UC: University of Cheating

Long ago, before I enrolled in UC Berkeley as a student, I held this University high on a pedestal of academic integrity. Entering graduate school, I felt I was not only choosing one of the best materials science programs—I was joining one of the best institutions with one of the best climates and some of the best people.

In my first semester, however, I was confronted with a profound ethical choice. Despite how thoughtfully and diligently we completed our thermodynamics homework, my fellow first-year students and I were not earning A’s. Meanwhile, it seemed that second-year students were breezing through the class with genius-like ease. I was completely stumped; I humbled myself and sought my Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) at his office hour.

“You won’t succeed in this course unless you find the solution sets and use them,” he told me. To survive my first semester of graduate school, I had a choice to make. I could either cling to my moral ground and risk failing out of my program, or I could abandon my academic integrity and cheat my way to success. I chose a compromise: instead, I attended my GSI’s office hours week after week, reasoning that if he checked my responses against the solution set and gave me explicit suggestions, that it was somehow less morally questionable, simply because I was not the one with the solutions in hand.

This is now my fifth year here at UC Berkeley as a graduate student in the College of Engineering (COE). Beyond my first-hand experiences in COE classrooms as both a student and GSI, I have also spent careful time questioning other students about cheating issues and academic integrity. I would like to share a non-exhaustive assortment of anecdotes here:

  • In-class exams. In an undergraduate introductory course, an exam proctor caught a student reading notes from his smartphone and confiscated the device. After the exam had concluded, the student approached the instructor to inquire about his smartphone. The instructor asked him if he had used the phone to cheat, and he said “no.” The instructor returned the phone without penalty.
  • Take-home exams. In a graduate course, a group of students chose to complete their entire take-home mid-term exam together. When the instructor noticed the high coincidence of identical mistakes and odd solutions, he questioned the class. The students defended themselves, saying that the instructor had never specified that they could not work as a group. For the final exam, also take-home, these same students were explicitly told not to work solutions together, yet they continued to work publicly in a group, as witnessed by several of their peers. They were never punished.
  • Open-note exams. In an undergraduate course, students were given an open-book, open-note mid-term exam. Roughly 25% of students brought full solutions of old exams, and unfortunately, some of the exam questions had been repeated. The solution sets were available on both the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society’s website and on CourseHero without the instructor’s knowledge or consent, which is a copyright violation. The students claimed that any sort of punishment would be unfair since the instructor had never explicitly stated that “textbook and notes” did not include old exams. Faced with a grading dilemma and no time for a re-examination, the instructor chose to award 100% on the mid-term to every student in the class.
  • Lab reports. In an undergraduate lab course, one student decided to electronically cut and paste plots for a lab report directly from the original solution set, which had been hand-written decades ago by a UC Berkeley faculty member. The student’s diligent GSI noticed the odd penmanship on the plots and showed the instructor, who immediately recognized the former professor’s handwriting. The student was questioned about plagiarism and the falsification of lab data. While she admitted possession of the solutions, she denied any wrongdoing. Her permanent record does not reflect this indiscretion, and she passed the class.
  • Problem sets. In a graduate course with regular problem sets collected for a homework grade, several students submitted work with unreferenced figures and plagiarized text from the course solutions manual, which they had explicitly been warned not to use. The students were confronted and re-warned, yet several of them continued to paraphrase the solutions manual or plagiarize Wikipedia articles instead. The instructor chose not to officially report any of these students, and they only suffered minor losses of points on individual problem set grades.

A reminder of the legacy of Materials Science and Engineering. Hearst Mining Building, circa 1925.

There is no doubt in my mind that similar issues extend beyond the COE into the rest of the scientific programs here at UC Berkeley, and into the humanities. At a pivotal time when the University is beginning to consider and implement electronic courses, I am not only appalled—I am fearfulGraduate students are highly aware of the pervasive cheating culture here, especially among the undergraduates they teach. Faculty members are clearly aware of the problem too. Layering web-based courses and degrees on top of the existing problem will only make it worse.

We are not the only institution confronting such dilemmas. In fact, the pervasive loss of academic integrity has been festering in American higher education for decades. Technology and social media have merely served to exacerbate the situation, often vaulting it directly into the limelight (for example, Harvard’s recent issue with Professor Marc Hauser). On the one hand, we can be thankful that other institutions have confronted these issues before us; we have footsteps in which to follow. On the other hand, we are living a shameful reality, one in which our community is long, long overdue for corrective action on academic integrity—and yet in my 9 semesters here, I have felt no breeze of change, much less a wind.

UC Berkeley’s official stance on academic integrity matters can be found on the website for the Center for Student Conduct, including convenient links to our official Code of Conduct and the process for reporting incidences. One might think that, with such cute little clickable buttons, more incidences would actually be reported. When I ask why faculty members choose not to pursue blatant violations, the answer is generally, “It’s too time-consuming.”  Further, there appears to be a common sentiment that, with the current age of electronics and social media upon us, we may as well embrace this wave of the future and stop wasting our time fighting back. Are you joking?

