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April 22, 2002

Academic integrity looks strong

By Eric Rangus


A solid majority of students surveyed earlier this year rated academic integrity on the Emory campus as either “strong” or “very strong,” according to statistics released by the Office of Strategic Development.

More than two-thirds of the 1,214 students answering the voluntary survey gave one of those two responses, touching off a positive reaction from Emory’s administration.

“It’s great that so many students felt that the condition of academic integrity at the University was ‘strong’ or ‘very strong,’ and that we have so few problems,” said Susan Frost, vice president for strategic development. The survey was a collaborative project among Frost’s office, the Office Institutional Planning and Research, and the Information Technology Division

Interestingly, juniors and seniors had a more critical view of academic integrity than their underclass colleagues. Just 55 percent of seniors rated academic integrity as “strong” or “very strong,” while 80 percent of freshmen rated integrity in one of the two highest categories.

The student survey is one of the first steps of a plan that will eventually encompass a faculty survey, focus groups and other instruments to measure and—if necessary—improve the University’s academic integrity.
“We wanted to get a reading of student experiences,” Frost said. “This particular survey was not meant to be definitive.”

The effort began last fall when President Bill Chace formed a special 25-person committee to study Emory’s academic integrity. He cochairs the group, along with James Fowler, Candler Professor of Theology and Human Development, and John Ford, senior vice president for Campus Life. Looking for the broadest perspectives, it consisted of faculty, staff and students.

The need for such a project sprung from concerns about how students complete their work in an online environment. The prevalence of term papers and other information on the web has made plagiarism, for instance, as easy as clicking a mouse.

Over the last 10 years, according to Associate Dean Sally Wolff King, the Emory College Honor Council has heard about 50 cases per year; about 60 percent of those resulted in guilty findings. Those numbers appear to be rising, though. Last fall alone, the Honor Council heard 48 cases; up from about 35 the previous spring.

In all, 35 percent of the survey respondents reported having witnessed or heard of some type of unethical behavior on campus. The most common transgression was cheating during exams, followed by copying homework and using back tests.

More than half of those responding (56 percent) said there should be more University intervention regarding integrity.

Still, when compared to its peer institutions, Emory appears to be in good shape. Representatives from the University participated in a conference in February along with several other universities such as Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt and Duke, and honor code violations regarding plagiarism or cheating on exams at other schools in some cases doubled those at Emory.

The generally positive feedback received in the survey, and Emory’s performance in comparison to peer institutions, made for good feelings about the state of academic integrity here.

“We’ve recognized that we are not in a crisis situation,” said Fowler, who in addition to his professorship directs the Center for Ethics. “We have a lot to be pleased about.”

The survey, which was offered to undergraduates in Emory College, the Goizueta Business School, the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing and Oxford College, asked not only about academic integrity specifically, but whether Emory should take institutional action to improve, and it gave students the opportunity to offer their own ideas about bettering academic integrity.

In the free-response section of the survey, students’ suggestions for improvement generally followed two veins: structural changes, such as tightened proctoring and stricter penalties for cheating; and cultural changes, encouraging each student to see cheating as socially unacceptable. One way to instill this feeling, it was suggested, is to increase awareness of the University’s Honor Code.

Referencing the differing responses by year, Frost said she hopes to construct separate groups of upperclassmen and underclassmen and address their opinions individually.

A survey of faculty who teach undergraduate courses also has been prepared and is in the process of being distributed. Its questions are similar to those of the student survey, although the faculty survey asks several questions specific to the University’s Honor Code—something the student survey did not do.

The committee’s work will continue through the remainder of the spring and into the summer. Recently, Chace asked Fowler to form a subcommittee to address issues regarding the Honor Code and how to improve students’ knowledge of it. Fowler said he hopes to come up with plans in time for student recruitment and orientation in the fall.