The University of Central Florida Cheating Scandal Irony: the YouTube Ethics Hero Is Really the Ethics Dunce

[Let me begin by apologizing to Ethics Alarms readers for coming so late to the party on this one. I recently read about the UCF business school cheating scandal and the viral video it spawned, and learned that they have been a major source of blog chatter and media attention for more than a week now. It was all news to me. When you spend your  days and nights searching for stories presenting ethics issues and manage to miss one that people who aren’t even looking find with ease, you’re doing something wrong. I’m embarrassed. Many of you send me ethics stories you come across; keep doing that, please, and if you know of a big story that I seem to be ignoring, drop me an e-mail about it if you have the time [jamproethics@verizon.net]. Usually I’m ignoring it because I think the ethics of the matter are obvious, but sometimes it is because I have missed the forest for the trees. I’ll be very grateful.]

Now that I’ve arrived at the party, however, I intend to be the official pooper. The lionized professor and Youtube sensation in the incident, Richard Quinn, was a worse ethics violator that the students that he declared “disgusted him.”

In case you also missed the story, here are facts: Quinn teaches a 615 student strategic management class at the University of Central Florida.  As he graded the mid-term, he discovered that the percentage of correct answers were suspiciously high. Quinn’s suspicions that something was amiss were confirmed a few days later, after a student left in his mailbox a list of sample exam questions the publisher of the textbook used in Quinn’s course includes in its instructor supplement. The suggested questions in textbook instructor guides are often available online, and these were.

Some e-mail sleuthing allowed Prof. Quinn to identify the hundreds of  students who had received the questions,  and he  resolved to disregard the tainted midterm and make his students take a new one. First, however, he delivered a stern and searing lecture in class about cheating and integrity, demanding that the students who got the answers in advance come forward and admit their misconduct. If they did not have a previous record and agreed a take four-hour ethics course, their transcripts would not contain any record of their cheating ways. The lecture was recorded on video, and posted on YouTube, where it made Quinn a symbolic standard-bearer for honesty. Some viewers suggested that he write an ethics book, or give a lecture to Congress. He was hailed as a moral exemplar, whose courage and conviction could lead as from the moral abyss.

The lecture had its desired result in the class, too: 200 students came forward to admit they had received the answers, leaving only fifteen of the identified cheaters still unwilling to confess. It has also allowed Richard Quinn to do various media interviews, where he has piously explained that it was time someone stood up against the epidemic of cheating in our educational institutions.

Quinn, however, was the first and worst cheater in the incident. His lecture was the height of hypocrisy, and if he had done his job diligently and honestly, I doubt that anyone could say that his students had cheated at all.

Professors should write their own exam questions. It takes thought and preparation, and it is difficult to do well. It is, however, an important part of a professor’s job. Quinn’s use of the sample exam questions included in his instructor guide was lazy and irresponsible, and dishonest, for several reasons:

  1. They aren’t the instructor’s work. I always presumed that my professors created their own exams, and weren’t cribbing them from other sources. Is this instructor plagiarism? It is very close; too close for ethical comfort.
  2. The sample questions are created by individuals who have no idea what a particular professor teaching from the textbook is including and emphasizing. The resulting exam template is designed for a generic course, and unless Quinn read directly from the textbook and nothing more, his course had to be significantly different from the theoretical course covered by the questions given to him.
  3. He should have known that the publisher-supplied questions might be available online. Some published reports falsely stated that the questions were purchased by the students, but that is speculation. Often the canned questions in instructor’s manuals can be found with a Google search.
  4. Reportedly, Quinn had told his class that he would not be using the pre-prepared questions, but did so anyway.
  5. Usually the publisher-supplied questions just aren’t very good.

So let’s recap, shall we?

  • The professor tells his students that he is going to write original questions.
  • To prepare for the exam, some students obtain the sample questions from the instructor’s manual.
  • The professor, after saying he would not do so, uses the canned questions, and then…
  • …Erupts in moral outrage when he discovers that some students had advance access to the questions, which they would not have had if he had done his job and created an original test.
  • He brands the students who looked at the pre-fabricated test as cheaters, though they may well have not known or presumed that the questions from the manual would actually be on the test.

