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The MAT 202 cheating scandal is a problem of our making

<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

For most of us, the news that the Committee on Discipline (COD) is investigating dozens of MAT 202 students warrants nothing more than a casual glance. We wonder how it must feel to be accused of cheating. Perhaps our peers under investigation elicit a pang of sympathy. Perhaps they don’t. 

“Those 202 kids got what was coming to them,” one anonymous student wrote on the private Facebook page Tiger Confessions++. “Don’t cheat and you won’t have to be in this situation. No excuses.”

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Yet, as COVID-19 makes an online fall increasingly probable, the MAT 202 scandal illuminates a crisis at the heart of our community — and challenges us to imagine the university we can and should be. It’s too easy to dismiss the accused students as bad apples. They are us, and we are them.

To be sure, responsibility in the MAT 202 case seems clear-cut. On April 4, before the alleged violations of academic integrity took place, MAT 202 Professor Jennifer Johnson told her students that when grading homework, instructors had flagged suspicious trends. “It is not acceptable to simply copy solutions from an online source,” she warned.

A little more than a month later, Johnson announced, “We have reported many of you to the Committee on Discipline.” She cited “strong evidence” that students had continued to pluck problem-set answers from prohibited websites, such as Slader and Chegg. 

In an email to Dean Joyce Chen Shueh, who oversees the COD, Johnson revealed that one of her teaching assistants had deliberately posted a false solution to Slader — a trap that caught many students red-handed. She deemed them a “very sad list.”

Should the COD enforce the letter of the law, guilty students will receive year-long suspensions, at a time when millions of families face financial insecurity, much less the risk of infection. As the pandemic strains the University’s enrollment capacity, their leaves of absence could stretch for years longer. Many of the students are accused of cheating on a single problem. Does justice demand that ordeal?

To their credit, Johnson and Mark McConnell, the MAT 202 co-head instructor, have pointed to the pandemic as cause for leniency. They wrote to Chen Shueh, “The issue of students copying from online sources comes up regularly, as it did this spring, but once we moved online with all the other aspects of the course, the distinction became less clear.”

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Johnson assured her students, “We do understand that these are difficult times, and that some students may have made some bad decisions under the extra pressure of this semester.”

The COD investigations, however, are already taking their toll. In both interviews with The Daily Princetonian and Tiger Confessions++ posts, accused students have described being unable to eat or sleep. In a post yesterday, one student wrote, “I’ve never felt more broken physically, mentally, and emotionally than I have this past month. I am praying the committee takes mercy on us.”

Those students who are guilty should be held responsible. Punishment is, of course, warranted. But not at the expense of our scruples. Those students, I believe, deserve the chance to learn from their mistakes. In lieu of suspensions, the University could allow them to accept F’s in MAT 202.

The MAT 202 cheating scandal is symptomatic of a larger failing. Amid a pandemic, we’ve clung to the fiction that business can carry on as usual. We’ve attended lectures and precepts as if everything were normal; we’ve taken our classes for grades. Our spring course evaluations included no mention of the pandemic. Now, we’re poised to punish those students on the same false premise.

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In an email to the class, Johnson noted, “This behavior is short-sighted in many ways: many of the online solutions are incorrect, the homework is only worth a maximum of 15% ... and since the point of the homework and the EPs is to learn the material, such behavior leaves you dangerously unprepared for the final exam.”

Short-sighted though those students might have been, we are no less vulnerable to myopia. For far too long, we have played “academic integrity” as a zero-sum game against our peers.

One day, campus will reopen, and classes will return to normal. May we look back at this pandemic as the moment we finally learned to value one another over marks on a transcript.

Jonathan Ort is editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian. He can be reached at eic@dailyprincetonian.com and on Twitter at @ort_jon.

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