Encouraging Integrity Is Easier Said Than Done
We must shift our focus from enforcing standards of academic integrity to educating students about what integrity is—and why it matters.
In his book Shattering the Glass Slipper, motivational speaker Charles Marshall defines integrity as “doing the right thing … when no one else is looking.” Indeed, integrity is one of the most critical values that we can instill in our students.
Since the turn of the millennium, we have seen highly publicized incidents of fraud, ranging from Enron executives lying about corporate assets to Bernie Madoff bilking billions of dollars from investors. In business and as a society, we tend to deal with such bad behavior by paying more attention to developing processes of detection and punishment than to helping individuals internalize a sense of ethics. As business educators, we need to take a close look at whether we are doing the right things, and enough of them, to ensure that our graduates act with integrity.
I was forced to confront this issue in 2018, when I had to manage an academic integrity violation at the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business (WCOB) in Fayetteville. This experience made me understand how challenging it is to enforce academic integrity policies. It made me realize that our systems, despite our good intentions, often do not get at the crux of the cheating problem.
Based on that experience, I now believe that we need to rethink our approaches to ensuring academic integrity on our campuses. Instead of focusing on simply catching students who cheat, we should inspire them to want to embrace integrity in their personal, academic, and professional lives.
Our Current Models
I recently reviewed the websites of academic institutions, including those of business schools, and discovered that they adopt one of four primary strategies to promoting academic integrity. The two least common strategies are to offer a standalone course on business ethics or to integrate an ethics module into the curriculum.
The third, more common strategy is to rely on tools like TurnItIn to detect cheating. Some schools even require students to conduct self-checks of their work to generate “similarity scores” that indicate how close their papers are to texts in the database.
But the most prevalent strategy, by far, is to set policies that guide student conduct and outline penalties for violating the rules. Some schools expel students after a single violation; others take a three-strikes-and-you’re-out approach. Still others assign students points for each violation, dismissing students when their points surpass a certain total.
Once students are accused of violations, most schools follow a model of American jurisprudence to ensure policies are enforced and punishments are imposed fairly. Accused violators have their time in “court” with representation, and accusers must meet a burden of proof. A jury of the accused’s peers renders a judgment, a judge decides on the penalty, and the accused can choose to appeal the final verdict.
As this informal review suggests, most schools work to uphold academic integrity through fear-based compliance. Efforts to educate students about the importance of integrity are not nearly as common.
My Firsthand Experience
In the fall of 2018, I unfortunately had to navigate the WCOB's academic integrity policies, following an incident in the undergraduate course I teach in systems analysis and design. In late October, one of my best students, an ex-police officer, came to me after class to let me know that some students were cheating on online quizzes, showing me chatroom conversations as proof.
The next day, I told the class that an apparent academic integrity violation had been brought to my attention. Soon after, the ex-police officer forwarded to me an online chat in which 11 students, including the potential violators, were discussing how I might have detected the cheating—one even mocked me for expressing sadness over the incident.
Over the next six weeks, I met with the WCOB’s associate department chair and executive director of undergraduate programs, and I reached out to the university’s executive director of academic initiatives and integrity. I also worked with our academic integrity monitor, who served as my liaison and helped me through the complex process of completing online reporting forms and submitting evidence.
In addition, I met with representatives of the university’s technology services office, who explained that they had found discrepancies in students’ IP login data. And, of course, I spent a great deal of time working with the WCOB’s Technology Center learning how to use TurnItIn and implement safeguards in the computer lab where the class was held. I then revamped my quizzes, exams, and work submission procedures.
I discovered later that students often fight accusations of cheating because they know they have a good chance of talking down their punishment or getting out of it altogether.
As the investigation was unfolding, tensions in my class were high. Students who had nothing to do with the allegations visited me during my office hours to express distress over the actions of their classmates. Because I grade exams on a curve, many wanted assurance that the alleged violators would not have an unfair advantage.
Eventually, the university integrity board accused five students of wrongdoing, based largely on an examination of IP addresses that proved they did not use approved computers to take quizzes. Two of these students visited me during office hours and apologized, and later took responsibility for their actions in meetings with the university’s academic integrity board.
The other three denied any wrongdoing—one even dropped my course, perhaps in hopes that the problem would go away. They pleaded their cases before the academic integrity board, but by mid-December, the board had found all three guilty.
All five students were assessed a 0.5 point on their records for the violation and were to receive a “zero” on the assignments involved. They also were required to complete an online ethical development seminar within 60 days, paying the 100 USD fee for the seminar themselves.
What Did I Learn?
This entire experience was unpleasant in so many ways, but it taught me many lessons:
For every violation we discover, there are others we don’t. Based on informal conversations with my students, I learned that even though I had tightened my procedures for quizzes and other assignments, academic integrity violations of various sorts were going on throughout our program unchecked.