This is an ethics hero? I think not. I think this is an incompetent and lazy professor, shifting blame to his students for a situation of his own unethical making

I’m not even sure that what the students did was cheating at all. It is customary for college and grad school students to study previous exams given in a course. If the professor, out of carelessness or laziness, uses the same questions he has used before, do  the students who accessed previous exams become cheaters? Clearly not. If a professor has written essays and research articles on the topic of his course and they are available for purchase online, are the students who access those resources cheaters if the professor creates exam questions based on the articles?

Unless Quinn specifically told students that he would be lifting the exam questions from his instructor’s guide—and apparently he did exactly the obvious—I don’t see how tracking down the publisher-supplied questions is anything more that diligent exam preparation. When I took the bar exam, I paid for a bar exam review course that used previous bar exam questions in its classes and that speculated regarding which questions would be used again. Was this cheating? The bar examiners didn’t think so.

I will say this: once they discovered that the exam given for the course matched the canned questions obtained online, the exemplary ethical conduct would have been for the students to flag the duplication on the spot and bring the test to a halt. But is it cheating if they don’t? If you correctly and luckily scope out the source of the exam questions your professor expropriated, are you really required to declare yourself ineligible to answer them?

I don’t think Richard Quinn’s outraged lecture showed courage; I think it showed some nerve. He took a short cut, and didn’t do the original work his job required. He carelessly used questions he should have known could be found and accessed in advance of the test. He misinformed his students about what questions would be used. The he threatened his students with serious consequences for not confessing an ethical breach that would have been impossible if he had been ethical!

Answer me this, Professor: if you had done what you said—and what a professor is supposed to do—and written your own exam, would the use of the instructor’s guide by the students still be cheating? Why? I had instructor guides for all the textbooks I used to teach legal ethics. I thought they were fairly useless, but it never occurred to me that they were secret documents that students were forbidden to see. I suppose I might have felt different if they would have shows that I was taking the lazy approach, and using the manual instead of  developing my own exam.

I think the 200 students should challenge their punishment. If they have to take an ethics course, so should Richard Quinn. In fact, he needs it more than they do, though four hours of ethics won’t hurt the students a bit.

This incident exemplifies why students and much of the public don’t trust our institutions, and are cynical about ethics. A professor shamelessly violates professional ethics standards, and then grandstands while shifting blame to his students…as everyone applauds. It is impossible to create an ethical culture if the authority figures constructing it neither recognize nor understand ethics themselves.

17 Comments

Filed under Education, Ethics Dunces, Ethics Heroes, Leadership, Professions, Research and Scholarship, The Internet, U.S. Society

17 responses to “The University of Central Florida Cheating Scandal Irony: the YouTube Ethics Hero Is Really the Ethics Dunce

  1. Michael

    I would say calling it plagiarism is going too far. When you select a textbook, the publisher provides a test bank of questions and you are licensed to use those one exams carrying your name. He is a liar, but not a plagiarist.

    I think he is on very shaky ground trying to punish the students for cheating. If he did tell them he wrote his own questions, the students had no way of knowing those questions would be on the test. Now, the sites posting the copyrighted material without permission are in trouble, but not for cheating.

    Basically, he was too lazy to write his own exam questions, found out that the publisher doesn’t put out a large enough test bank to make trying to study the entire test bank impractical, and got burned. Lesson learned, nothing to see here, go about your business.

    • I agree, it’s not plagiarism in the literal sense. But if, say, my brother tells me I have his permission to use his term paper to change cosmetically and submit as my own, that is plagiarism from my professor’s point of view. If my professor puts his name on an exam, I take that to mean that he, not some drones in a textbook factory or the author of the textbook, wrote it. What’s the difference?

      • JK

        It seems like a pretty clear case of plagiarism. Professor Quinn expressly represented that he was responsible for creating and writing the exams, which was not his own work, but the work of other’s published material. This was the first disclosure he made in his first lecture at the beginning of the fall semester. Even the UCF website makes makes this clear: “Plagiarism, on the other hand, is defined as anything “whereby another’s work is deliberately used or appropriated without any indication of the source, thereby attempting to convey the impression that such work is the student’s own. Any student failing to properly credit ideas or materials taken from another is plagiarizing.” The obvious “out” here is that Professor Quinn isn’t a student, but a professor. I am not so sure that is a valid argument. NOW, if Quinn had disclosed to his students that his test was in fact, not written by him, but the work of other people, perhaps I could understand his argument. I agree however, that a student taking the test that had utilized this study material would have put two and two together and should have alerted Professor Quinn’s superior to Quinn’s plagiarism. Herein lies the ethical question. It’s not that Quinn plagiarized, he clearly did, it’s not that the students cheated, they clearly did not, it is the moral choice those few select “high” test scorers made when they decided to turn in their exams without disclosing the facts to the proper authorities.

