear the stories of people who have been convicted of cheating. All we ever see is a few numbers at the end of each year.

Recently the Committee on Discipline (COD) offered to allow The Tech to run sanitized versions of some very old cases with all of the names changed. Running imaginary cases about Janes and Joes (from years before any current students arrived) is a weak substitute for stories about actual, current classes. The COD should open up everything they can about every case they can without revealing the names of those involved, including the nature of the offense, the class in which it occurred, the number of people brought before the COD, and the number of those convicted. And before you even say it, this would not give away the identities of anyone involved if it is handled properly.

As it is, there is currently a fear of letting absolutely any information out at all. When I asked COD chair Nelson Y.-S. Kiang how many cases came before the COD last year, he said "about a dozen." Later, he said he thought I would misquote him, and I repeated the information, telling him he had said there were about 12 cases. He told me I was totally off and had the quote wrong. A dozen, he told me, is not twelve because the word `dozen' "gives you a feeling for the grossness of the number." Unfortunately, this is false. A box of a dozen donuts does not give you close to twelve donuts or just about twelve donuts, it gives you exactly twelve donuts. (The actual number has been published previously, but the point of the exercise was to see how much Kiang would say. Play along at home and see if you can find the number.)

This is just another way people keep things as vague as possible when they speak and then nitpick so that they can claim they were "misquoted" if something comes out their superiors or colleagues don't like. If MIT's cheating policies made more sense, good people like Kiang wouldn't feel so threatened when they try to defend it.

I think there is something more important going on here, however. Please permit me to quote the Caltech honor code, theoretically a model for any honor code MIT would install: "No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community." As I have written in the past, I've spoken with some editors of the Caltech paper, and they are convinced that their honor code works.

The problem is that MIT students are convinced that huge numbers of their fellow students cheat. Consequently, if any student cheats, the feeling is not that he is gaining an advantage over the rest of the student body but that he is merely catching up with something everyone else is doing anyway. In other words, many students think that cheating would not be a violation of a Caltech-style honor code because it gives them no advantage.

What to do? Make it clear that cheating is not acceptable and gets you in real trouble at MIT, through publicity both before and after cheating cases occur. It's working for other campus crimes through Project Awareness, so why can't it work for cheating?

In reality, tomorrow's discussion doesn't matter. Whether or not large-scale cheating exists at MIT, it makes common sense to increase students' awareness of the severity of the crime. If nothing else, this will prevent cheating from becoming a problem in the future, even if it isn't one today. A long discussion about how much cheating goes on just doesn't make any difference.