Publicly exposing cheaters?


Is this going too far to punish and deter academic dishonesty?

Texas A&M International University in Laredo fired a professor for publishing the names of students accused of plagiarism.

In his syllabus, professor Loye Young wrote that he would “promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating or stealing.” After he discovered six students had plagiarized on an essay, Young posted their names on his blog, resulting in his firing last week.

“It’s really the only way to teach the students that it’s inappropriate,” he said.

Young, a former adjunct professor of management information systems, said he believes he made the right move. He said trials are public for a reason, and plagiarism should be treated the same way. He added that exposing cheaters is an effective deterrent.

“They were told the consequences in the syllabus,” he said. “They didn’t believe it.”

Young was fired for violating FERPA. Young, and some of the commenters at the original article, don’t seem to understand the idea that a syllabus is not a legally-binding contract, and a course syllabus cannot overrule Federal law. So it doesn’t really matter whether he had this public humiliation clause in the syllabus or whether the students read it. Choosing not to drop a course does not amount to acquiescing to the syllabus policies if those policies are illegal. You might as well say that cheaters will be shot on sight and then claim immunity from assault charges for putting a cap in a plagiarizing student, because after all the student knew the consequences.

There’s also a sort of moral issue here too. Young lost his job because what he did violates FERPA. But if there were no FERPA, would it be OK to publicly humiliate a student who had been determined — let’s say beyond a reasonable doubt — to be guilty of cheating?

UPDATE: Young’s blog no longer has the offending article on it, but he has this response to TAMIU in which he claims he “analyzed FERPA at the department chair’s request” before posting the article, submitted his analysis to the university, and got no indication that his analysis was incorrect.

6 Comments

Filed under Academic honesty, Education, Life in academia, Teaching

6 responses to “Publicly exposing cheaters?

  1. likedoomsday

    FERPA applies to educational records, not every detail regarding a student. Putting aside ethical considerations, stating that “John Smith submitted a plagiarized paper” does not violate FERPA. Saying “John Smith received a failing grade for submitting a plagiarized paper” does, since it indicates the grade received; saying “John Smith was expelled from the university for submitting a plagiarized paper” does, since it gives specific information about disciplinary action.
    Again, ignoring the ethical issues, stating it in the form of “John Smith submitted a plagiarized paper” is no less legal than “John Smith submitted a paper about the Civil War”.

  2. If the standard university policy for cheating is a failing grade, then wouldn’t a public statement that Student X has cheating be essentially the same thing as publicly saying that Student X received a failing grade? In other words, does TAMIU’s cheating policy make this a distinction without a difference?

  3. likedoomsday

    Firstly, there are several different possibilities for punishment, as detailed on page 8-10 of http://www.tamiu.edu/pdf/StudentHandbook.pdf; a failing grade is likely, but not definitively a result of an integrity violation. Also, allowing an unambiguous inference to be made does not necessarily constitute stating the result of the inference.

  4. You raise an interesting question about the moral legitimacy of public humiliation, independent of the legal issues surrounding FERPA. There seem to be two issues here worthy of consideration: (1) is public humiliation an effective deterrent to future abuses, and (2) is it ethical as a form of punishment. I am not prepared to comment on the first issue, but I think the answer to the second depends on how we view the enterprise of higher education. If the fundamental relationship in higher education is between the student and the institution (or faculty member, for an individual class), than ethical punishment should maintain that relationship and remain private. If, however, we view education as a communal experience where there are important obligations the student has to the broader campus community, then a case can certainly be made for extension of punishment into the communal sphere. The critical question, then, seems to be how we view the fundamental relationship within higher education. Thoughts?

  5. likedoomsday

    I forgot to mention another problem with the original post. The comparison to shooting a cheater is completely invalid. Violation of FERPA is a civil matter, not a criminal matter as is murder. The right to sue over civil matters can be waived (releases that you sign when going skydiving, software EULAs, etc.), unlike rights regarding criminal issues.

  6. Actually, the post in which he mentions was not deleted. I found it in a couple of clicks, and not by looking at a cached version of the page. If he was asked to remove it, he might want to attend to it.

    Plagiarism is a huge problem in academic circles, but frankly, teachers need to do more to educate students about what it is, how to avoid it, and how to properly cite resources.