        • Yes! I think this is where I come out as well.
          I had an experience related to this: I was holding a quiz-show style ethics programs with prizes, and one of the questions I offered had in fact been included, with an answer, in the hand-outs I prepared. The contestant flagged it, and lost his shot at the prize. But he was ethical!

  2. Michael

    It becomes plagiarism when he tries to tell his Dean, the promotion board, put it on his website, etc. If he just told them that so they wouldn’t look online for the questions, he is just lying (and stupid).

  3. tgt

    Is the teacher being judged on his ability to write exam questions, or his ability to teach students? Plagiarism, this ain’t.

    Idiocy, though, this is. I’ve had teachers give out the sample questions from textbooks as exam prep. Did this teacher really think they were secret? Did he really think this was cheating?

    At the very least, he didn’t mangle the textbook exam questions. I had a high school teacher that did that. On some multiple choice questions, she didn’t like the book’s answers, and so selected different answers as correct from among the listed ones. Those answers were not correct. After alot of pushback, she eventually allowed each of us to get credit for up to 3 questions if we could explain why our answer was right. Each student could get credit for a different 3 questions, and you wouldn’t get credit for questions your classmates showed you had the right answer for.

    Moreover, the teacher didn’t admit to changing the textbook’s answers, or even using the book’s answers. It only came to light after I switched to another teacher who was teaching the units in a different order, and she provided us the book’s questions and answers.

    This teacher is better than that, but not by much. Like my teacher, he doesn’t appear to be up to the level of his students, and is blaming them for his failures. Yes, a student could have stopped the exam, but they didn’t cheat, per se. The teacher took a shortcut, and the shortcut caused alot of students’ tests to not be representative of their knowledge. That’s on the teacher, not the students.

    • I don’t disagree on the plagiarism question, but I also think writing exam questions is part of the teaching process. Your teacher sounds worse indeed, except she didn’t make her deficiency into a cheating scandal. I agree with your diagnosis: this is an insecure professor, blaming others.

  4. Tim LeVier

    When I went to college, the professors provided all of the tests they administered to the bookstore for purchase. The proper way to study was to review the previous 4 semesters of exams and to know the material. I was actually shocked with the low amount of recycled questions.

  5. Just a quick clarifying caveat…

    It is routine for textbook publishers to provide an electronic database of quiz questions licensed for use by faculty who adopt the textbook in their courses. As part of a multi-faceted assessment strategy, implementation of low-stakes quizzes based on such publisher-provided databases is neither plagiarism nor unethical.

    I do not know whether such was the case with Quinn’s course or not. However, each of us must remember to be cautious not to trade in sweeping generalities when discussing contexts prone to nuance and varied perspectives.

    At least that’s my opinion. What do others think?

    • Well, it wasn’t a low-stakes test; it was a mid-term. I agree that for quizzes and “low-stakes” tests, using the publisher’s canned questions is fine. Using them for a significant test, however, is lazy teaching. As I said, not exactly plagiarism, but I always expected my professors to create tests appropriate for the classes they taught, not some generic class that might use the same textbook.

  6. Daddy Moose

    You can use prepared test banks if you teach the material the way the test is setup. It is not plagiarism to do this. Teachers should begin with the end in mind. If he knew what questions were in the test bank that he used and then he taught the material to relate with those questions. So I do not agree with most posters on this one about the professor being lazy. He may have prepared his lessons to reflect what the test covered. This is efficiency, not bad teaching.

    I do agree that if the questions were available online to anyone who wanted them then students should be able to take those and study for the test. If students got the answers correct because they studied those questions then good for the students. They learned the material – sort of.

  7. lyynlyyn

    I din’t think Dr. Quinn’s a cheater rather than his students. However, he is so responsible to his students and his teaching job. It is not Dr. Quinn’s fault to use online resources ( test bank) which is supposed to be used only by instructors. And I also don’t know how the students could get those information; that is really weird. I support Dr. Quinn’s decision. In this way, he taught his students who cheated the consequences of cheating. And also he let his student know that it is not worthy to cheat instead of studing hard.

