2020

This week, K-12 and higher education institutions worldwide embarked on an experiment. Our emergency response to move to emergency remote learning is more treatment than strategy. Only time will tell what effects this shift will have. The COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed the way we view many things, and in this uncertain time, it forces educators to drill down to what is fundamentally important for students to learn during these crises. Think pieces abound with best-practice lists and criticisms of what solutions are available. Responses are primarily written in response to the grief and uncertainty so many are feeling.

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So what role does academic integrity play in this situation? Some see an opportunity to focus on the challenges inherent to course design and best practices to prevent cheating behaviors. Others warn of predatory companies, who offer widespread contract cheating and an easy way out. Then, some extol the virtues of proctoring software and other measures guaranteed to weed out dishonest behavior.

While the importance of continued education and the promotion of academic integrity remain at the forefront of our minds as practitioners and researchers, I offer that we take this time to expand our conversation around academic integrity. If, at our core, we espouse the values of academic integrity, then our current situation offers opportunities to think about the topic in ways we may not regularly consider.

How do we honestly relate to students in such a trying time, and how do we as educators encourage students to be honest with us? Some of these truths are difficult and mired in anxiety, fear, and worry. Collectively we are under strain and stress personally, academically, and professionally. How do we name that struggle and respond to it? How are we responding to student need that honestly provides a solution to the challenges our students are facing. Responding to this crisis requires fewer curated responses. Authenticity is a choice, and one of the few things currently left untouched.

The American Research Education Association showed one such example of honesty when canceling their plans for a virtual conference. As difficult and disappointing as the notification was (for my presentations included), there was honesty in recognition of our limited, collective ability in this challenging time, and the importance of reflection. The Association's meaningful statement on the process behind the decision felt sincere, and while this does not negate the disappointment and loss, there is room for grief, and an appreciation for honesty that is not rooted in one's ability to deny the challenges we are facing in education minute by minute.

K-12 systems have been turned upside down to create a remote environment dependent on trust. Trust demands that school systems continue to support unique student needs, and in some cases, provide the technologies needed to support online learning. More than this, we recognize that these school systems are not only foundational in the lives of children for their academic rigor.  These schools provide community and family for many. At their best, a place to feel safe and valued. Superintendents and other school leaders are working tirelessly to maintain some semblance of that trust, while also recognizing the limitations of our current intervention. For higher education, trust that administrators are acting in good faith when making difficult decisions, that faculty will adapt their coursework not to be a mirrored copy of a face to face seminar. However, something new altogether and trust that students will respond, despite adversity to this new way of communicating, is necessary.

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What is fair in this scenario? Are grades and assessments fair? Are accommodations equitable? What is fair in the uncertainty? What are supports provided to students at various stages of their education, staff in different functional areas, and all manner of faculty and teachers? As our political representative make meaning of fairness related to financial reprieve, we find ourselves seeking a definition of fairness that we can live with--an impossible task in this situation.

While fairness is in short supply, our ability to look beyond ourselves is not. I find it helps to spend time learning and gaining inspiration from those who make sacrifices in difficult situations to help others during this time. I think of research on a pedagogy of care (Noddings, 2003; Rose & Adams, 2014), a framework that centers on meeting students where they are and adapting to need. In this time, how are we respecting others in the fullness of who they are? For the student searching for work, thrust into a home environment where their place may have shifted in the family? For the staff member managing anxiety and fear while being there as a resource for their institutions, for the caretakers, who no longer have a separation of office and personal responsibilities. How do we hear the challenges of others?

There are many questions, perhaps too many in this post. While there are a few answers, I know that we have a responsibility as participants in a system of education at this time.  Our institutions, for many reasons, have chosen to course forward and not shut down. How do we define rigor and expectation? How are we holding others accountable? How are you responsible for the content and learning outcomes, and how do we create an expectation of responsibility.  Revised courses and learning outcomes represent a new agreement to our students, but we must take the time to show them what the new expectations are.

I hope we dare to learn from the remote learning intervention and realize that while nothing will ever be the same, our growing pains present an opportunity to sit with our failures and successes, moving forward with greater integrity. We may not recognize it as such, but progress continues even in triage.

