Studies show that, compared to their nonbusiness peers, not only are business students significantly more likely to engage in cheating, they are much less likely to disapprove of cheating practices. The reasons for cheating, cited in several empirical findings across various disciplines, are numerous and complex, including pressure to find a good job, being employed or doing an internship while simultaneously attending school, and conformity to the behavior of peers. With the shift from in-person to online learning during the pandemic, opportunities for cheating on exams and other assignments with the use of text messaging and internet tutoring platforms such as Chegg and Course Hero have dramatically increased.
Consequently, a sizable cheating syndicate is operating in our nation’s business schools, with a narrow ideology that is eroding academic integrity and undermining the wider objectives of business education. The dishonesty and unfairness propagated by this cheating subculture is destructive on many fronts: it undermines a school’s reputation, taints the credentials of its alumni, damages students’ souls and (when violations are noted on academic transcripts) career prospects, and adversely impacts the sphere of business and beyond.
Given the venerable heritage of American business schools in educating so many forthright business leaders, the cheating subculture is a chilling trend. It is therefore urgent to cultivate a culture in our country’s business schools that reverences honesty, learning, and the pursuit of excellence.
Testing and Cheating
Let’s start off by contrasting the point of testing with the point of cheating. Testing—whether in-person or online—measures mastery of course material, including skills, concepts, and thinking ability. A straightforward end of testing is to assess learning. But philosophically, specifically from a virtue ethics standpoint, the point of testing runs much deeper than that: to show the extent of excellence students have attained.
Cheating, on the other hand, contradicts and derails both the straightforward and the deeper purposes of testing. The point of cheating is to win dishonestly and unfairly by attaining special advantage. The special advantage in question comes from using unauthorized resources—like using messaging with colleagues and visiting internet platforms either to get answers during an online exam or to obtain prewritten essays—all to reach a higher score.
While there are clear, core cases of cheating, sometimes there can be cases that are unclear. In the latter circumstance, a locution like “unauthorized resources” becomes an interpretive concept, meaning that reasonable people of good will can disagree about its meaning. What does “open book” mean? Does it literally mean “open book” only, or does it include “open notes” too, or “no problem, just use anything you want?”
The point is that cheating culture, understood as a self-righteous ideology bent on winning, inclines students toward exploiting ambiguities in interpreting rules, seeking loopholes, and dodging accountability for sensible self-regulation. Cheaters will tend to manipulate casuistic distinctions in self-rationalizing ways. (“Well, the professor never said we couldn’t go to that site.” “Nothing in the electronic testing system prevented me from accessing the web.”) In the end, the legitimate point of testing, along with its associated rules (both explicit and implicit), gets desecrated by the cheating subculture mindset.
Myths About Business Education
This deflection of business education away from its higher purpose, developing excellence, rests on two pernicious connected myths: (1) the fiction that business education is a “game to win” that is “merely transactional” and (2) the illusion that “good grades are the be-all-and-end-all.”
The cheating ideology sees business school as a precursor rat-race to an even bigger conquest: landing a lucrative career conferring power and prestige with a dash of social responsibility, if only for appearance’s sake. Students with this ideology operate under the illusion that they are in a win-by-any-means competition played out through a series of opportunistic, self-serving transactions. Therefore, they harbor the illusion that a maximum GPA is somehow, in itself, the lodestar of a business education.
What is the point of competing in business school? On a deeper level, the goal of competition is not simply to win, but to excel, by doing one’s best. The cheating mindset fails to grasp this vital difference between winning scores and attaining excellence. Competing for high grades in business school can be a good thing, but not if it drives students to immoral conduct. Competing is beneficial for students when it helps to bring out their best, inspiring them to excel in learning. Going to any length to win is not competing in any worthwhile sense.
Exposure to moral philosophy appears to be called for. Students need teachers and books that will guide them to be honest with themselves, to reflect broadly on the question of just what they are living for. As Socrates put it: “know thyself.” To be narrowly driven by greed, power, or fame is to subordinate a higher good—that of excellence or what the ancient Greeks termed arete—to lower sorts of goods.
Part of a moral education ought to involve helping students to appreciate that the lower kinds of things are not even worth having if they’re not the fruit of upright effort. The real danger is in a student’s gaining mastery of technical business skills in finance, accounting, marketing, and management, yet becoming someone who doesn’t grasp what’s most important in business and in life: integrity, honesty, fairness—that is, the achievement of excellence through moral virtue.
The drive for attaining the highest grades, when decoupled from the deeper purpose of education and assessment, paves the way for making academic dishonesty appear somehow necessary and even legitimate. An “ends justify the means” and “everybody’s doing it” mindset becomes the norm. Perhaps the horror of that mentality, when unleashed upon the wider business world, would become clear if business students took courses that emphasized the social and personal costs attending the unethical and illegal shenanigans of figures like Bernie Madoff, Denis Koslowski, Ken Lay, and legions of other infamous corporate crooks.
It is ironic that a large segment of this generation of students, who profess to care so much about social justice, fairness, and equality, is engineering systematic cheating scams across their campuses on a massive scale.
Who bears responsibility for cheating? Each party tends to toss the “blame” for cheating over to someone else, like a game of “Hot Potato.” There is a danger of students having the opportunistic attitude that “if it’s not specifically prohibited, then it’s permitted.” Practically speaking, it is exceedingly difficult, indeed impossible for an instructor to specify beforehand every “do” and “don’t,” and to monitor and enforce every aspect of a test.
Some faculty insist that they’re teachers, not clergy, so if students haven’t learned the difference between right and wrong by the time they get to business school, it’s not their job to teach it to them. While it seems fair to expect instructors to exercise due care in reducing opportunities for cheating, it is true that responsibility must also be borne by students themselves. This is self-regulation. And it requires virtue.
Some students argue that their school’s integrity policies are poorly defined, outmoded, and rarely pondered or debated. Some blame faculty for turning the other way or for not blocking every location on the internet where an exam question might be posted. Others criticize faculty for reverting to draconian measures when they suspect cheating, punishing students without respecting their “rights.”
If the only objective is to stop cheating, there are some super strict schemes that business schools can and do deploy. But who wants to learn under “surveillance state” conditions policed in a brutally authoritarian, hyper-legalistic environment?
If, by contrast, the goal is for students to receive a liberal education, which includes developing character and integrity, the challenge is a much greater task than mere behavior control. Humans have been given free will by their Creator. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.
The biggest challenge is educating students to accept responsibility for the moral consequences of all of their ideas and all of their actions. So, the point is not just reducing cheating and gaining compliance with rules and honor codes out of fear of punishment. The point is to cultivate a culture of responsible students and, ultimately, more responsible businesspersons and civic leaders. And, of course, this insight is not limited to Catholic teaching. Kantian thought, for example, also shows that the maxims of cheating cannot be willed by rational persons to be universally accepted moral standards.
Cheating is parasitic on academic integrity. By itself, it cannot hold up. It’s not sustainable, we might say. Academic integrity is the lifeblood of any business school, just as ordered liberty and rule of law are the lifeblood of our nation’s republic. Thus, we are called to fight the good fight to defend and preserve academic integrity, for the sake of business school and the wider world its graduates will inevitably influence.
Our schools of business should be places where the whole academic community, which includes administrators, faculty, and the students themselves, can work together towards educating tomorrow’s business leaders, cultivating the very best in them. We should not allow the cheating subculture’s self-righteous and narcissistic agenda to undermine the quest for excellence.