  8. Mahmud, WLAC

    Clearly, this situation is hard to judge. Test banks are made for instructors’ use. They are sources for instructors, and they can either choose questions from it or use it as a guidance to create their own questions. Therefore, using those by a professor is not a plagiarism. However, it is more valuable if professors use their own creativity. Moreover, considering the fact that Professor Quinn had claimed that he would not use test bank, he gave a misleading guide to his students. The students didn’t have the exact exam but a collection of possible questions and may just have considered it as a source for more practice for exam, assuming professor will create an original exam. Even the student who put the test bank in Quinn’s mail bin somehow complained him why he used the test bank, while he had claimed before he will not.

  9. MUNEVVER

    The students were not lying to the professor and others; they were lying to themselves.The process of studying is much more important than scores. They’re wasting their time and will not benifit to their career.In addtion, the professor didn’t have the responsibility for the students’ action because the professsor had the right to use publisher’s pre- prepared questions. It was not a plagirasim.

    Munevver Cinar

    • I think the rebuttals to your point on this thread are pretty persuasive. Sure, he had the right to use them; it was still lazy and irresponsible to do it, and outrageous for him to attack the students for the results of his own slovenly practices.

  10. Paul Desmarais

    The test quesitons weren’t “samples” they were a complete test bank, a pool of questions created by the text book company to assess student knowledge of the material in the text book. They were not given out by the publisher or made available online by anyone with the legal or moral authority to do so. The test questions are copyrighted materials. The professor had the right to use them, the students did not have the right to access them without prior authorization. And they knew it. Not one of the 215 cheaters asked their professor or lab assistants if they could use test bank questions to prepare for the exam.

    They were cheating, they knew they were cheating, and got caught. Most accepted that they were busted and took the deal. Some may have learned a lesson. given the behavior of America’s business leaders of late, most probably did not.

    Should the instructor have known someone might steal the exam questions. Perhaps. however, availability does not make it either morally acceptable or recommended. The knowledge to make dirty bombs is avaiable online, does that make it ethically acceptable to download the information, make a bomb, and set it off? No.

    As far as the test questions “not being very good” I do not think the author is qualified to speak to that topic. Infact, I feel quite certain he is not. Text bank questions are usually written by instructional designers and assesssment specialists. They are written to assess how well students have learned the material contained in the text. In my experience, these test bank questions usually do exactly that.

    Whether or not instructors follow the materials is something I can not speak to. No one who was not in the class can; however, given the results; the fact that the cheats did really well, it looks like the questions were very well coordinated with the text book material and that the instructor followed that material very closely. Otherwise, the students would not have benefitted so obviously.

    The students in this case and their apologists, including the author of this blog post, are mploying the oldest defense in the book. Blame the victim. Rapists use it all the time to great effect. She was a slut so it was okay to rape her. Politicians do it all the time to great effect. It’s not my fault, it’s the media. And now cheating students are saying, in effect, that it’s the professors fault they cheated because he did not keep the answers to his exam in a safe under his bed until 18 seconds before the test was given.

    That argument is nothing more than cliché, though highly effective spin. Every last student who cheated should have been expelled, had the cheating incident attached to their transcript, and sued for copyright violation.

    • Paul : The professor tells his students that he is going to write original questions. This is undisputed. Would it be regarded as “cheating” if the students, assuming that the instructor; manual questions would not be used, reviewed them? How?

      The professor, after saying he would not do so, used the canned questions. OK, that’s his choice. But he cannot subsequently argue that students “stole” “his questions” when he had told them they would NOT be his questions, not can he be self-righteous about integrity, having displayed none himself.

      I am certainly qualified to say that canned questions are likely not to be any good, because I have taught courses with instructor manuals. Unless a professor is such a lazt slug that he just apes every aspect of the teaching plan—and agreed, this guy may well be such a slug—the questions are not pitched to the actual class experience.

      Expelling students for an act that is only “cheating” because the students were misled by their lazy teacher–unless you call cheating looking at questions that are NOT going to be on an exam (I don’t)—is unjust and illogical. The students were the victims of an arrogant, dishonest and incompetent teacher. It is you, not I, who are blaming victims.

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