NEWS’ VIEW: What Williams taught us

When the football coach resigned, he reminded us what dishonesty should mean.

Tom Williams was not mentioned in the press conference introducing Yale’s new head football coach Thursday. Yale fans want to look forward, not back at Williams’ sudden departure amid controversy about the accuracy of his resume.

But we should remember the scandal that led to his resignation because the fallout was honorably clear: Williams had to resign because he lied. That was that.

We don’t get that kind of clarity often when it comes to dishonesty. It seems we can cheat and lie and only get a slap on the wrist from the Executive Committee. Yale tries to explain the offense to us at length, but there aren’t many examples like the Williams scandal to illustrate the gravity of dishonesty, especially in our work.

The number of cheating cases that the Executive Committee hears has skyrocketed in recent years, from 17 incidents in 2005-’06 to 29 in 2007-’08 to 53 in the last academic year.

Administrators have said they do not want to conclude too much from those numbers, since they do not necessarily mean that the amount of cheating is increasing. Students could just be getting caught more often. Whatever the case, faculty and administrators talk regularly about what they can do better when it comes to academic dishonesty. One of the answers to that question lies with the Executive Committee, which should be ready to deliver swift responses in cases of academic dishonesty — and especially plagiarism.

Plagiarism is the cardinal sin of any academic institution. It’s not just theft, and it’s not just dishonest; it corrodes our relationships with our professors and is an affront to the idea that we are at Yale to learn.

The University has adopted some good measures to combat plagiarism in the student body over the past five years. The Graduate School has been behind many of those efforts, beginning when it responded to a relatively high number of plagiarism cases in 2006 by creating a module on academic dishonesty new students had to complete before registering for classes. This year, it began using computer software to screen prospective students’ applications for potential plagiarism.

Yale College, which sees many times more cases of cheating than the Graduate School does each year, has also taken some steps to combat the problem. It modified its course proposal system in 2007 to require that professors specify how they will handle issues related to academic integrity in each class. Some introductory English courses include at least one homework assignment devoted exclusively to plagiarism. Professors’ syllabi define academic dishonesty. But the number of students caught cheating each year continues to rise. And what about the number that isn’t caught?

Our problem is that it’s one thing to identify academic dishonesty — whether it’s plagiarism or lab report collaboration — and quite another to demonstrate that it’s wrong.

Yale should teach us, from our first days on campus, that plagiarism is a cancer in an academic environment. On this one issue, there should be no room for debate. Panicked cutting and pasting at the last minute is no excuse. And Yale should back that sentiment up with a firm hand.

One lie cost Tom Williams his job. We should be held to a similar standard.