Keep safe, and take good care.

 

The response to COVID-19 is unlike anything we have seen in education. Leaders and policymakers are scrambling to keep up with changes worldwide as we focus on remote education. We at the Integrity Matters blog offer our best wishes as all work diligently to support students and faculty navigating this new normal.

Research indicates that threats to academic integrity increase in times of stress and uncertainty. To that end Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton, researcher, educator, and ICAI contributor, offers important considerations including talking to students about academic integrity, safeguarding academic work, and being consistent with the policies and practices that are in place at the institution.

 How do we share this information quickly? The UC San Diego Academic Integrity office, led by Dr. Tricia Bertram Gallant offers an excellent example. and today's spotlight.

Moving to Remote Assessments with Integrity is an excellent sample of sharing best practices with faculty, students,  and staff in an easily understood way. Creating informative and easily applicable resources to ensure institutions maintain academic integrity is necessary to promote high academic standards in a rapidly changing environment.

Infographics, informative links, and relevant examples set this resource apart from the barrage of well-meaning emails offering checklists of best practices. Consider using this as a template for your communications with your institution. Contract cheating providers will use this opportunity to gain a stronger foothold in the academic market. Providing and disseminating informational tools like the resource created by UC San Diego is our best defense.

*****Another exciting conference for ICAI is in the books! #ICAI2020 proved to be full of innovation, education, and community as scholars and practitioners from around the world gathered together in Portland, Oregon US for the annual conference.

Organizers and volunteers work tirelessly to provide a high-quality event, as was seen over the past few days, and we submit our sincere gratitude. While the nuance of how each comes to the work is different, one thing is for sure. Integrity matters!

Stay tuned next week for a conference overview with material sourced from members all over the world on social media. Attendees: If you have a comment, memory, or fun picture you have from the event, please email us. We would love to include it in our next post!*****   

                                    

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Integrity, or fear?


As responses to COVID-19 increase globally, we enter a tenuous stage of being. Panic buying has lead to shortages of supplies for those most in need, and predatory sellers have taken advantage. Interactions are different now. Underlying bias and racism rear their ugly heads as fear turns to accusations. Difficult decisions are being made that will affect the trajectory of our lives for years to come. Education is no exception.

We have seen an uptick in educational institutions that are taking their classes online to prevent community spread of the contagion. For many educators, the health crisis represents gaps in available education opportunities for those whose circumstances prevent or limit public assembly. For others, the shift is indicative of an opportunity for innovation as many scramble to assess resources and provide options that align with educational goals.

Students are also conflicted. While many welcome the opportunity to begin online coursework, we must remember the limitations presented for those students who may not have dependable access to the internet.

I am reminded that in times like these it is personal integrity that is so important, as we trust:

    • Institutions to have our best interests at heart as they make the difficult decisions to alter instruction, limit travel, and manage disruption

 

    • Faculty to make the best decisions for their students recognizes opportunities and limitations in the online environment, and the time it takes to place quality measures in place to ensure learning

 

    • Students to navigate the changes with integrity, advocating for themselves as necessary, and engaging with the material in meaningful ways

 

    • Industry to provide student and faculty centered solutions that can be easily accessed and understood.



Because in times like these we recognize that fear threatens integrity, and can lead to:

    • Institutions who fail to respond to the diverse needs of their stakeholders

 

    • Faculty who in frustration cancel classes or put up content that is more harmful than useful

 

    • Students, who when presented with relative anonymity who seek the easy way out and choose not to accept the opportunity to learn

 

    • Industry taking advantage of increased student uncertainty in the online environment



I encourage you not to give in to fear. Integrity reminds us that we are all learners, even in a time when it is more challenging to be so. We must trust in ourselves and each other to choose the right, equitable, and accessible decisions that make education the great equalizer.

This “in case you missed it” blog post highlights 3 news/media items that raised my blood pressure in the last couple of months.

