Professor Peter Frölich teaches “Intermediate Programming,” “Computer Science Fundamentals,” and “Introduction to Programming for Scientists and Engineers” at Johns Hopkins University. He uses a grading system in which the top score in any exam defines an A, and all other scores are graded down from that point (I like that system, by the way).
His students in all three courses hatched an ambitious conspiracy to ensure A’s for everyone. They all agreed to refuse to enter the exam rooms, so the top score, and only score, anyone could get would be zero. Since the grading curve would have to start with that, they reasoned, everyone would have to get the top grade. The students stringently enforced their plot, apparently, and nobody broke ranks.
What could the professor do? Well, he could have flunked everybody, and the students wouldn’t have had any recourse. A professor isn’t obligated to keep the same grading system for every test, and if a class intentionally tries to game a system to get a grade that isn’t truly earned by mastery of the subject, that would be justification for any professor to chart a different curve. He could have also made the lawyerly argument that not taking the test was materially different from taking it and not answering any questions correctly, and flunked everyone on that theory.
Prof. Frölich didn’t take these approaches, however, perhaps because he was impressed with his students execution of the optimal result in a “Prisoner’s Dilemma”-like scenario. He held himself accountable for allowing a loophole in his grading system, and acknowledging that game theory was part of the class subject matter, as well as recognizing the effort it took to get an entire class to collaborate when even one defector would consign every other student to an F, he gave his students the victory, and awarded them A’s. He also demonstrated his own integrity, teaching the students more important lessons—-taking responsibility, the importance of collaboration, cooperation and loyalty, problem-solving, “thinking outside the box”—than a traditional course usually conveys.
Another way of looking at it is that he rewarded his students for successfully rigging his system. The way I read the facts, the class’s methodology included coercing students into participating in the conspiracy. I’ll tell you right now: I would have refused to do it. I think the plan constituted cheating, and I would have either announced in advance that I would take the test and breach the test boycott, or blown the whistle on the scheme. That fact that Prof. Frölich allowed the plan to succeed in its objective may have taught his students that cheating to beat a system is perfectly acceptable, as long as you get away with it. They may live to regret that false lesson. Or perhaps the rest of us will.
What is this, Harvard Business School?
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz, then, is a simple one:
Is Professor Prof. Frölich an Ethics Hero, or an Ethics Dunce?
Pointer: Jonathan Turley
Facts: Inside higher Ed
Graphic: Law Rules
. However, he has changed his policy to expressly state that if “everybody has 0 points means that everybody gets 0 percent.”