Jessie Cheung, Staff Photographer

At the end of the fall 2020 semester, Timothy Newhouse, associate professor of chemistry and instructor for “Organic Chemistry for First Years I,” sent an email to his students.

“Amazing job on the final!!! I just finished going through these and I am so pleased and excited,” Newhouse wrote, though he declined to comment for this article. “You did exceptionally well as a class and maybe were the best class year that I’ve seen.”

But according to one student in Newhouse’s class, the exceptional grades were not the result of an extraordinarily intelligent or hard-working class, but due to acts of academic dishonesty committed by students — acts made much easier by the online format of the course.

“It’s because you can literally from an iPad, switch over to Google and Google the exact problem … find the answer, write it down, and they wouldn’t be able to tell,” the student said. All of the students who spoke to the News, whether they committed academic dishonesty or not, did so under the condition of anonymity.

Newhouse’s class was not the only one where cheating occurred.

Last month, the News conducted a survey on academic dishonesty at Yale, which was completed by 336 Yale undergraduates. Of that number, 96 students, or 28.57 percent of respondents, reported committing academic dishonesty during their time at Yale. Around half of those 96 students said they committed their first act of academic dishonesty during remote learning. The survey follows a similar one conducted by the News in February 2019, which found that 14 percent of the 1,400 respondents committed academic dishonesty.

“The heart of a university is a community of trust,” Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told the News. “And the fraying of that fabric is a source of sadness and disappointment for faculty and students alike.”

The consequences

When a student is suspected of academic dishonesty, which can range from unpermitted collaboration on problem sets to plagiarism, the instructor in that course will often refer the case to the Executive Committee — colloquially known as ExComm — whose purpose is “to enforce the Undergraduate Regulations in a fair, consistent, and uniform manner,” according to their website.

The committee then decides whether or not to pursue a formal charge. For academic dishonesty, charges often range from a reprimand to suspension, depending on the severity and frequency of the infraction.

According to David Vasseur, chair of the Executive Committee, students are also able to meet with members of the committee to discuss the charge, choose an adviser to guide them through the process and sit before a panel of members of the committee “whose goal is to understand the context of the situation and, where warranted, to help students reflect on their actions and identify ways to grow from the experience.”

According to data from the committee, in 2019, there were 30 cases of academic dishonesty, 24 of which came from a plagiarized problem set or lab assignment. The majority of the punishments were either reprimands or probation. Data from 2020 is not yet available. 

Another anonymous student who responded to the survey told the News that they were charged pre-pandemic by the Executive Committee for academic dishonesty and ultimately received the punishment of academic probation, which meant that they could not be in leadership positions for a year after, and the charge would show up on their transcript until they graduated.

“When the actual day came around [to sit in front of the panel], they gave me a ‘court’ date,” the student said. “They were meeting in one of the top level rooms of SSS so … it’s kind of isolated … and they restricted it to make it look like a courtroom, like there’s two sides, the plaintiff and defense.”

They called the experience “very scary,” and said, “I personally regret doing this, and I wouldn’t do it again, obviously.”

The survey

Vasseur told the News that, for the past few years, the Committee handled approximately 50 to 70 cases of academic dishonesty per year. This year, however, he anticipates “that we will be well beyond that range.” He added that they have already seen an increase in the number of academic dishonesty cases as compared to the last two pre-pandemic semesters, although he declined to provide a specific figure.

 These results are in line with the News’ survey, which found that approximately 50 percent of those who committed academic dishonesty did so for the first time during the virtual learning semesters.

Yair Minsky, department chair of mathematics, wrote in an email to the News that this might be attributed to how the pandemic “scrambled everyone’s assumptions,” and made some students feel as though the remote learning environment was not as “real” as in-person learning.

“I think that, with everyone remote, the natural gut-level pressures to behave in certain ways are attenuated,” Minsky wrote. “We are social animals and without physical social contact we become less constrained.”

A third anonymous student echoed Minsky’s sentiments, noting that he has heard students compare this year to “a game,” making academic dishonesty feel more detached and less personal from the teacher and classmates and therefore easier to commit.