Inside Higher Education - Course Hero Woos Professors (Doug Lederman)

Have you noticed a change in narrative around sites like Course Hero and Chegg? Are you curious about the shift? If so, check out Lederman’s article exploring the time and money that Course Hero has spent on rebranding itself in the eyes of professors. It is a great example of how this narrative is being promulgated not just by the companies themselves, but by the media - 58% of the content reinforces the positive image, as does the placement of the article in Lederman’s “Transforming Teaching and Learning” column that “explores how colleges and professors are reimagining how they teach and how students learn”. So, to Lederman’s opening question “has [Course Hero’s] outreach to professors changed the narrative?”, the answer is yes - and Inside Higher Education might be helping them do that. (Side note: shout-out to our very own David Rettinger who tries to add some nuanced and ethical context to the piece).

EdSurge - Are Algorithmically-Generated Term Papers the Next Big Challenge to Academic Integrity (Jeffrey R. Young)

Jeff and EdSurge have been diligent at covering contract cheating of late. See their other articles here, here, and here. I found this one particularly interesting because it tackles the impact of technology on cheating and the notion that we can beat technology with technology. Yes, students can currently ask computer software to write their papers for them, but the papers are of horrible quality and unlikely to get them suspected of cheating. But what happens when the papers are better? What happens when “google glasses” look like regular glasses? This article reminds us that educational institutions have to put more time and energy into creating cultures of integrity, teaching ethical decision-making and rethinking the ways in which they teach and assess learning if we’re really going to maintain integrity in the twenty-first century.

Chronicle of Higher Education - Cheat on Your Homework? In this Harvard Class, Just Say You’re Sorry (Lindsay Ellis)

I read this article back on January 23rd and didn’t know how to respond, even when the Communications Officer at my institution suggested I write a letter to the editor in response. I was frustrated with the reporter that they would take one professor’s practice and give it such a prominent platform, with little space provided to the counter-arguments to such a practice. I was tired of thinking about how to respond, yet again, to the false notion that responding to cheating is being a police officer, not a teacher. I was miffed at another professor deciding that their time is so important, that they are willing to undermine or side-skirt University policy instead of using professorial influence and power to improve University policy and processes. I don’t disagree that we have to make processes for responding to integrity violations as fair and efficient as possible, but I do disagree with the fundamental premise - that if a professor doesn’t feel like following University policy, they don’t have to. As Matt Reed notes in “Plagiarism Reports”, an Inside Higher Education blog, “in the name of fairness, due process, serial offenders and legal protection [and I would add ethics], I encourage faculty to use the process, rather than freelancing”.

She opened the door and you could see the fear on her face, and the shame in her eyes. She nervously sat down in front of the seven of us, afraid to look up, her hands trembling, and we began.

Thanks for meeting with us. We are the Academic Conduct Committee. Do you understand why we’ve brought you in?

Immediately her chin began to quiver, her eyes snapped tightly shut, her shoulders started to shake, and she finally started to cry. Snot ran down her face along with several tears as she blurted out one continuous sentence that tried desperately to make sense of how she’d gotten to this place. There were the standard apologies and reassurances that she’s not a cheater, that’s not who she was raised to be. She didn’t think through the consequences of her actions, didn’t understand at the time that what she did was misconduct. She was under tremendous pressure with some life circumstances, issues with her job, a sick family member, and a recent parking ticket. She can’t figure out where it went wrong, of how she was now sitting in front of us facing an F in her course – the last course she needed to finally graduate. Her parents would be so upset, and she’d probably lose her financial aid, and she felt embarrassed and humiliated.

To say it was uncomfortable to watch would be an understatement. Sadly, this wasn’t the first time we’d seen this reaction. Granted, sometimes there are no tears, just anger and defiance. Other times there are only excuses and threats of lawsuits.

It’s a torturous process—painful to watch, and painful for the students who, for whatever reason, made the choices they did that landed them in the hot seat.

