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Tenure lets you handle students who cheat

The other day, a friend of mine who is an untenured professor (not in statistics or political science) was telling me about a class where many of the students seemed to be resubmitting papers that they had already written for previous classes. (The supposition was based on internal evidence of the topics of the submitted papers.) It would be possible to check this and then kick the cheating students out of the program—but why do it? It would be a lot of work, also some of the students who are caught might complain, then word would get around that my friend is a troublemaker. And nobody likes a troublemaker.

Once my friend has tenure it would be possible to do the right thing. But . . . here’s the hitch: most college instructors do not have tenure, and one result, I suspect, is a decline in ethical standards.

This is something I hadn’t thought of in our earlier discussion of job security for teachers: tenure gives you the freedom to kick out cheating students.


  1. Dave Backus @ NYU says:

    Interesting perspective. We’ve talked about this a lot, and by far the most popular option is to set things up so that it’s hard to cheat. If a paper, could there be intermediate products? Proposal, detailed outline, etc? Assign topics?

  2. DavidC says:

    Seemed like the incentives are set up wrong. I don’t actually want professors to get huge rewards for turning in cheating students, but maybe the problem here is that doing so isn’t valued enough (by the institution)?

  3. ralmond says:

    20 years ago or so (before the current reform movements that are skeptical about the value of tenure), I thought that protection of grading policy was the reason for tenure for K-12 teachers. After all, if “My precious baby who would never do such a thing” was the child of the school board president, they could bring undue pressure on the teacher to change the grade.

    At the University level, I thought it was to protect political views, e.g. a professor who thought the students should read Karl Marx in his own words instead of relying on what other people said he said.

    I’m currently an untenured teacher at the University level, and I fear the political stuff (given our currently very partisan state legislature) more than confronting cheaters. The University actually has a fair amount of resources in place for me to make sure that students get a fair hearing and I don’t get clobbered for unfair accusations.

  4. 2slugbaits says:

    And then again one has to ask that if students should be punished for resubmitting papers, what ought to be the right response for post-doctorals essentially regurgitating the same papers for publication? Or professors going on the lecture tour and recycling the same presentation tour after tour? And I don’t mean city after city on the same tour…I mean different tours. This gets to be a touchy area. If a student writes a very good paper on a topic that especially interests that student, and then decides to re-examine that paper in another class, should that be discouraged? If the second paper is 100% identical, then that might be a problem; but what if the paper is 90% the same but with a new and original insight and the original paper is properly referenced? Pot, meet kettle.

  5. David Lamb says:

    “students seemed to be resubmitting papers that they had already written for previous classes” I don’t understand how this is necessarily cheating. I can see plagiarizing other people’s or other students work as cheating. But to resubmit, possibly modify original work, for two different classes, how is that different from a tenured professor who writes several published papers on the same topic for different journals? I’ve seen some papers where the literature search was nearly verbatim….

      • John Mashey says:

        I would suggest that as a student, one is supposed to be doing work to increase the breadth or depth of their knowledge.

        On the other hand:
        1) publishing essentially the same paper as new research in several places us a no-no.
        2) but publishing variants “different enough” in different places may not only be not bad, but even good, and such can easily have near-identical sets of references. Sometimes one can write quite different papers from near-identical reference sources, to address different issues.
        3) This seems especially appropriate in interdisciplinary areas, where one is trying to bridge gaps.
        I’ve seen papers that really ought to have been published, with moderate changes if emphasis in at least two places to catch audiences that would naturally only read one but not the other. I’m familiar with some papers that re interesting 2-way crosses between pairs from (archaeology, remote sensing of plant charecteristics, paleoclimate research, and climate modeling), often with author groups that include several.
        Which journal should a good paper go to?
        I think a similar issue may arise related to statistics.

        • EmilyKennedy says:

          Especially from the standpoint of a grad student (which I am) if I didn’t keep working on old papers in new classes, they would never have a shot at publication. I have been fortunate to have professors (and a department) that support my desire to revise revise revise, and use my courses as places to make old work new, different, and better.

          • John Mashey says:

            That sounds different from Andrew’s example and seems OK if profs understand and encourage it.
            I’d call that “depth” along a research track.

            Andrew’s example sounded more like re-using a paper in a class that should have been increasing people’s breadth of expertise and doing so without discussing with prof. For example, I can imagine a student showing prof previous paper and suggesting that this class put a new perspective on it, and would it be OK to re-use parts of it, perhaps contrasting new results vs older methods. That might or might not fly, but might actually be interesting.

      • Jeremy says:

        This is completely anecdotal, but I took a class at Columbia due to consortium agreement with NYU, and the professor was quite open and amenable to me submitting part of my then-in-progress thesis as my final paper. Then again, the subjects were closely related.

  6. MAYO says:

    I remember the trouble I got into identifying a most glaring case of copying imaginable while teaching a few statistics sections at Wharton while a Ph.D student at U. Penn (to supplement my philosophy fellowship). I never realized I would become the villain in the entire proceeding. But even now, who has the time for honor’s court (especially when we are made to feel, at Virginia Tech, that it is our responsibility to arrange things so that students are not tempted). I do make up lots of different tests and highly specific paper topics. This does tend to undo the purpose of having an “honor system”.

  7. Martin says:


    not really sure tenure is relevant to cheating, if a University
    regards staff reporting cheating as trouble-making, I doubt that
    most tenured staff will do it either, I think tenure will make
    at best, a marginal difference. The US has a relatively strong
    tenure system, but international studies have never found the US
    to have noticeably lower levels of cheating than other countries.

    In addition, your statement: “and one result, I suspect, is a decline in
    ethical standards” isn’t really supported by the evidence, there’s
    little indication that cheating at university has changed in quality
    or quantity noticeably since the 60s



  8. lark says:

    I’m an adjunct and it absolutely changes the teacher student relationship, in the direction of more placating by the teacher and less rigor. For adjuncts most of the data about job performance comes from student ratings. You do ‘better’ if you soothe, rather than challenge. (I am a highly rated teacher.) This effect is a no-brainer. I think the reason it’s not obvious to all is the influence of right wing ideology. Tenure, like unions, has been under withering attack.

  9. jamdox says:

    The tenure system is one reason why we rely on poor adjuncts.

    Change tenure to contracts, allow more hiring, get more profs who can drop the hammer.

    Tenure just increases the number of underlings and contributes to the problem.