By Richard Vedder
Over time, the moral absolutes that once governed human behavior in our nation have become diluted. Extramarital sexual activity is routinely condoned; more politicians and other respected persons simply lie about things (President Clinton's "I didn't have sex with that women" being only the most famous example), and people excuse those guilty of felonies on dubious grounds ("he had a rough childhood," "the family was desperate for money," etc.) Moral relativism is exacting a toll on America.
Higher education, which gets government subsidies partly because it allegedly promotes good values, is facing a cheating crisis of epic proportions, if Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle is to be believed. Most students cheat at one time or another. What is particularly discouraging is that my colleagues in the faculties and university administrations around the country seem relatively indifferent to this assault on the integrity of the academic process.
This is nowhere more apparent in the plagiarism scandal involving the President of Southern Illinois University, an ex-politician named Glenn Poshard. The Chicago Tribune has rightly called on Poshard's ouster, saying it is a travesty for an institution committed to truth and honesty to have as its leader someone who stole much of his dissertation from others. I don't know the facts, and maybe the allegations are wrong, but the feverish attempts of SIU to have only an in-house review done by persons beholden to Poshard himself is absolutely beyond the pale and is itself grounds for dismissal.
My own university was slow to move on a plagiarism case of sizable magnitude in our Engineering College, responding mainly after public disclosures of the scandal by a courageous graduate student. To this day the faculty have not seen fit to criticize the individuals who apparently allowed the plagiarism to occur. At Harvard, a star professor apparently was engaged in financial chicanery involving millions of dollars, and Harvard itself paid millions to the federal government to cover some losses, but the individual still is teaching. We are told, "He is very good." Good, but dishonest. Hitler had talents too, but that did not make him qualified to run Germany. It is time to address this scandal of growing proportions.
How? For one thing, we should get serious about punishing those who are guilty (after appropriate due process). A few heads should role -- students, faculty, administrators who cheat or deceive. I make it difficult to cheat in my classes, but when I know cheating has occurred, I go after the students with fervor -- forcing them to face disciplinary hearings, hire lawyers, and fight dismissal from the university -- which I demand. But I am in the minority, and most professors don't want to trouble themselves with the hassle involved in due process. This sort of casual attitude ultimately leads to real problems for higher education, either in a decline in the integrity of the academic evaluation system and resultant fall in academic reputation, or in public withdrawal of support of individuals who seem morally and ethically indifferent.
If universities cannot tell right from wrong, or continue to turn their heads when wrong is committed in their own midst, are they deserving of the public trust and public funds? Perhaps it is time to bring the Ten Commandments back to higher education. After all, plagiarism and cheating on exams violates the commandment "Thou shalt not steal."