Academic Dishonesty: A Crisis on Campus
Forging Ethical Professionals Begins in the Classroom

By Jacqueline A. Burke, Ralph S. Polimeni, and Nathan S. Slavin

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MAY 2007 - The recent corporate accounting scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia Communications, and Tyco International, as well as the largest American embezzlement of taxpayer funds of a school district, in Roslyn, N.Y., have compelled academics to review the ethical training of students. Many of the corporate executives involved in the fraudulent acts were trained in some of the most prestigious schools in the nation.

Institutions of higher education are integrating courses on ethics into their curricula. There is an urgency to educate business students about the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). Courses and programs on forensic accounting are also being expanded and repositioned to a higher priority level.

Colleges and universities have been investigating another contributing factor to the failed ethical conduct of our corporate executives and professional accountants: academic dishonesty on our campuses. Various studies suggest that we may be at the precipice of a culture of academic malfeasance, where large numbers of students engage in various forms of cheating.

This trend is troubling, especially because our business schools provide the formative training for many of our corporate and professional executives. Even more disturbing is that two studies [S. Nonis and C.O. Swift, “An Examination of the Relationship Between Academic Dishonesty and Workplace Dishonesty: A Multicampus Investigation,” Journal of Education for Business, November/December 2001, 69–76, and R.L. Sims, “The Relationship Between Academic Dishonesty and Unethical Business Practices,” Journal of Education for Business, 68 (4), 1993, 207–212] found that students who committed acts of academic dishonesty in college were more likely to engage in unethical acts in the business environment. This is very disturbing and should not be taken lightly.

Accounting Students and Academic Dishonesty

All students should be expected to behave ethically and be academically honest. Because of the potential for accountants to be at the center of unethical business behavior, it is even more important to hold accounting students to the highest standards. It is imperative that educators encourage and insist on the academic honesty of accounting students. Academics must implement and enforce a strong code of academic honesty so that unethical accounting students are weeded out before they enter the accounting profession.

It is time for accounting professors and universities to take action. Just as SOX calls for stiffer penalties for business executives convicted of committing white-collar crimes, accounting students should face strong penalties for acts of academic dishonesty. Academic institutions should develop policies and procedures aimed at preventing academic dishonesty. A strong message needs to be sent to accounting students that academic dishonesty will not be tolerated—those who commit these acts will be severely penalized. What better place to restore the image of accountants than in the academic environment, where future accountants are educated?

The first step requires examining what appears to be a serious issue of academic dishonesty on college campuses. Academic dishonesty policies vary among institutions of higher education. The authors will recommend specific changes in the accounting education process to discourage academic dishonesty. Their purpose is to sound the clarion call to reverse this culture of academic dishonesty.

Magnitude of the Problem

The literature on academic dishonesty is very disturbing. Professor Donald McCabe, the founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity (CAI), an organization of over 390 colleges, universities, and high schools based at Duke University, is dedicated to providing resources for creating a culture of academic integrity. McCabe, with the assistance of the CAI, has conducted extensive research on academic dishonesty (see www.academicintegrity.org). In one study, initiated in 2002, he canvassed close to 50,000 undergraduate students across 60 U.S. campuses and found that:

  • A majority of students surveyed confessed to engaging in some form of cheating.
  • Approximately 25% of the students admitted to “serious” cheating on a recent exam.
  • Fifty percent of the students participated in “serious” acts of cheating at least once on written assignments.

Among 10,000 faculty surveyed, 44% of those aware of cheating never reported the incidents to the university.

McCabe and the CAI found more troubling results in a survey conducted from 2002 to 2005 [“Cheating Among College and University Students: A North American Perspective,” International Journal for Educational Integrity 1(1), 2005]. This study involved approximately 80,000 students and 12,000 faculty members from 83 U.S. and Canadian campuses. Participants were asked to report whether they performed or observed any of seven acts of academic dishonesty, such as copying material from another student or using unauthorized material (e.g., cheat sheets) during an exam. The following are some of the research’s findings:

  • Cheating is pervasive within colleges and universities. About 21% of undergraduates engage in some form of serious cheating.
  • At least 33% of undergraduate students obtained unauthorized information prior to an exam.
  • The highest level of academic dishonesty is found among undergraduate business majors. About 26% of business majors committed severe acts of cheating, compared to 20% for other disciplines.
  • Almost 40% of undergraduates engage in some form of plagiarism, such as copying and pasting materials without attribution.
  • Students enrolled in colleges and universities with honor codes engaged in fewer acts of academic dishonesty. This held true only where the institution actively supported and promoted the honor code.