The process of reporting is slow, unwieldy, and ultimately ineffective. In this case, justice was neither swift nor impactful. The academic integrity board did not make its determination until after the semester ended and grades were submitted. Furthermore, while I think it’s good that students had to take an online academic integrity seminar, the half-point assessment they received for the violation likely had little impact.
Students know that they are likely to evade punishment. I discovered later that students often fight these accusations because of how difficult such accusations are to prove. Students know they have a good chance of talking down their punishment or getting out of it altogether.
Reporting violations takes a great deal of time. I spent more than 100 hours on activities related to this incident. During the last two months of the semester, I did not have the time or focus to dedicate to my research.
These cases take their emotional toll. It's impossible to quantify how this incident impacted me emotionally. After this happened, I felt that the students had violated my trust and that I somehow had failed them as a teacher. I will forever see my students differently, which makes me truly sad.
And they will negatively impact students’ course evaluations. Incidents such as these create a tense environment in the classroom, which is likely to have a negative impact on instructor evaluations. In the reviews for my course, several students commented that this incident had negatively impacted their experience.
What Else Can Be Done?
It is clearly important for schools to have comprehensive academic integrity policies. But this experience has left me questioning a belief educators commonly hold: By the time students enter college, it is far too late in their lives to instill in them a sense of ethics. I have to believe that this statement is untrue—and that we do have the ability to change our students’ ethical mindsets.
I recommend 10 ways that we can improve our approach to encouraging academic integrity:
1. Discuss the importance of integrity with students. Talk more about why and how we should act ethically.
2. Present integrity as action, not just as a slogan. Tell stories of the companies and people who broke the rules—and those who did the right thing. Make these stories come alive.
3. Discuss what integrity means in each course’s context. I now discuss ethics-based questions in my course on systems analysis and design: What does it mean to share credit with co-workers and team members? Why is it important to avoid delivering systems on time and under budget, only to cause clients to incur high future maintenance costs? These questions are rarely covered by company policies, and they do not fall under any laws. Even so, students should know what it means to act ethically in such situations.
4. Understand how monitoring and policies work for each deliverable. Monitoring is essential, but in many cases the process is not straightforward. Know ahead of time how to collect evidence and use appropriate monitoring tools to ensure policies can be enforced.
5. Reduce the time that faculty must invest in reporting. Make policies clear. Ask faculty to complete training modules so they are familiar with how policies are enforced. Provide liaisons to help them through the process. Otherwise, instructors might be easily discouraged from pursuing integrity violations.
6. Protect instructors from the impact of negative student evaluations. Even students who have not been accused of a violation might see the course evaluations as an opportunity to exact revenge.
If penalties are not severe enough for small violations, students will continue to commit them. Schools should view small integrity violations as if they were ticking time bombs, waiting to explode and destroy the next Enron.
7. Make penalties for violating academic integrity policies count. If penalties are not severe enough for small violations, students will continue to commit them. Schools should view small integrity violations as if they were ticking time bombs, waiting to explode and destroy the next Enron.
8. Integrate integrity modules throughout the curriculum. Recognize that, given how difficult it is to teach ethics, no one-off effort or short video will be enough.
9. Invest in the necessary infrastructure. Don't just familiarize instructors with the policies and rules—also invest in courses, materials, and campaigns to infuse integrity into students’ DNA.
10. Make ethics-based education as important as policy enforcement. In this regard, business schools can lead their universities in promoting ethical education. In addition, accrediting bodies such as AACSB could take a stronger stance on ethical education in accreditation standards.
For example, AACSB’s 2020 Accreditation Standards call for schools to encourage their faculty, students, and staff to act ethically. However, the standards primarily emphasize “appropriate policies and procedures that attest to a strong emphasis on ethical behavior as well as a mechanism for identifying and remediating behavior.”
Rather than treat academic integrity as something separate that is primarily related to policy, schools should be encouraged to integrate this topic into their curricula. If we do not tie our discussions of academic integrity to its real-world implications, students will be more likely to commit violations.
Teaching Students Why Integrity Matters
I do not believe that it is impossible to instill a sense of ethics in students “so late in life.” As humans, we grow and change and overcome obstacles our entire lives. In fact, integrity is one of the most important lessons that business schools can teach.
With that in mind, I would like to see all business students take field trips to white-collar penitentiaries. I would like them to learn how some people—such as journalists who have plagiarized content or fabricated sources—have lost their jobs or even their entire careers because of unethical behavior.
We should not simply enforce policies; we must educate students about what it means to act honorably in various business contexts. We must do all we can to make students realize that how they behave when no one is looking reflects the kinds of business leaders they will become.
Tracy Ann Sykes is an associate professor of information systems at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.