In Wake of Brian Williams Scandal, Tips for Talking to Students about Plagiarism (Infographic)

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Despite decades of heartfelt appeals to students to explore their values and embrace a life of integrity, cheating in many academic arenas is increasing at an alarming rate. As news of NBC news anchor Brian Williams’s suspension after embellishing stories of his reports on the Iraq War, we encourage educators to use the scandal as a teachable moment.

Could it be that we are talking to students in abstractions instead of giving them specific examples of the terrifying examples of indivuals whos lives have been ruined by the decision to plagiarize? Williams is one of many public figures whose dishonesty brought them shame. We have created a teaching aid to help instructors engage in discussions about academic honesty.

Most students know that universities have strict policies about cheating. An egregious case of stealing academic material and claiming it as their own can lead to temporary suspensions from an institution or even expulsion. We have used this information as a threat instead of a place to begin a dialogue, and perhaps that paternalistic approach has pushed students to rebel instead of giving them the authority to choose. We suggest giving students a longer-term view of the ripples of dishonesty.

Students are probably unaware of the tragic case of Raytheon CEO William Swanson, who stole material for a document on, of all things, management principles. Raytheon’s board took swift, decisive action that sent a clear message to the industry about the importance of integrity. Swanson did not receive a raise to his $1.2 million salary that year, and his $2.96 million in stocks was reduced 20 percent. Since this brutal action, Swanson has moved to another job, but the shadow of his indiscretion has followed him. He is now burdened by an appointment to the president’s cabinet at California Polytechnic State University.

Another cautionary tale comes straight from academia itself. President Scott Miller of Wesley College had to face embarrassing votes of no confidence by his faculty senate both times he was caught plagiarizing. Even though he said he was sorry the first time, the faculty was still posed with a no confidence decision. In neither case was Miller removed, but it still had to be uncomfortable for him to work with students for whom the Wesley College handbooks indicates that multiple incidents of academic dishonesty would result in “[at the discretion of the Academic Standing Committee] in one of the following:

  • Suspension from the College
  • Expulsion from the College”

In what is perhaps a happy ending for President Miller, he was able to go from his measley salary at Wesley of between $232,1000 and $435,675 to Bethany College where it is reported he joins “presidents whose compensation towered over their institutions’ revenues.” Still, was the huge advancement in social and economic status worth the awkwardness Miller exposed himself to by cheating?

If your students aren’t scared enough by the previous examples, tell them about Senator Rand Paul. Senator Paul was alleged to have plagiarized a number of documents including essays about, ironically, prison sentences. Since then, Paul, who has medical degree but no bachelors, has still been targeted by undergraduate institutions that hold honor as their highest value. Invitations to speak at college graduation ceremonies and accept honorary doctorates have destroyed Paul’s ability to maintain a healthy work/life balance. If students think they’re burned out now by their rigorous academic pursuits, imagine how hard they would have to work if they cheated.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin is another case study to examine with students. In 2002 revelations arose that Goodwin plagiarized large portions of her book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys from three other books. After reaching a sizable financial agreement with one of the other authors, Kearns was bombarded with awards, honorary degrees and media notoriety. The travel must be exhausting!

If students care about themselves, and there is evidence this generation more than any before it does, we’re confident that talking to them about the terrible price they would pay for a breach in integrity. We’ve created a handy summary chart below to guide the conversation and lead them to their own ethical decisions.