Perhaps the most disturbing data from the McCabe findings is the direct relationship between academic dishonesty and the most rigorous fields of study. Cheating appears to be more prevalent among pre-med, engineering, and business majors (accounting being one of the most rigorous majors in business). The pressure to succeed and advance to the next level in medical or graduate school contributes to unethical behavior on campuses.

Factors Contributing to Academic Dishonesty

The major factor leading to academic dishonesty appears to be poor academic standards. In addition, the McCabe research suggests that faculty on many campuses ignore cheating. Many professors do not wish to get involved in the bureaucratic process required to report and, when appropriate, punish students accused of academic dishonesty. For example, one study [M.P. Jendrek, “Faculty Reactions to Academic Dishonesty,” Journal of College Student Development, 30 (5), September 1989] found that the majority of faculty who witnessed cheating did not report the incident. According to an interview with McCabe on ABC News (April 29, 2004), another study revealed that many faculty members have admitted to not even confronting the student.

Other instructors do not think they have the support of their administration. Students observed this indifference and therefore were less inhibited to commit acts of academic dishonesty. In such a lax environment, many students justify cheating as a means of staying competitive with the cheaters.

Technology also plays a role by making it easier to cheat. Students are able to use a variety of electronic devices, such as cellphones, iPods, electronic calculators, and personal data assistants (PDA), to cheat on examinations. Sophisticated cellphones have become the new medium for creating cheat sheets of formulas and other crucial information, allowing users to text-message answers during an exam and even take pictures of an exam to give to friends taking the exam later.

Students are often more technologically adept than their professors at using these electronic devices, but some faculty are getting savvy. In a sting operation several years ago at the University of Maryland [reported in Emy Kuriakose, “Cheating on College Campuses Grows with Technology,” Stonybrook Statesman, March 28, 2003, and M. McGeeney and M. Serrill-Robins, “University of Maryland Students Confess to Cheating on a Final Exam,” Amherst Student Online, February 5, 2003], 12 students enrolled in a principles of accounting course were apprehended for cheating on a final examination. The professor, who already suspected that cheating was taking place in the class, posted an answer key on the Internet so that students could check the answers after the final. The key was already posted while the students were taking the exam; however, incorrect answers were purposely posted. The test-takers reportedly arranged to have friends access the answers and text-message them to the test-takers. A comparison of the students’ answers with the false answer key made it clear that the students had copied it.

Plagiarism has always been a problem, particularly in courses that require research papers. Technology has also exacerbated this problem. Students can use the Internet to copy and paste large amounts of text without attribution. Furthermore, term papers can easily be found on the Internet. Some sites ask students to “donate” one of their papers in exchange for another. On many other websites, students can purchase a term paper, either “as is” or custom-tailored to an assignment. Programs such as Turnitin are available to help faculty detect plagiarism; however, they will not detect ghost-written term papers. Indeed, an entire online cottage industry of writing research papers for students has developed.

Addressing the Problem

Many recent business scandals have led to long jail sentences and fines for those found guilty of white-collar crimes. James Olis, a finance executive from Dynergy, received a 24-year sentence for securities fraud (later reduced). Andrew Fastow, Enron’s CFO, pleaded guilty and received 10 years for wire and securities fraud. Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco, was sentenced to a prison term of eight to 25 years. Bernard Ebbers, the former CEO of WorldCom, was sentenced to a 25-year prison term. Although this wave of tougher penalties may not prevent all people from committing white-collar crimes, it is likely to act as a deterrent.

Colleges and universities should also impose stronger penalties for accounting students who commit acts of academic dishonesty. Accounting students should learn by example about the consequences of unethical behavior. Steps must be taken to prevent academic dishonesty from occurring, and schools must take immediate and strong action when it does occur.

Admissions Process

A logical place to start is at the beginning of the admissions process. Colleges and universities should expand the screening of applicants, reviewing the records of prospective students for unethical behavior, particularly academic dishonesty. High schools should be encouraged to record acts of academic dishonesty on a student’s transcript or make it part of the permanent file. College applications should ask if a student has ever been found guilty of academic dishonesty. College applicants should further be reviewed for any criminal records.

An ethics board should be established to review the records of students who were found guilty of academic dishonesty. The board should consider whether guilty applicants should be permitted to major in accounting. At a minimum, high school records should remain part of a student’s file. If the student with a high school record of academic dishonesty is found guilty of an act of academic dishonesty while at college, the student has clearly not learned from previous experience and action should be taken.

Honor Code

Another very important step is to create, implement, and enforce a code of academic honesty. The McCabe research suggests that academic dishonesty will be less prevalent where there is a campus culture that strongly supports academic integrity. Codes of conduct help create such a culture.