That’s the problem with acts of misconduct though—students rarely consider the consequences until they’re caught, and by then it’s too late, no do-overs or take-backs. Of course we must assume most students are decent and upstanding with at least some moral compass and they don’t begin their semester with a premeditated intent to scam the educational system. However, some students are really good at rationalizing and justifying their misconduct in the moment, usually because of some life situation, circumstance, or inconvenience taking place at a crucial academic juncture. It’s only exacerbated by the pressure to get a good grade at any expense… and that’s when the panic sets in. At that point, it’s hardly possible to stop and consider the long-term effects of potential actions, and, therefore, students stay blissfully unaware (or purposefully ignorant) of the potential aftermath.

The struggle, of course, is getting students to think about these situations before they’re in them. But how do you manufacture a safe, low-stakes environment for students to experiment with academic choices and see the potential ramifications of their actions without suffering the fallout of poor choices? The answer came from the staple of any 80s kid’s bookshelf: A Choose Your Own Adventure book!

We created four fictitious characters, complete with backstory, based on our student population and demographics, and then wrote a narrative based on actual courses, assignments, and academic scenarios in our institution. We asked students to take on a persona and indulge in the circumstances of that persona in a live game. Then, just like in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, students were able to read through these narratives and make decisions for the main character in order to explore the potential consequences of their actions. Students could safely navigate through several different misconduct opportunities as many times as they wanted and discover the path each of their decisions might lead to.

Because not every act of misconduct is caught, incorporated within these narratives is an element of chance. At times, the game instructions directed students to roll a virtual die, which would determine their fate. For example, after choosing to start your research paper late, you ask the instructor if you can re-submit your own work from a previous course; Roll a 1-3 and they say yes—Roll a 4-6 and they say no. Or, after choosing to copy work from someone else, roll the die to see if the instructor pays attention to the Turnitin score on the assignment; Roll a 1 and you succeed at getting away with submitting someone else’s paper as your own—Roll a 2-6 and you get caught.  

These profiles were launched during our 2019 International Day of Action, first to instructors and then to students. To learn more about the profiles, find out how it was received, and how it’s helped our institution better focus our efforts on academic integrity, come view the poster session at the 2020 Annual Conference this March!  

Before working in post-secondary education, I taught high school mathematics.  The most impactful change in the culture of that math classroom was the elimination of grades.  With the support of my principal, going gradeless in my classes and focusing on effective feedback showed me how I can empower students by not making the course about grades but rather how we can challenge their thinking and work towards different goals on understanding, creativity, and self-regulation.  Noticeably, students were no longer tempted to cheat – as the motivation had shifted to learning from getting top marks. I often return to this experience as I work with our team at Seneca College on shifting the culture on academic integrity with our students, faculty, and administrators. I am reminded of the work it takes to move away from trusted routines and beliefs – but how the impact on student attitudes and learning made it worthwhile.  

Two years ago, at Seneca, Laurel Schollen, Vice President of Academics kick-started the plans to create an Academic Integrity program at the college.  She brought together the Academic College Council with representatives from administration and faculty, Seneca Student Federation, the Teaching & Learning Centre, Libraries, and created an Academic Integrity Committee.   The plans got underway with the introduction of a new policy that was implemented in the fall of 2018. This policy differed significantly, moving from one based more on discipline to one that was grounded in a teaching and learning approach.  

Understanding that to make a shift in culture college-wide, the collective agreed to work on the following actions:

    1. promoting awareness of academic integrity across the institution;

 

    1. providing academic integrity education at all levels;

 

    1. supporting students with clear, consistent, and accessible resources that help them with making the right decisions and to encourage them to find help when they need it; and,

 

    1. supporting faculty in the creation and use of assessment practices that are authentic and integral to student learning.



Digital badges were developed for the completion of Academic Integrity modules for both faculty and students.  The student badges include three tutorials that guide students to understand better the academic integrity policy, scenarios to help them make the right decisions, how to find the resources to support their studies, and how to properly cite sources.  If a student completes all three tutorials, they will earn a milestone badge.  

[caption id="attachment_13965" align="alignright" width="392"]Micro-credentials for Seneca Academic Integrity Micro-credentials for Seneca Academic Integrity[/caption]

Faculty can earn a micro-credential by completing an Academic Integrity tutorial that focuses on the policy, processes at the college for dealing with academic integrity infractions, and scenarios that guide faculty through various types of situations such as contract cheating, plagiarism, group work, and impersonation.  Over 8000 digital badges for Academic Integrity have been issued to both students and faculty at Seneca since the launch in September 2019.  

