Academia is a pressure cooker. Each new crop of students is expected to burn brighter than the last—and that’s to say nothing of the increased demands placed on the faculty.
Particularly at the post-graduate level, students absorb and metabolize a dizzying array of information in an attempt to simply stay afloat, let alone stand out.
Paul Bodine of Paul Bodine Consulting/Admitify thinks this pressure has given birth to a new strain of hyper-competitiveness growing within academia:
“[There’s a] growing win-at-all-costs mindset, a belief that you will fail in life if you are not at the very best school or have the very best grades,” he says. “I think this hyper-competitiveness is worsening across society and politics and that business school students, who are typically fairly competitive to begin with, simply reflect this broader trend.”
Based on this cutthroat culture, maybe it’s not surprising that many folks of otherwise sound minds and scruples react out of desperation when the curricular air starts to get heavy.
There’s talk both in and out of academic circles of increased cheating among MBAs-to-be. According to Wikijobs, nearly 20% of MBAs have either cheated at aptitude tests or considered cheating.
North Star Admissions’ Karen Marks says cheating can even extend as far back as the application process: “Some schools use anti-plagiarism software to detect suspicious language in essays and recommendations, and most schools use verification processes that are designed to screen out candidates who have misrepresented material aspects of their candidacy,” she says. “Sadly, people have their admission revoked every year.”
But what’s behind this new development? And is it really new? There was the widely reported 2007 case of 34 first-year Duke Fuqua students who were caught cheating on a take-home exam. Is it specific to business schools?
“I think there’s just less moral clarity in our society as a whole in terms of what is right and wrong and what the limits and boundaries are,” says Accepted’s Linda Abraham. “You hear reports of cheating in medical and law schools. You hear about cheating executives and politicians. There are bad apples in every field.”
Sanford Kreisberg, the HBS Guru, agrees. He says many MBA programs are guilty of a certain complacency, or even outright ignorance, when it comes to moral matters:
“Business schools almost never have ethics as a front burner issue although they may jaw about ethics if something comes up,” he says. “[Business schools] are the least academic and idealistic of any graduate school at almost every large university. That is not good or bad; just the way it is given what the subject matter is.”
The statistics tell a story that begs for an explanation. Aside from the increased efficacy of schools to catch cheaters, Linda points to one potential root cause that’s cross-cultural:
“There are different cultural definitions of cheating. What we might consider cheating other cultures might consider ‘helping a friend’ or ‘teamwork’ or something perfectly acceptable. I think that as US schools have gotten perhaps a little more international, they have to consider different concepts of ethical behavior and what is cheating.”
Susan Cera, director of MBA admissions at Stratus Admissions Counseling, elaborates on the idea that cheating can result from a discrepancy in cultural norms:
“In the US, elementary schools teach students how to research a subject, and middle schools and high schools drill into students the importance of citing your work and making it your own. This is not the norm elsewhere in the world. When you bring students together from 40-plus countries, there is a broad range of norms with respect to what cheating is.”
Break Into Tech’s Jeremy Schifeling believes the issue of cheating—regardless of the statistics—reflects a fundamental tension at the heart of a business education.
“Is getting an MBA about developing business skills that will further your career, which means that cheating only robs you of future opportunities? O,r is getting an MBA just a signaling device to employers that you're pre-screened and ready to work, regardless of academic performance, which means that cheating is, in some ways, a rational response to your incentives?
“To the extent that business schools leave this question open, that creates an opening for cheating to thrive.”
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