Why So Much Lying on Campus?


One of the things that strikes me about modern universities is the inordinate amount of lying that goes on -both by institutions and members of the university communities- and how little is done about it. As respect for moral absolutes is replaced with a mushy moral relativism, perhaps a decline in honesty is to be expected. But for people who regard universities as bastions of truth and integrity, this is rather disappointing.

Let’s start with universities lying about themselves. A good example is the increasing number of incidents of universities inflating admission statistics to improve their ranking in magazines. A year or so, we were shocked to hear that already highly regarded Claremont McKenna College had inflated average SAT scores of its students; the most recent of several similar incidents involves York University in Pennsylvania. In a world where the “bottom line” is murky, magazine rankings serve a useful function by providing consumers information otherwise unavailable. Since SAT scores and similar metrics are important, there are temptations to lie in order to improve the published rank.

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which I head, does the rankings for Forbes Magazine, and we have been spending a fair amount of time of late discussing with our colleagues at Forbes what to do about this problem. Do we throw cheaters out of the rankings for a few years? That hurts the schools, but also reader/consumers as well. Do we impose a penalty that artificially lowers the ranking of the school? Again, it is a punishment but it can lead to some misrepresentation of the school’s true performance. Do we asterisk the school and say to the reader “this school has in the past given false information about student test scores so this ranking should be regarded with some caution”? We are wrestling with these questions, as, no doubt, is US News & World Report and others.

A well publicized form of lying is in the field of intercollegiate athletics. For example, the oft-fanatic fans of Ohio State football were shocked and devastated when their highly regarded coach Jim Tressell was caught in a lie about star athletes receiving gifts of monetary value (I think the relevant NCAA policy was outrageous, but Ohio State agreed to play by these rules). This, of course, pales in significance compared to the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal involving underage boys at Penn State. The granting of credit to athletes for phantom courses at the respected University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill would have led to an internal upheaval a generation ago, I suspect, but not so today. Lying about impermissible practices has landed literally dozens of teams in modestly hot water over the years -lying about your football and basketball program is about as American as apple pie.

What is equally disturbing is lying by individuals within the university community. Student cheating (a form of lying) on tests is relatively old and commonplace -I recall a major cheating scandal at West Point that occurred over a half a century ago. What has happened on several more recent occasions at my own university are incidents of faculty cheating, and to my mind the most shocking thing about them was the indifference on the part of faculty and administrators. A senior faculty member’s research displayed evidence of plagiarism-lifting material from others’ work. That did lead, appropriately, to a reduction in the faculty member’s academic rank as well as some other sanctions. Yet earlier it took a long time before the university reacted decisively to a diligent student’s related research revealing wholesale student plagiarism in writing of master’s theses. More recently, it was revealed that a professor had lied about two published articles on his vita: He had simply invented them, materially aiding his successful route to promotion. As far as I can see, nothing important happened to him – at least no procedure to de-tenure the professor has occurred.

Whether the incidence of lying is increasing at a rapid rate is difficult to ascertain. But when the benefits of doing something increase and the costs decrease, more of the activity occurs. The stakes are often pretty high -winning football games can literally mean millions of dollars, and getting promoted can mean lifetime employment security for a professor. If the penalties are a mere slap on the wrist, more of this type of activity will occur. If the Big Ten had said “we are not going to play Penn State because we find what happened there morally reprehensible and don’t want to associate with them,” it would have had a significant impact -but it would have cost Big Ten schools money. Dollars trump principle. De-tenuring faculty is costly and messy, and it often reveals embarrassing amounts of administrative laxity.   

The most prevalent form of collegiate lying really might be called “soft” lying — when schools hide embarrassing incidents or outcomes. Schools may receive re-accreditation, but the accrediting report scolds the school severely for some practices. The report never gets into public circulation. The National Survey of Student Engagement administered to students reveals that students spend more time partying than on academics -many times, though, those results are suppressed (and even if made available, not discussed in university press releases). Universities are notoriously non-transparent, hiding all sorts of embarrassment. They mostly hide things to avoid overt lying. It may be because of the ubiquitous nature of this practice that universities fail to prosecute vigorously some of the more overt forms of lying. The prosecuted might turn on the prosecutor, revealing some heretofore hidden secrets universities want buried.

Richard Vedder

Richard Vedder teaches at Ohio University and is the author of "Restoring the Promise: American Higher Education Today."

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