Faculty development needs to move beyond awareness of the policy and understanding of the various types of academic integrity infractions.  The Teaching & Learning Centre offers a five-week course that supports open discussions and a deeper dive into the more complex issues such as online teaching, contract cheating, international students, and the design of assessments to reduce cheating.  

There wouldn’t be an educational institution that didn’t want their graduating students to be passionate about learning and possess the quality of thinking that would be applied in their real-world work.  To accomplish that, we need to value the product less, the process more and focus on discovery rather than results along with meeting the program standards and prepare them for their future careers and pathways.  There is a preoccupation with grades and measurable outcomes, which may turn out to be the least important result of learning. Cheating is often associated with human experiences, education, ideas, values, fears, and ambition.  The environment and the situations that the student is placed in can be just as important. In addition to the resources provided to students to educate and support them to be successful, faculty are learning about what they can do about improving their students’ environment, such as building and strengthening relationships, effective and timely feedback, and providing authentic, and relevant assignments for students to engage in.  

Our work with faculty doesn’t focus on finding ways to prevent students from cheating, but instead addresses the reasons why they wanted to cheat, what was considered cheating by the faculty member, and why.  At the ICAI Annual Conference in March, a panel from Seneca will present their journey on shifting the culture of academic integrity college-wide. The panel consists of our Vice President of Academics, our Student Federation President, the Director of the Teaching & Learning Centre, and the Manager of Library Services.  Each of their various roles helps with this collaborative movement and allows us to achieve a more widespread campaign across the college. 

 

This blog post was co-written with Dr. Mary Jo Finney, Professor of Reading and Chair of the Department of Education at the University of Michigan-Flint.  Previously, Dr. Finney served as Dean of the School of Education and Human Services and Director of the Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching, both at the University of Michigan-Flint.

On campuses across the land, the conversation about academic honesty and integrity has long been around, often with a primary focus on plagiarism.  Several of our own academic and support units at the University of Michigan-Flint (Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching, Thompson Library, Thompson Writing Center, and Office of Extended Learning) work with faculty to help students understand and avoid plagiarism.  On a wider scope, there are presently posters all over our campus regarding Ethics, Integrity, & Compliance from the Office of the Vice-president and General Counsel for the University of Michigan, but these are focused on the work of faculty and staff, and less about student academic misconduct.

There is much to consider about academic integrity and misconduct in both breadth and depth and the need is ubiquitous, not just on our college and university campuses, but also in our schools.  Of course, academic integrity is intimately connected to teaching and learning. Without a clear understanding of what constitutes integrity, honesty, and trust, the teacher-learner relationship cannot flourish.

Fundamentally, academic integrity depends on honesty to others and oneself, and education about what constitutes academic dishonesty or misconduct.

Our recent work on academic misconduct procedures in the School of Education and Human Services (SEHS) was conducted by the SEHS Academic Standards Committee (ASC) during the 2018 – 19 academic year in response to the struggle we had dealing with allegations of academic misconduct the previous year.  We had in place a carefully developed set of Student Grievance Procedures posted in the university catalog, but absent from our documents was a carefully laid out procedure for handling allegations by faculty of student academic misconduct.

Some of us thought that when academic misconduct occurs in a course, the faculty member has the authority to impose whatever sanction seemed appropriate and within the jurisdiction of the course (e.g., a reduced or failing grade on an assignment or for the entire course).  Then, if the student wishes to grieve the sanction imposed by the faculty member, the student should have recourse (through the Student Grievance Procedures) to do so.  

This raised in our ASC conversations a fundamental question about the rights of an accused student.  Should a student have only the Student Grievance Procedures to follow as recourse to a sanction imposed by a faculty member?  Alternatively, should there be a process in place that allows a student to respond to an allegation first, before an imposed sanction?

Related to this fundamental question, we can also ask about students who were either not taught, or who failed to learn, what constitutes plagiarism or other forms of academic misconduct.  In the real world, ignorance of the law cannot be used as an excuse, but in our schools, colleges and universities, how do we, as educators, respond to ignorance of academic misconduct when faced with an incident of such?

