[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 [firstname.lastname@example.org]. 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Reportedly, Quinn had told his class that he would not be using the pre-prepared questions, but did so anyway.
- 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.