Culture of trust will stymie dishonesty

The launch of Yale College’s Academic Integrity Awareness Week is an admirable gesture on the part of the Yale College Dean’s Office and the Graduate School, but effectively approaching the challenge of reducing plagiarism requires more than spending a week raising awareness of the issue of academic dishonesty.

We agree with Yale College Dean Peter Salovey’s comments at Tuesday’s keynote address that cheating is the exception to the norm at a college where for the most part, as he said, “honesty is rampant.” But though few students cheat outright on exams or papers — 30 were hauled before ExComm last year — honesty here is at times of varying quality. As one of TV’s more perceptive commentators might say, sometimes at Yale, it seems truthiness is rampant.

The immediate cause of plagiarism is of course a night — more often, probably, a very early morning — of stress and the fear of the consequences from one more missed deadline. Without a question, Yale is a academically competitive environment, and the pressure not to slip up can be quite great. But reducing plagiarism requires more than admonishing us not to download our term papers from the Internet.

The case of Alexey Vayner is a solid example of why honesty can falter. His dishonest job application to an investment banking firm elicited dismay and often outright laughter from those who saw it, and probably no one considers Vayner’s fabrications at all appropriate. But in all the commotion about his lies, some have commented that his overtly misleading job application is only a dramatically magnified version of what many others students do in their own applications. When applying to Yale, for example, these arguments go, co-president of the student council often becomes president, and occasionally helping a friend with homework becomes regularly tutoring disadvantaged students.

Those sort of low expectations create the environment in which truthiness, as opposed to honesty, takes hold. Contrast that attitude with the attitude of some colleges, such as Haverford College, where students are expected to abide by a strict honor code. Yale, as a larger university, cannot imitate perfectly the culture of a smaller Quaker-founded liberal arts college, but the lesson that high expectations results in higher levels of honesty is a lesson from which Yale can benefit.

In that light, perhaps Dean Salovey’s strongest tool against plagiarism is his trust in us that we are generally honest. Academic Integrity Week will surely help in teaching students about inadvertent forms of dishonesty, such as forgetting footnotes, and can help remind students of the serious consequences that result from intentional copying, but preventing those cases of stress-induced cheating requires establishing that culture of trust. It’s a challenge, sure, but Dean Salovey seems to get it.

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