The SEHS ASC ultimately determined that we needed to develop academic misconduct procedures, as well as an academic integrity statement for our section of the university catalog and our course syllabi, that ensures that students will first have the right to be heard, and to a fair hearing, if necessary.  

During our session (Saturday, March 7, 11:05 – 11:50 a.m.) we will present details of our work, including the developmental process, the fundamental questions we tried to answer, and the procedures that we have drafted. Attend our session to learn more!

A recent research study published and then highlighted by local media in the UAE brings about a series of concerns for research, teaching and learning.

I often begin my cyber ethics course with a famous yet simple scenario: imagine a three-lane, brand new road. There is a clear sign that tells of the speed limit, but no radars. How many students who drive would stay within that limit? Invariably, many say they wouldn't and their justification range from “no one's watching”, to “who are they hurting” and so on. And therein begins our engaging, engrossing discussion that runs through 13 weeks, reflecting on the importance of having the integrity to ultimately drive within that speed limit even when no one is watching. The focus, the dialogue and the debate are always positive, promoting integrity and ethical values, and establishing trust and respect in our classroom community. 

So, I was peeved when I read a news article about a research study that aimed to “test the efficacy” of  reducing academic dishonesty during closed-book exams, not by encouraging academic integrity, but by ensuring that someone is always watching – via an eye-tracking glass!

The Rhetoric

Let’s begin with the most obvious – the whole idea of making students wear “eye-tracking glasses” just so we can catch them cheating is so outrageous, it throws us back to “caveman/prehistoric times” in terms of where we are at. We, the academic integrity fraternity have been pushing to move away from such rhetoric that criminalizes students, student behaviour and perceptions with reactive measures, labelling them as "cheats" and dehumanizing the act, its consequences and effects! Reactive measures implemented solely for detection should be done with care to ensure we do not criminalize the students. 

But why not?

We know cheating is wrong, we know students cheating in exams is academic misconduct and most institutions have strict policies in place to deal with students caught “cheating”, otherwise it takes away from the integrity of the knowledge imparted and the value of the degree. So, why don’t we want to “criminalize” the students? 

Very simply, we are educators and we want to educate. Being educative is and should be our foremost approach because we want students to learn and grow. We don’t want students to be labelled and branded, that works against learning, reform and rehabilitation. As educators and researchers, our primary goal is to see our students become independent learners, graduate with attributes and skills that will help them in their lives and careers once they leave our classrooms. 

Our goal should be to develop a culture of integrity, take on proactive roles so that we can ensure we are imparting the correct values and correct message to the student body and the community at large. In wanting to develop such a culture, we then look at our policies, procedures, the assessment designs, and even the teacher-student relations. Questions we should ask ourselves are:

    • are we doing enough to support our students’ learning experience? 

 

    • are we doing enough to ensure we are testing what they learn using appropriate assessment methods? 

 

    • are we doing enough to ensure we are not setting the students up to cheat?



Making students wear invasive devices just so we could monitor and catch them cheating is antithesis to developing a culture of integrity on campus. The key is to promote the positive rhetoric – integrity values of fairness, trustworthiness, truthfulness, honesty, respect, courage and responsibility. We are not cops and our students are not robbers. We don’t want to play that game.

The Journalism

The title of the news article labels students as "cheats". If this was an actual case of students being caught cheating  with the help of the device, the title and sensationalism behind it would be understandable - still not ethical, but at least understandable. But that is not the case. The entire study was based on students pretending to cheat while wearing the gadgets and the researchers recording those instances! The reporter wanted to create a "tabloid-ish" impact with the story, which is poor journalism on the reporter's part. 

News should be news. The article reads like an advertisement for the gadgets provided by the company, rather than journalism. Furthermore, for an article that is specifically aimed at UAE education sector, the reporter quotes two international experts and fails to conduct any investigation locally. UAE has been active in researching the area of academic integrity since 2016, hosting conferences, workshops, and conversations around the nation. More than 40 publications, journalistic and academic, trace the state of integrity research in the country. 