As part of their code of academic conduct, universities can develop an honor code. Honor codes can vary; some universities, such as West Point and Princeton University, have adopted a formal honor code. These institutions uphold the highest levels for an academic code of conduct. Examinations are administered without the presence of professors or proctors, and students are required to report on their classmates if they observe them cheating. Students at Princeton are required to sign the following statement before turning in their exam:

I pledge my honor that I have not violated the Honor Code during this Examination. (www.princeton.edu/pr/pub/rrr/05/33b.htm)

Other schools ask that their students report acts committed by other students, but do not explicitly require it.

Academic Dishonesty Defined

Before creating an honor code, a university must first define academic dishonesty. Any definition should include examples in order for students to understand exactly what is meant by academic dishonesty. It is not uncommon for a student to get caught committing a dishonest act and claim he did not know that the act was wrong. For example, a recent front-page article (Robert Tomsho, “Familiar Words: Student Plagiarism Stirs Controversy at Ohio University,” Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2006) noted the case of a former engineering graduate student at Ohio University who copied approximately seven pages of text from another author for his thesis. Although the information copied was almost identical to the original source, the text was not set in quotation marks and footnotes were not provided. The former student, who is currently an engineering professor, claimed he was not aware that he was plagiarizing because the source was included in the bibliography. To prevent situations like these from occurring, and to be able to address them if they do, definitions of academic dishonesty must be provided to students.

Examples of academic dishonesty are often provided in a university’s code of academic conduct. Exhibit 1, which lists examples of academic dishonesty, is provided by George Washington University in its “Code of Academic Integrity, Article II,” and the examples are typical of those provided by other universities. (Readers should refer to www.gwu.edu/~ntegrity/code.html for detailed definitions.)

Creation of Academic Dishonesty Policies

Once a definition of academic dishonesty is developed, universities can then develop their academic dishonesty policies (i.e., code of conduct). Universities should first review any existing policies, and assess whether the policies are adequate and are being followed. Existing policies should be modified and new policies should be put into place where necessary.

The CAI can serve as a useful resource when developing a new or revised code of academic honesty. The CAI’s website lists close to 60 colleges and universities and 10 high schools that have adopted some form of an honor code. For example, the following are provisions of the University of Maryland’s Code of Academic Integrity (www.studenthonorcouncil.umd.edu/code.html):

  • Definitions of academic dishonesty—such as cheating, fabrication, facilitating academic dishonesty, and plagiarism.
  • Honor statement—requires all entering students to sign a document to adhere to all the standards of academic integrity.
  • Honor pledge—requires all students to hand-write and sign the following statement after the completion of an examination: “I pledge on my honor that I have not given or received any unauthorized assistance on this examination.”
  • Self-referral—students may avoid disciplinary action by reporting that they have engaged in acts of academic dishonesty.
  • Honor board—a semi-judicial body of students and faculty to review infractions and assess penalties.
  • XF grade—a grade that denotes failure in the course due to an act of academic dishonesty. (This has been referred to as the “Scarlet Letter” grade by academics. A student can apply to have the grade converted to an F after a probationary period. At minimum, currently enrolled students must have completed a noncredit course on academic integrity before a change is considered. XF grades for serious “premeditated” cheating cannot usually be changed.)

Universities should also require that faculty report all incidences of academic misconduct. A review of the policies on academic dishonesty at various colleges and universities revealed that while some require faculty to report instances of cheating, many do not. Therefore, by the time a student is reported to the administration, he could have already been suspected of committing acts of academic dishonesty in other classes. One university in the New York City metropolitan area states in its policy that if the instructor suspects academic dishonesty, she has various options:

  • Reassigning the work in question,
  • Reducing the grade for the assignment in question,
  • Giving an F in the course, or
  • Reporting the incident to the academic integrity committee if the instructor thinks that the student should be suspended or expelled.

Even if the student is not reported to the academic integrity committee, however, the faculty member is required to place a record of the incident in the student’s academic file.

Many universities have policies that treat a first offense of academic dishonesty much more lightly than a second offense. As a result, faculty should be required to report any instances of academic dishonesty to the appropriate department or individual, in case another situation arises with the same student. Because universities often state that repeated offenses will result in more serious penalties, up to suspension or expulsion, it is imperative that faculty report all instances to create a record. It is imperative, moreover, that universities have policies that will support faculty during acts of academic dishonesty.

Universities should also set up uniform policies on what forms of technology can be used during exams. For example, schools should consider banning all but basic, nonprogrammable calculators. Universities should consider providing the calculators during exams—something which was done during the paper CPA exam (students now use the exam computer to a perform calculations). Cellphones should not be permitted at all during exams.

Once universities implement academic dishonesty policies, the policies must be strongly enforced and the process must be periodically assessed.