Honesty, integrity, and fairness are qualities that our students will carry for the rest of their lives. UC Berkeley  is, ultimately, a brand. We choose to come here because we want to be known as “Berkeley graduates.” By ignoring these problems, however, we are producing a generation of students with questionable ethics and integrity; we are redefining the UC Berkeley brand into something that none of us wants it to be. As I prepare to advance into the professional world of engineers, I am frustrated to watch my future workforce and the value of my UC Berkeley degrees become polluted by cheaters.

You might ask whether a proclivity for academic dishonesty can actually be taken as an indicator for future dishonesty in scientific research and professional endeavors. As a GSI, I stress to my students that their lab reports should be considered practice for writing scientific publications. If undergraduates and graduates alike are willing to invent data in their coursework, then I can only extrapolate that these same individuals have the potential to publish false data.

“Fiat lux. Let there be light.” This is the motto of the entire UC system, emblazoned on our crest. Since 1868, our heritage has stated that the pursuit of knowledge is light, lifting us above the ignorance that is darkness. My liberal arts background has strongly rooted me in the belief that the quest for an academic degree is more important than the ultimate degree itself. But when we devalue that process of earning a prestigious degree—when the sacred acts of teaching and learning become second to grades, GPAs, and transcripts—then we find ourselves drowning in ignorant darkness.

My suggestions in moving forward? We need to refocus the UC Berkeley climate on academic integrity and social morality, to reinforce the importance of the process of learning. We also need a system for dealing with cheating—one that actually works. What we have is clearly outdated, especially in light of future movement toward more web-based courses and degrees. While all of this may be costly and time-consuming, continuing on our current path will result in a second-rate University with second-rate degrees. And that is a cost that I sincerely doubt any of us are willing to bear.

  • An interesting side note regarding our strict emphasis on numbers in the COE: In our doctorate programs, we are required to maintain an esteemed 3.5 GPA, which effectively makes a B+ a failing mark. Since my first semester here, when I panicked over my thermodynamics course grade, I have learned that nearly every student manages to keep their GPA above 3.5 with relative ease. How? The faculty have no desire to fail out their graduate students, so they usually redistribute grades over the B+ to A range. Yes, we are largely very clever and qualified students, but do not let our GPAs confuse you. The COE practices grade inflation. The system has discovered a way to circumvent its own rules, because the rules are outdated. Practically speaking, our grading system is Pass-Fail. We should call it such and begin truly awarding pass-fail grades instead of pretending that our letter grades actually mean something. If an equid has stumpy legs, long ears, and stripes, do we call it a stallion? Absolutely not. We call it precisely what it is—a zebra. (Or possibly a zorse. Or a zebroid.)
  • first-hand account from a professional paper writer, known as a ghostwriter. He discloses not only the high cost of his work (upwards of $2,000 per assignment, depending upon length) but also the fact that none of his customers has ever reported being caught for submitting written work that was not their own.

[Updated 1/6/2012. Paragraph order changed.]

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  1. Brian

    Very well articulated, Liz! Will this change anything at UC or other universities, it depends on whether anyone is willing to lead. Any university leaders out there??

  2. Adam

    Great piece!

    My experience (in the math department) has been similar in some ways but different in others.

    In math, it tends to be understood that the purpose of classes should be to learn material that is useful for writing a thesis. Also, mathematicians usually don’t want to be bothered with assigning grades. Furthermore, within the academic context, it seems that nobody cares about graduate school grades. Everybody looks at the dissertation, letters, and teaching and research statements. As a result, grading in graduate math classes is usually a joke. Usually, the default grade is an A.

    In one class, a professor emailed students near the end of the semester to inform them that if they didn’t hand in any homework at all (over the entire semester), they would receive a grade of A- (instead of A). In another class, a professor assigned grades (presumably all A’s) and left the country before the last assignment was due. There were two assignments over the course of the semester. On the other hand, I have heard of a professor at another prestigious institution who would roll a die on the first day to determine the grade for everybody in the entire class.

    As one might expect, cheating is not so rampant in these classes. Of course, grades are very much inflated, which isn’t so problematic when people apply to academic jobs because the people making the hiring decisions don’t care about grades, anyway. But it does seem likely that people outside of academia would misinterpret these grades.

    A few years ago, I was a GSI for a large class. At one of the midterms, a GSI and the professor witnessed two students talking to each other during an exam. At the time, the students admitted to cheating, and the instructor declared that they would receive a 0. The students subsequently requested to retake the exam. The instructor declined the request. The students appealed, and the instructor was told that he didn’t have sufficient evidence to prove that the students had cheated. The students received full credit for the work they had done on the exam.