Parting thoughts

The topic of academic misconduct is already a sensitive one, with a host of taboos, perceptions and misunderstandings that creates a lot of negativity around it. As responsible educators, researchers and journalists, we should endeavour to bring about positive change in our students' lives, change the conversation to encourage and promote integrity and work towards a holistic approach to developing a culture of integrity so that we don't need such detection methods to begin with. The amount of money and effort spent trying to implement such detection methods could surely be used for better innovative teaching and learning activities that would bring about real change in students’ learning and have real, positive impact on their future?

Professional baseball, the nation’s cherished pastime, is- right now, today- in the midst of an integrity crisis. For those of us who work to promote integrity in our classrooms and institutions, the parallels are unmistakable. We can learn a lot by watching it all unfold. 

First, let’s talk about what happened. The MLB recently concluded that the Houston Astros used a camera positioned in centerfield for the purposes of stealing the hand signals that opposing team’s catchers use to tell their pitchers what to pitch. When that feed was relayed to the dugout area, players were alerted when certain types of pitches were coming (usually anything other than a fastball). In a sport where it is estimated that a batter has mere milliseconds to decide whether or not to swing, knowing what pitch is coming is a tremendous advantage. 

Put simply: it’s like walking into an exam knowing which questions will be on the test. 

Baseball, sadly, has had a history of managing cheating scandals: from the infamous Black Sox scandal from a century ago to more recent scandals involving how teams are allowed to recruit and pay promising prospects from other parts of the world. However, what sets this scandal apart is its simplicity. 

Almost immediately, the comparisons to our work emerged. First, I couldn’t help but notice that the news broke in the familiar, predictable manner that characterize our cheating scandals. An allegation was made, some react with dismay over violated values, others call for swift and severe punishment while some (including those involved) minimize, excuse, and enable. Of course, it was predictable that once the findings were published, others came forward to share new, even more damning information. So what can we learn from this scandal?

Lesson #1 - Baseball needed to do a better job of listening and so should we. As the story unfolded, there were many former and current players, managers, and executives who said that they knew the behavior was happening. Some even said that they had complained to MLB about other organizations, but had been ignored or didn’t know how the institution handled those complaints. In other words, many with direct experience in the game saw it happening and some even tried to get authorities to address it. How familiar does this sound? How often have we heard chatter across campus that cheating is happening, but are slow to react because of a lack of direct evidence? What the Astros scandal illustrates is the damage that can happen when institutions take a heavily reactive approach OR don’t communicate what they’ve done when complaints or concerns are shared. The eruption of more information, accounts, and concerns that happened after MLB published its report shows how vital communication (and maintaining avenues for that communication) is to enforcing an ethical standard and sustaining a culture of integrity to any organization. 

Lesson #2 - The scandal illustrates how dependent our institutions STILL are on the integrity of one individual.  I mean this in multiple senses. First, the whistleblower in this case was Mike Fiers, a current pitcher for the Oakland A’s who had played for the Astros in 2017. Despite the fact that many in baseball believed that something was awry, those who didn’t have direct evidence were frustrated and those with direct evidence were silent. In addition, one of the consistent responses among those involved has been that, while they felt in a vague sense that what they were doing was wrong, in the atmosphere of competition, they were able to justify their actions. It’s troubling to consider how long this might have continued had it not been for Friers speaking out. 

Second, it took someone outside of the institution, journalists Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich, to call out the behavior, to say it was wrong, to provide the evidence they had, and remind MLB of its own standards before anything happened. Sometimes, sadly, it takes someone with a clear vision of that ethical standard to put a voice to it. Something about that clarity snaps those involved out of the frame they’ve been using to justify the behavior. This reminded me so much of a recent case involving a graduate program at our university. As I talked with the program director, I was struck by the clarity with which she articulated their ethical standards and it was clear to me that whatever justifications the students had concocted in their group to minimize their behavior, the line she was drawing between what was acceptable and unacceptable in their profession made it clear that they had gone too far. That clarity made everything that came after (a lot of difficult conversations and accountability) easier. 

