Beehive Whacking

Peter Wood

“This beehive needed whacking,” said Loye Young, who was recently fired from Texas A&M International University (TAMIU) in Laredo for posting on his blog the names of students caught plagiarizing. Young’s firing brings to end a very short stint in college teaching. His day job is running his own computer manufacturing company which emphasizes “a vision to spread the free and open source Linux operating system to everyone.” That might be one clue to his stringent position on academic cheating. Those who value the self-regulating world of open-source software don’t usually have much use for people who debase public standards—which is, of course, exactly what plagiarists do.

Young was teaching his first college course and had warned in his syllabus that students caught in academic dishonesty would face harsh consequences: "No form of dishonesty is acceptable. I will promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating, or stealing. That includes academic dishonesty, copyright violations, software piracy, or any other form of dishonesty." 

Not much ambiguity there. Course syllabi at TAMIU are approved both by a Department Curriculum Committee and a University Curriculum Committee. So it wasn’t as if Young was operating without oversight. His university approved his syllabus in advance, including that threat to “humiliate” those caught lying, cheating, or stealing. 

But when Young followed through on his threat, the Dustdevils in the TAMIU administration got in a whirl. Young posted on his personal blog (which is part of his company’s website) the names of six students he found guilty of plagiarism. When the University administrators learned of the posting, they fired Young, saying that he had violated the students’ right to privacy through the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).  FERPA, for example, generally prohibits release of a student’s grades or transcripts without the student’s permission. The university commissioned the Honor Council to decide whether the students will indeed receive Fs for the course. No one has disputed that the students plagiarized.

The issue of where releasing the names of the plagiarists actually violated FERPA is unsettled. Possibly it did, and some knowledgeable observers think so. But the students were on notice that their work would be publicly posted under their own names and by agreeing to stay in the course under this condition they would seem to have waived their right to keep their piracy private. If they had that right to begin with. Moreover, the university was faced with the choice of finding out whether FERPA required it to collude with students to keep their dishonesty in this course hidden from the public, rather than just assuming it had the obligation under FERPA to enable the thieves to keep their thievery hidden. 

Eugene Volokh rightly observes that this isn’t a case of a university violating academic freedom. By posting the students’ names, Young wasn’t expressing an opinion. He was divulging a fact.   But if the University didn’t violate his academic freedom, its actions do suggest a startling lack of basic integrity. 

Scott Jasckik writing on InsideHigherEd.com struck a note unsympathetic to Young in the title of his essay, “Vigilante Justice on Plagiarism,” but nonetheless registered the anxieties of some of TAMIU’s remaining faculty:

Several faculty members, speaking privately because they didn’t want to anger administrators, said that they were taken aback by the way the university appeared to be viewing plagiarism as an issue requiring more due process for students, not more support for professors. For the university to follow the dismissal of an adjunct with this reminder, they said, left them feeling that they couldn’t bring plagiarism charges. Further, many said that they believed it was a professor’s right to award an F to a plagiarizer and that this should not require an honors council review.

Young maintained that he made the right decision in posting the plagiarizers’ names online. He has defended himself in multiple entries on his blog, arguing that:

1)      Students were warned at the beginning of the class on the penalties for cheating.

2)      Young had followed the TAMIU Honor Code, which requires professors both to specify in the syllabus “prohibited academic behavior and the consequences of such activity” and to enforce these consequences, as spelled out in the syllabus.

3)      Because the course required students to publish their work online, these students are not entitled to confidentiality

Young added that the role of professor was thrust upon him:

It should be pointed out that I am a businessman in Laredo and was asked to teach the course as a favor to the University. I agreed to help because I believe Laredo can become a world-class technology center. I spent much more time on the course than the $3,000 per semester that the University pays. I would never have accepted the invitation had I known how little the University cares about actually educating its students or how desperate the University is for revenue.

He held that public disclosure is the best way to convict those guilty of academic dishonesty and to ensure that they never do it again. Young cited the secrecy of Joe Biden’s plagiarism at Syracuse, asserting that swift public disclosure at the time would have ameliorated the scandal that came out during the election.

Professorial reaction has been mixed. Some seem to agree with Jaschik that Young was a vigilante.  “Yikes!” wrote one of the IHE posters, “Naming students and humiliating them is over the line!”  Another declared, “He was correct in failing the plagiarists, but should not have posted names on his blog, because their crimes were not adjudicated in court of law.” But others stuck with Young. One declared, “The identity of criminals is not kept secret in the outside world, so why in academia?”And another added, “the students KNEW what the repercussion would be for plagiarism.”

We won’t sit on the fence here letting former instructor Young do all the beehive whacking by himself. Plagiarism is widespread in American higher education and apparently growing, despite the advent of tools such as Turnitin.com that help unmask plagiarists.   The rise of the Internet itself is, of course, a major contributor to this form of cheating, since it makes theft simple and efficient. But another factor that may be just as large is the discouragement of faculty members. Many now turn a blind eye to plagiarism, even overwhelmed by the tide or figuring that their administrations won’t back them up. These phenomena are widely reported. 

One professor writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education lamented that “the reluctance of faculty members to report the problems have only contributed to their continuance.” Another adds, “Research shows, and interviews with students confirm, that a primary reason for increased plagiarism as well as all kinds of cheating is the perception by students that most faculty do not care at all and that, even if a few do care, the repercussions are of little consequence.”

So why did the Texas university “beehive” need whacking? It seems that a computer businessman perceived what many blindly accept: that TAMIU cares more about preserving its image than it does about educating its students. In his comments on the news stories about him, Young wrote that the university had abandoned a mission of teaching and had instead embraced a priority of padding students’ self-esteem. He wrote, “In closing, I submit that education died when educators came to believe that greater self-esteem leads to greater learning. In fact, the causality is backwards: self-esteem is the result of learning, not the cause.” These comments were prompted by a report two years ago of a study at a Scottish university that only a quarter (actually 27 percent) of faculty members bothered to report plagiarism. 

We’ll venture the guess that TAMIU will beat that record. 

One consequence of this affair is that higher education now has its own “Joe the Plumber,” a figure from outside the establishment who has dared to ask the right questions and uncovered some telling answers. Loye Young’s colorful commentary on what is happening at Texas A&M International University is full of pungent and memorable lines: “Only in The Wizard of Oz can a diploma educate a scarecrow. Giving an illiterate student a college diploma is an artifice to the student and waste of taxpayers’ money.” But Young’s reflections go well beyond homespun wit. He has fearlessly responded to critics who have tried to high-hat him with references to Kant and fine-tuned distinctions between “humiliation and shame.” He holds his own. 

And his reflections on the institutional culture that abets cheating and fosters dishonesty among students apply to a lot more colleges and universities than that dustdevilly place down in the borderlands.

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