    Considering that incident, I find it hard to fault a professor for not pursuing violations. It seems that the standard of proof is impossibly high.

  3. I agree with all of the points in this piece. However, how many professors mention the Code of Conduct on the first day of class? I was an instructor last semester, and it was clearly indicated on my syllabus. Sometimes by just letting the students know you are aware of these issues, is a deterrent in and of itself.

    Secondly, don’t tell me professors are not aware their exams can be found online. I know the ones I have spoken to are. Don’t recycle your exams then! Please. It’s not too hard to make up similar but new problems, and it keeps you sharp as an instructor. For my in class exam, students had to sign their names to the statement: “I certify that I have completed this exam solely on my own based Berkeley campus code of student conduct, Section 102.01.”

    This is a serious issue, no doubt, but with a some effort, a lot of progress can be made.

    I’d be all for getting rid of grades and just having a high standard to pass any given course. That might be workable only for graduate students though.

  4. Go Bears!

    Frankly, cheating is so widespread at UC Berkeley as to defy belief and to cause despair. Worse, the graduate students themselves are primarily involved in enabling the undergraduate students to cheat via sexual and monetary bribes.

    Here are some well-known examples of UC Berkeley’s cheating problem. All of these examples, by the way, were reported to various professors and GSIs. —

    1. The complicity of GSIs in facilitating cheating at Berkeley is well-known: In a Fall 2010 course, the solution set for the upcoming midterm exam was allegedly obtained by a female undergraduate from a male GSI in exchange for sexual favors. Traveling along sorority and fraternity networks, the solution set was then mass-distributed to a significant percentage of the class. On the morning of the midterm — involving almost a dozen GSI monitors — roughly 1/4th of the students in the class already had memorized the exam answers in advance. As a result, scores for that midterm were abnormally high. The grades of undergraduate students who did not cheat suffered.

    2. Fraud is rampant: “Didn’t study? Just hire a grad student to take your exam! Problem solved.” In another Fall 2010 course, undergraduates were privately told they could hire graduate students from Berkeley’s Math Department to take their PS3 exams for them. As UC Berkeley does not require students to present identification cards for exams to verify their identities, many grad students in the math department were hired by undergraduates to take their in-class exams. A Berkeley professor once discerningly remarked: “One quickly realizes how widespread cheating is at UC Berkeley on exam day. Most of the people taking the in-class exam have never set foot in this room before!”

    2. In a Fall 2011 course for Political Psychology, the solution set for the course was allegedly stolen by an undergraduate research assistant (RA) in the URAP program from the professor’s office. The solution set even bore the printed text: “Instructor’s Copy.” Again, the fraternity and sorority networks were integral in distributing this solution set to their members who promptly gave copies to their friends. Students who considered going to the professor and reporting the cheating were threatened with physical reprisals.

    3. Sex in exchange for essay writing is also a frequent occurrence at UC Berkeley: In a memorable case, a Chinese undergraduate student living in the dorms breezed through her four years at Berkeley by offering to have “quickies” with other male undergrads if they would write her essays. More disturbingly, two GSIs were aware this female student was trading sex for essays and they chose to overlook the issue. Why? Despite the female student publicly bragging in class that she was screwing guys in return for authoring her essays, there was no way to prove it except, I guess, with semen samples.

    4. In a private office conversation with a Berkeley professor, I was informed that a star athlete on a Berkeley sports team had once cheated on a recent political science exam. The instructor had promptly failed the student. However, pressure from the university administration and various departmental figures resulted in the athlete’s obvious cheating being overlooked. Due to administrative influence, the athlete received a passing grade on the exam despite blatantly cheating. When I was told this information, I quickly realized in my mind: “If the UC Berkeley administration will cover up cheating in order to protect an athlete, then the Berkeley administration will likewise cover-up rape and other transgressions.” One wonders that Berkeley is only a hair’s breadth away from having Penn State-like scandal.

    I guess no progress will be made until there is a giant cheating scandal that engulfs the university and then the reputation of everyone involved will suffer. It’s a pity that UC Berkeley can’t do something to try and avert this.

  5. Anonymous

    how does it compare to your undergrad?

  6. Anonymous

    I feel like it is actually a lot worse in other colleges.

  7. Anonymous

    …UC Berkeley… Oh Berkeley…I witnessed sooooo many foreigner undergrads cheat their way through and actually graduate while barely being able to speak english… *cough*-Chinese- *cough* *cough* The undergrad program is a joke.

    • Emilia Zin

      While we support free speech and appreciate your willingness to engage with this BSR article, we would like to point out that the BSR does not condone racism and hate speech. It is not acceptable to blame foreign-born students, especially of a specific nationality, and imply that they cheat through school. Please be more mindful of your words in future.