US professors admit 'cheating' was their fault

March 24, 2000

Highly publicised accusations of mass cheating at two of America's top universities have turned out to be embarrassing glimpses at how quickly faculty and administrators seem to be willing to think the worst of their students.

Both of the incidents, which occurred at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ended when two professors admitted they were actually at fault.

In one incident, a teaching assitant hit the wrong key on a computer and unintentionally changed students' grades - something that was quickly blamed on a phantom hacker.

The other gave out a web address and encouraged his students to use it to help them solve a programming problem, then reproached them for cheating when their answers were identical.

"The lesson that I hope was learned here is that you have to move slowly and be cautious in these kinds of cases," said Robert Sauer, chairman of the MIT bio-logy department.

The initial interpretation by MIT professor Harvey Lodish was that a computer hacker had tampered with the test scores of 22 of the 120 students in his class in cell biology, raising their grades.

Professor Lodish announced to his class that a cheating scandal had been uncovered, an accusation immediately covered in the press.

One week later, he was forced to stand again before the class and apologise, admitting that one of his teaching assistants accidentally assigned students the wrong grades after incorrectly sorting them on a computer spreadsheet.

At Dartmouth, disciplinary hearings had already begun and penalties were being threatened before officials determined it was a professor's fault that 63 of the 178 students in his introductory computer science class had been wrongly charged with cheating. Almost immediately, the professor, Rex Dwyer, was himself being accused of making the accusations on purpose to exact revenge on unruly students.

Mr Dwyer, a visiting professor from North Carolina State University, admitted he gave students the address of a website where they could find the solution to a programming question. When several of the answers were identical, however, he concluded that they must have cheated.

In an ironic twist, the campus disciplinary committee found that some students may, in fact, have cheated. But "the quality of the evidence, combined with the circumstances under which the course was conducted, made it impossible to distinguish between those responsible and those not responsible for violations" of the campus honour code, said dean of the college, James Larimore.

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