By Marika Garland
Professors begin each year by urging students to respect academic integrity. This year, however, many of their usual speeches were accompanied by warnings about last year’s record-high number of Academic Infractions Board (AIB) cases. The AIB tried 15 cases with a total of 19 students last year, 17 of whom were found guilty, according to Ric Sheffield, the associate provost who oversees AIB cases. These numbers represent a 50 percent increase in charges from the year before.
“We’re concerned because it has been a trend that we’re seeing increasing numbers of students,” Sheffield said. “We have seen increases in the past five years, not just in the number of cases but the number of students.” Before last year, the largest number of students to face the AIB in one year was 16.
“The statistics are disturbing,” AIB Chair and Professor of Philosophy Yang Xiao said. “They’re worrisome.”
Last year’s AIB heard cases from a variety of academic departments, according to Xiao. Two cases came from each of the following departments: integrated program in humane studies (IPHS), economics, sociology, English and philosophy, while one case came from each of these departments: mathematics, physics, biology, anthropology and religious studies.
Other statistics relating to the AIB cases were more skewed. Approximately 75 percent of the students charged were male, according to Sheffield. In addition, about 70 percent of the students involved were charged with plagiarism, and the remaining 30 percent faced accusations of either inappropriate collaboration with other students or impermissible use of materials. “My sense is that the vast majority of these infractions are unintentional,” Sheffield said. “It’s largely sloppiness.”
Sheffield added, however, that some of these cases were clearly the result of intentional academic dishonesty. For example, one student allegedly hid a textbook in a bathroom during a test and repeatedly left to refer to it, he said. Other cases involved students copying other students’ work, which resulted in all involved students coming before the AIB so board members could determine which students created the original work and which copied it. “That’s a particularly egregious offence,” because it forces an innocent student to go through the hearing process, Sheffield said.
The AIB consists of three faculty members, each serving a two-year term, and two students appointed by Student Council’s Academic Affairs Committee. At the end of a hearing, the AIB writes a recommendation to Sheffield about whether there is sufficient evidence and what, if any, punishment the accused party should receive. “It’s much like a court of law,” Sheffield, who has been writing the AIB decisions for the past seven years, said. “Thepunishment should fit the crime.”
Sheffield then checks that any recommended penalties are consistent with similar cases from the past and makes the final decision. “Sometimes, when I read these decisions, I think the AIB has been a bit more lenient that I might have been, but I rarely ignore the recommendation,” he said.
Most guilty verdicts result in penalties two or three times the weight of the assignment on which the student engaged in academically dishonest behavior, according to Sheffield. For example, if the AIB finds a student guilty of cheating on an assignment worth 20 percent of a course grade, the student could face a penalty that makes 40 or 60 percent of the course grade an F, which can result in the student failing the entire course. “The penalty for an academic infraction should be more severe than if you’d just failed the [assignment] on your own,” Sheffield said.
In addition, last year, two cases ended with students failing the senior exercise, and one student was suspended from the College. The suspended student received such a harsh punishment because he or she involved an innocent student and had already been convicted of a prior academic infraction, according to Sheffield. “I would have probably actually expelled the student,” he said. “If you’re cheating and you got someone else involved, you’re probably going to get hammered.” He added that a student’s past record also plays a large role in determining a punishment. “It’s not likely on a first offence that you’d be suspended,” he said.
Two of last year’s cases ended with not guilty verdicts rather than punishments. The AIB found one student not guilty of a charge of inappropriate collaboration, and another student received a not guilty verdict only after an appeal to the provost, according to Sheffield. “That’s probably the first successful appeal I’ve seen in five years,” he said.
Consequences for students found guilty, however, can last even beyond their years at Kenyon. Graduate schools often ask about records before admitting students. “This year, I had to write a letter for a student who applied to law school, and I had to say, ‘Yes, there is a record of this student having committed an academic infraction,'” Sheffield said. “It’s something I never want to do, but that’s part of the record, and the College has to be honest and forthright about it. … The consequences of cheating when caught are so great that it really can’t be worth it.”
Possible Reasons for the Increase in Cases
Both Sheffield and Xiao said they are making an effort to determine why the number of AIB cases increased so drastically last year. “I think it may have to do with many factors, one of which might be that we now have new technology, both new technology that makes accidental plagiarism more likely to happen and new technology that makes it easier to detect plagiarism,” Xiao said. “I don’t think our students have suddenly become morally worse.”
One aspect of this new technology is turnitin.com, a website that detects plagiarism. Last year was the first year that Kenyon subscribed to this program, so more and more faculty members are starting to use it, according to Sheffield. “With the state of cases of plagiarism, the increased concern [and] the laxity we’re seeing with some students, we decided to make it available to our faculty,” he said. He added that he encourages students to use this website themselves so that they can detect any cases of their own accidental plagiarism.
Sheffield also said that panic plays a role in motivating plagiarism. “The temptation seems to be greater among high-achieving students,” he said. “They have more at stake than students who are lower achievers.”
“Having Yang Xiao, who is a professor of philosophy and teaches ethics, [as the AIB chair] I think is fabulous because he may be able to help us have some insights into these sorts of ethical dilemmas,” Sheffield said.
As this year’s AIB Chair, Xiao already began working to lessen the number of AIB cases when he asked all professors at the College to mention last year’s statistics on the first day of classes. He said he is also “determined to do a lot of educational programs on campus this year. They include educating students about the seriousness of plagiarism as a violation of the most sacred codes of academic conduct [and] alerting students [to] the grave consequences of committing plagiarism.”
Xiao said he plans to continue to work with other professors as well. “We will also encourage professors to teach in more detail about proper citation rules,” he said. “Our students need to learn how to avoid accidental plagiarism.”
The Academic Affairs Committee is another group on campus working to improve the AIB statistics. “Everybody on the Academic Affairs Committee is really concerned about the 50 percent increase in AIB cases,” Vice President for Academic Affairs Hannah Stewart ’12 said. “One of our biggest goals for the semester is to investigate why these cases happen and whether Academic Affairs can prevent these cases in the future.”
Academic dishonesty is a problem at schools across the country, Sheffield said. “It’s not just Kenyon – it’s happening everywhere – but maybe we can take a leadership role here.
Comments for this article have closed. If you'd like to send a letter to the editor for publication, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.