Lesson #3 - We have to do a better job of calling out the predictable equivocation, minimization, and excuse-making that occurs when accountability happens. One of the most troubling aspects of the scandal, both as a fan of the sport and as someone who holds a belief in the power of language and the importance of communication, was the way that those invested in the teams, the players, and baseball itself tried to explain away the behavior. The responses were depressing if only for their banality. Versions of “everyone cheats,” “this isn’t a big deal,” and “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” were and still are being thrown around as responses in the media. We know how damaging these postures can be to the process of a student learning and development, especially for accepting responsibility for their actions and truly learning from them. I was encouraged when, during the week, a prominent sports broadcaster was met with widespread disapproval from colleagues when she stated that the real blame lay with the whistleblower, Fiers, for violating one of baseball’s norms regarding sharing team secrets outside of the clubhouse and naming the Astros publicly. I was encouraged by the insistence of a standard by her peers, not just of acceptable behavior in the sport, but also of a standard for how we talk about these incidents when they occur.  I was encouraged that writers that I have grown to respect have, in the last few days, encouraged others to face difficult truths or hard realizations about the sacred objects of our fanaticism. We can do the same at our institutions. We have known for a long time that the best way to promote academic integrity at universities is for peers to encourage integrity among their peers. We should expect the same of our professional colleagues.

As new tantalizing accusations emerge that shape our understanding of the game we thought we knew, I hope we’ll all spend time reflecting on how quickly confidence and interest in even our most cherished institutions can wither when their integrity comes under question. This isn’t a polemic. Baseball and universities aren’t going anywhere. But if no one values them, will it matter? 

Baseball great Yogi Berra once reportedly said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” I hope we all will do that in the coming days.

In August 2019, the University at Buffalo (UB) rolled out new academic integrity policies and procedures for both undergraduate and graduate students. Undertaken in an effort to improve how we handled cases, the larger impetus was to begin a culture change around how students think about academic integrity. Will it work? With one semester under our belts, it may be too early to tell, but here are three highlights that I think are helping to move the needle.

Structure

At UB, the Office of Academic Integrity is housed in Academic Affairs and as the director, I report directly to the Vice Provost. This structure provided the necessary clout as I reached out to schools and units across our multifaceted university. Because deans and directors were getting the message “from the top” that academic integrity was an institutional priority, they were inclined to give me time at faculty meetings to discuss the upcoming policy changes. More often than not, these conversations also felt like an opportunity to (re)inspire instructors about the requisite value of integrity in the academic enterprise and their role in upholding it.

Centralization of Process and Support

Our past policy adjudicated academic integrity cases through departments, so students would be sanctioned by instructors and then could appeal to the chair, to the dean, and ultimately to the Vice Provost level. Now students can only appeal to the Office of Academic Integrity. 

Additionally, records had largely been kept within departments, so a student could be behaving dishonestly in both English and Computer Science, but neither unit would know about the other. With a centralized office through which all reports now come, we are able to hold students accountable across the entire academic spectrum and sanction more appropriately for repeat offenses. This centralization of process and expertise allows for more consistency in enforcement across the university and helps faculty feel supported by the administration in their efforts, thus increasing their compliance with the policy.

Remediation

Education has to be part of a culture change, and one prime opportunity for education is after an infraction occurs. The new UB policy allows undergraduate students with first-time non-egregious offenses to undergo an educational remediation process and clear their record. The remediation is a three-module online course designed to provide both direct instruction on academic integrity and ample reflection. The process includes pre and post-meetings with our office to discuss what triggered the cheating, how they can avoid similar behaviors in the future, and the role of integrity in their intended profession. Our early data show that students find these meetings valuable as it forces them to confront the many repercussions of their actions, providing some evidence that our culture is changing one student at a time. (We will be presenting on this topic at the upcoming ICAI conference in Portland!)

So can our new policy affect culture change? UB is a comprehensive state university with a combined population of 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students across thirteen different schools. Culture change is no easy task. But with targeted and supported university-wide efforts, I’m feeling optimistic.

 

Tell us how you are changing your culture of integrity by commenting below!