Accreditation Agencies and Honors Organizations

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the accreditation agency for business schools, can play a significant role in the handling of academic dishonesty by requiring that all accredited schools have strict academic dishonesty policies that are not only in place, but enforced. In section E of its standards, the AACSB states that ethical behavior is necessary for a quality education. The AACSB should evaluate a school to make sure that an academic code of conduct is in place, and that enforcement procedures are being followed.

Talented accounting students are usually members of Beta Alpha Psi, the national accounting-student fraternity known for the valuable career opportunities it can provide. This organization has a very solemn induction ceremony where the inductee is required to recite an oath to adhere to the ethical proscriptions of the organization. In the Beta Alpha Psi induction ceremony, the corresponding secretary cites the second standard of personal responsibility:

[B]ecause of the nature of the work of a financial information professional it is essential that you be a person of integrity, conducting yourself with honor in all situations. (www.bap.org/initiate/hminitia.htm)

Prior to inductees’ admission to the fraternity, the treasurer administers the following oath:

I, [honorary member’s name], do solemnly promise that I will abide by the International Constitution and Chapter Bylaws of Beta Alpha Psi to the best of my ability. I further promise to maintain the highest moral and professional standing and always to foster the ideals and purposes of Beta Alpha Psi. (www.bap.org/initiate/hminitia.htm)

Inductees found guilty of acts of academic dishonesty should be barred from membership into Beta Alpha Psi. Likewise, the membership of current members should be revoked if they are found guilty of such acts. Many accounting students are aware of the importance of becoming a Beta Alpha Psi member, and should be aware of the severity of such a penalty. Other honors organizations, such as Beta Gamma Sigma, should also adopt strong policies against academic dishonesty.

Reporting Acts of Academic Dishonesty to NASBA

Not only should charges of academic dishonesty become part of a student’s record, but each state board of public accountancy should review the academic records of applicants for licensure. The authors believe that each state should set up an ethical review board that would review the records of CPA candidates suspected of academic dishonesty to determine their eligibility for licensure. Schools should report acts of academic dishonesty to the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA; www.nasba.org), and NASBA should create a master list of the names of students charged and circulate that list to each state board.

On the application to apply for a CPA license, after “ever been charged with criminal behavior?” candidates should also be asked if they have ever been found guilty of academic dishonesty. For example, in its “Application for Licensure and First Registration Form, (Certified Public Accountant Form 1),” the New York State Department of Education (www.op.nysed.gov) asks candidates several questions about any criminal records they have and any charges against them for professional misconduct. The candidates are then required to give details about the charges, and provide legal supporting documentation. Within this section, candidates should also be required to provide information about any convictions for academic dishonesty. Exhibit 2 is an example from the New York form, with the last question, in bold italics, added by the authors to address academic dishonesty.

Students answering yes to the question about academic dishonesty should be carefully evaluated to determine if they should be permitted to obtain a CPA license.

Honesty and Professional Licensure

Some may question whether such extreme measures are warranted. After all, is academic dishonesty that serious? This is something that the profession needs to consider carefully. Readers should think about how they would feel if a doctor received a license even though he cheated on examinations during medical school or forged the results of a research study. Some may believe that accountants should not be held to the same standards as medical doctors because accountants do not have the responsibility for people’s lives—their physical health. Accountants do, however, have responsibility for people’s financial well-being. Let’s not forget about the victims of Enron who lost their retirement funds with the collapse of the company.

Furthermore, promoting and enforcing academic honesty is in the best interest of honest students—who earn their grades, as opposed to the cheaters. Students compete for the best jobs, and employers compete for the best students. Imagine two students competing for the same position, the honest one with a 3.4 grade point average (GPA) and the dishonest one with a 3.8 GPA. Assuming other factors are equal, who will most likely receive the job? Who loses in this situation? Who are the winners? Did the employer win or lose? Did the academically honest student get rewarded for ethical behavior? What does this teach students and future accountants?

Faculty must demonstrate to students that unethical behavior in the classroom will not be tolerated any more than it would be tolerated in the accounting profession. If a student is caught cheating, the student should suffer a serious punishment. Although the problem of academic dishonesty appears to be out of control, the McCabe research does provide hope for institutions that are proactive rather than reactive in their efforts to achieve academic integrity.

For additional information, please see Sidebar 1 and Sidebar 2.


Jacqueline A. Burke, PhD, CPA, is an assistant professor of accounting; Ralph S. Polimeni, PhD, CPA, holds the Chaykin Endowed Chair in Accounting and serves as the vice provost for accreditation and assessment; and Nathan S. Slavin, PhD, CPA, is an associate professor of accounting, all in the department of accounting, taxation and legal studies in business at the Frank G. Zarb School of Business, Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y. This article was funded by the Frank G. Zarb School of Business at Hofstra University.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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