Start of a new academic year is the time of the year for performance evaluation and reflection, goal-setting and value-positioning for both individual students and t the educational institutes. It might be especially crucial to assess some of their fundamental values and hopefully start to take firm actions to change things. According to a survey conducted by Harvard Crimson, the university newspaper, ten percent of Harvard’s incoming freshman class admitted to cheating on exams, and another 42 percent admitted to cheating on a homework assignment or problem set. If the numbers do not give a vivid account of magnitude of what the latest survey result reflects, a mind picture of walking into a cheater for every 10 students you encounter in Harvard is indeed very disturbing. Despite the already high numbers, there is some suspicious voice believing that the real numbers could be even higher. Teresa Fishman, the director of the International Center for Academic Integrity, commented that, “We have reason to believe that students who cheat might also lie about cheating. ” The results hit the headlines of all the major newspaper agencies, the reaction was a mixed of angst, sarcasm and sadness. A Harvard alumnus Matthew Yglesias lamented in The Slate’s headline that “Harvard’s Incoming Freshman Class is Full of Cheaters.” The LA Times also ridiculed that “Can’t wait for one of them to become president”. This new shockwave certainly does not help Harvard in recovering from the 2012 Cheating Scandal where 125 undergraduates, that accounts for 2 percent of the cohort, was accused to have collaborated or copied from each other on a take-home final exam. Beyond sharing of homework solutions, there is also more shocking news of the Harvard Medical School researcher fabricating data. The series of incidents of academic dishonesty cannot help but make the public start to question the fundamental culture of honesty and academic integrity in one of the most respected educational institutes in the world.
As the mode of learning in the higher institutions becomes more versatile, students are encouraged to go beyond the conventional classroom-and-textbook learning style in their quest for knowledge. Internet, smartphone installed with high-tech apps, new tools for resource sharing and the rising emphasis on teamwork are drastically challenging the conventional academic code of honor. In a commentary related to the cheating episode on The Boston Globe, it is mentioned that a formal academic honor code does not even exist among many of the top universities such as Yale, MIT and Harvard as it is expected that students should know the basic intellectual values even without a textbook code of conduct. When Harvard was trying to re-emphasize the importance of those values by introducing a voluntary pledge on “integrity, respect and industry” in 2010, the act was received a mix of sarcasm and indifference and was later scraped. Admittedly, it is even becoming increasingly hard to come up a foolproof book of academic code to define every boundary of the academic ethical issues in this ever-shifting academic paradigm. Yet, the recent waves of cheating news demand the institutes and even the society together to make some efforts in defining the lines. In a recent BBC article which aims to reveal some of the hideous aspects of human nature, it described “the recipe for harmful behavior as a combining results of stress, poor or absent guidelines, a strict hierarchy with dissociation from others and from the consequences of our actions, established group culture and lack of oversight.” More enlightening, it also points out the opposite recipe for good conducts which consists of “remove stress and moral uncertainty, promote leadership ahead of dictatorship, introduce collaboration, guidelines, support, keep humanity’s humanity and action’s consequences in view”. Not every ingredient may apply to the realm of fostering good academic integrity, but it definitely provides a comprehensive guideline to frame all ethical issues. Clearly, making the messages loud and clear to the student is a good step to start with.
However, it is understandable that academic ethics, as a subset of the broader ethical issues, could never be laid out clearly as black-and-white. Most of the time, the concern taps on to the intrinsic values of the parties engaged. When the situation is in the shades of the grey, it ultimately depends on oneself to internalize the underlying universal ethical values and act accordingly. Hence, even when the grey area is not well defined by the “negative face of ethics”, a concept mentioned in “Engineering Ethics” by Harris, Pritchard and Rabins, it is not an excuse to cut the corners. To effectively tackle academic dishonesty in higher education, the university administration could be more effective in leverage on the “positive face”. It definitely requires more maturity and autonomy from both the administration and the students. However, once the culture of a conducive and honest academic environment is formed, it is something fundamentally beneficial.