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Colloquium Gets Mixed Reviews

By Katherine Shim
News Editor

The plenary session of Wednesday's colloquium "Success and/or Honesty: In Here, Out There" generated mixed reviews from a below-capacity Kresge Auditorium crowd. Some members of the audience described the discussion as unfocused and "not electrifying," while others said it went well.

The colloquium is the latest part of a continuing effort by MIT to examine academic honesty on campus. This effort began after more than 70 undergraduates were brought before the Committee on Discipline in fall 1990 for cheating in Introduction to Computer and Engineering Problem Solving (1.00) the previous spring.

The colloquium featured 10 panelists from MIT and the professional world.

"I felt like the panel was lost in another world and not connected to the students at all," said Sumit Basu '95. "The panel did not seem to take a realistic view of the problem of cheating, but talked about everything in a theoretical way. They were too far removed from the audience, and just went on and on about morals," he said.

Professor of Physics Robert P. Redwine, a colloquium panelist, said, "I think it depends on what you thought the goal of the colloquium was. I think it raised a number of issues and brought about a lot of thoughtful discussion. It may not have been tightly focused, but I don't think it could have been."

"It was just a start on addressing the issue of academic dishonesty and many issues did open up," said Caroline Whitbeck, a senior lecture inmechanical engineering. "I went on to the mechanical engineering discussion group, which got us into a further understanding of the problem. If this was the goal of the discussion, then I would call the colloquium successful. But if you were looking for a free-standing resolution of the issues of academic honesty, you would be disappointed," she added.

Travis R. Merritt, associate dean for student affairs, said, "I thought it went quite well. I was a little disappointed at the undergraduate turnout. My guess would be that six to seven hundred people attended, not all of whom were undergraduates. I think the show was informative, but not electrifying. It could have produced more real argument than it did."

Merritt added that a number of departmental discussions after the discussion at Kresge reported lively discussion.

Vest stresses communication

President Charles M. Vest began the colloquium by introducing the problem of academic honesty as "one of the most important" issues at MIT -- an issue that he raised in his inaugural address in 1991. Vest said that he hoped that the MIT community could "gauge this issue together, so that we can all learn from each other."

The colloquium began with alumni panelists presenting their recollections of cheating at MIT.

Shirley A. Jackson '68, panelist and research physicist at AT&T Bell Laboratories, said, "Within the context of the physics department, I don't recall cheating as such as an issue in terms of big scandals. People worked hard on problems sets, and exams were hard to cheat in."

... Democracy depended on integrity; business depended on it. It is important to be able to be trusted."

... What is conceived of as an impropriety does change over time," she said.

Cheating is significant

Interlocutor Robert M. Solow, a Nobel laureate and an Institute professor of economics, asked the panel about the magnitude of the problem of cheating at MIT. "A doctor told me that if you spill a tablespoon of blood on a bathroom floor, it looks like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Is that what's going on here?"

Panelists answered that while they could not accurately assess the magnitude of cheating on campus, the proportion of students who do cheat is significant.

Donald L. McCabe, an associate professor of management at Rutgers University, said that the number of American college freshmen who report having cheated as seniors in high school has increased modestly since 1970. "The problem has been with us for a long time, and it's just a little bit greater than it was before," he added

"I don't know how much of a problem cheating is on campus, but there is copying of problems on problem sets that you turn in. In the last week, in talking to people on campus, people have indicated that cheating does occur on tests as well. I think it's a problem," said panelist Arun R. Patel '93.

Redwine, who lectured Physics I (8.01) last year, said, "In 8.01, classical cheating is not very easy. Tests are administered so that it is very difficult to cheat during exams."

Panelist David G. Steel G, a member of the Institute's Committee on Discipline, which hears cases on academic honesty, said, "I think that we have a significant problem. There have been flagrant cases [of cheating]. There have been horrific cases of unauthorized collaboration. ... But we have to be careful about our use of the word cheating, as opposed to cutting a corner -- like copying a problem set when you have a lot of work due. Cheating is a loaded word, but cutting those corners progressively gets bigger and bigger."

Emphasizing the importance of trust and honesty, especially in the business world, Olsen said, "Thirteen years ago, there was more honesty in business than in universities or in the church, but our attitudes have changed since then and since the 1980's. But even today, you do business with someone you trust. If you're dishonest in business, people will not do business with you. If you're dishonest, your secretary will know and everybody will know."

Panelists discuss collaboration

Panelist Kelly M. Sullivan '93 said that one of her best experiences at MIT has been learning to work together with others. "In the real world you don't work in a vacuum," Sullivan said, and she stressed that collaboration should not be labeled as cheating.

Steel responded by describing a hypothetical incident in which "Joe" and his friend are brought before the COD because their problem sets are identical. Steel said, "When I ask Joe why his problem set is identical to his friend's he says that he and his friend collaborated. They worked together on the problem set and they wrote down the same answers. But their problem sets are absolutely identical. Obviously there is more than just collaboration going on."

Sheila E. Widnall '60, panelist and associate provost, said that students who have worked for 20 hours on a problem set feel a "sense of entitlement." In problem sets like computer programs, where the program either works or does not work, the student "wants to capture the moment and benefit from all the work he put into it by copying the right answer," Widnall said.

Maier added a different perspective. "The students here are not only intelligent, but they are reasonable. Even we collaborate. ... If we run into a problem, we go to our colleagues and talk about it. Getting help from other students is not that different from getting help from a TA. If a rule is not being followed, it may be because the rule should not be there. We have to think more carefully about the reasonableness of the rules," she said.

Panelists offer remedies

"When you first come to MIT you hear a lot about what house or dormitory to live in and what classes to take, but students don't hear from MIT not to cheat. An academic honesty policy is not ever stated to students from the moment they arrive on campus," Patel said.

Steel said that it is "the responsibility of the Institute to educate students on ethics. We can't expect people to know these things without telling them first."

Sullivan suggested that departments in charge of core curriculum classes work together to spread out the due dates of problem sets, rather than having several assignments due on the same day. She added that departments should also focus on making problem sets relevant to exams.

Margaret H. Marshall, past president of the Boston Bar Association, disagreed, saying that lessening the pressure would not solve the problem.

During the question period, an undergraduate in the audience suggested that problem sets not be graded. Redwine replied that this approach has been tried, but that it is not effective for classes that are geared to problem-solving.