In an email, Vasseur similarly told the News that the stress of the pandemic and additional responsibilities, as well as the ease of accessing additional resources during exams, has combined to increase academic dishonesty during the past year. Along with “pressure to collaborate or share information with peers,” these additional casualties of the pandemic “ha[ve] very negatively impacted our community.”

Alongside an increase in cheating during the pandemic, the News’ survey also found that 52.58 percent of those who committed academic dishonesty did so in a science course, and 50.52 percent did so in a quantitative reasoning course. Only 19.59 percent committed academic dishonesty in a humanities and arts course.

Vasseur called this discrepancy unsurprising, as the type of exams taken in QR courses emphasizes the correctness of one unique answer, which can “increase the stress levels that students feel when completing assignments and tests.”

Dana Angluin, chair of the Computer Science Academic Honesty Committee, also told the News that she was unsurprised by the discrepancy, citing a 2019 News article on cheating in STEM courses. In that February 2019 survey, which 1,400 students answered, “35 and 40 percent of student respondents said they would be more likely to cheat in mathematics and sciences, respectively.”

In line with the survey results, Jessica Brantley, department chair of English, spoke about the lack of academic dishonesty in her department.  “I’m glad to say I haven’t encountered academic dishonesty among my students in English,” she wrote in an email to the News.

‘Ethical cheating’ — is it possible? 

The anonymous student in Newhouse’s class had never cheated before the pandemic began. But he found the classroom circumstances “so impossibly difficult” that “[he] felt like it was very ethical to cheat.”

“I always feel like I’ve never unethically cheated because I’ve always tried to honor the spirit of the rule and make sure that I’m learning,” he said.

But this term, “ethical cheating,” was largely derided by the other students and faculty interviewed by the News.

Minsky wrote in an email to the News that he “very much disagree[s]” with the idea of some sort of moral basis for committing academic dishonesty. He added that academic integrity is not “some kind of transactional thing.”

In an email to the News, Vasseur agreed, writing that while instructors need to adapt their courses to accommodate online learning and the stresses incurred by the pandemic, academic dishonesty is “unwaveringly viewed as a serious offense by the executive committee,” whether or not adaptations to virtual learning are actually made.

A fourth anonymous student interviewed by the News, who said she has not committed academic dishonesty, acknowledged that some professors have been unaccommodating and said that she understood the rationale behind committing academic dishonesty during the pandemic. But she still said that she did not consider it to be acceptable.

“Everyone’s just kind of doing what’s best for them,” which is “worse off in the long run,” she said. “Whereas if we all work together to petition a change in the way the course is being run, that would have a better result overall.”

Shelly Kagan, professor of philosophy, approached the question of whether the pandemic made cheating more ethical from a more philosophical perspective.

He said that he was largely skeptical of the claim, calling it “self-interest disguising as a moral argument.”

“In the previous four years,” Kagan said, “there were insane amounts of depression because of Trump being the president. … So shall we say, okay, so cheating for the last four years was fine. Climate change has been a problem that we’ve been increasingly aware of for the last 10 or 15 years. So shouldn’t we say that cheating was perfectly fine for the last 10 or 15? There’s always stuff.”

In a follow-up email, Kagan added that, “in almost all cases,” cheating ultimately harms the person who committed academic dishonesty, as they never actually learn the material.

“And if the class was worth taking in the first place,” Kagan said, “that is not only a waste of their time and money, but shortchanging their education, which is a horrible thing to do to oneself.”

In 2012, the first available year of Executive Committee data, there were 31 charges of academic dishonesty.

Data analysis and visualization by Kevin Chan.

Correction, Apr. 29: An earlier version of this story said Angluin was the chair of the Computer Science Academic Dishonesty Committee. In fact, it is called the Computer Science Academic Honesty Committee. The story has been updated.

Madison Hahamy is a junior from Chicago, Illinois majoring in English and in Human Rights. She previously wrote for the Yale Daily News and served as Senior Editor for The New Journal.