Monday, September 24, 2012


The cheating scandal at Harvard which could involve as many as 125 students in a single class has gotten extensive publicity. And the impression given is that this is an unusual event. For example, as quoted in the New York Times, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education noted that this cheating incident at Harvard “is unprecedented in its scope and magnitude.” This may be correct, given that it involves almost half of the class, but cheating and academic dishonesty are not unusual events and the “scope and magnitude” of what happens nationwide is certainly disturbing.

Mr. Harris, in the same New York Times article notes that “the enabling role of technology is a big part of the picture.” He continues by stating “It’s the ease of sharing. With that has come, I believe a certain cavalier attitude.” True enough but there are two other factors that I believe are an important part of this equation. First, and this was not the case at Harvard, faculty are often reluctant to bring cheating to the attention of their administration preferring instead to administer their own justice for incidents of academic dishonesty. This justice varies widely for the same infraction from faculty member to faculty member. I understand the faculty mentality and respect it, and I also understand the reluctance to follow a cookie cutter approach in determining penalties or grades. But what is lost in this approach is that repeat incidents of cheating need a stronger response but if an incident is not reported to administration, there is no way to ramp up the penalty for the next incident. As a faculty member, I might be lenient on a first infraction on the part of an undergraduate. I certainly wouldn’t be lenient regarding any infraction by a graduate student and I wouldn’t be lenient toward any repeat offense. We need to coordinate our efforts regarding academic dishonesty. Cheating is a nationwide problem. It will not disappear quickly and only a response that is both resolute and yet understanding of faculty prerogatives can work to moderate the problem.

Cheating doesn’t just start in college. It starts much earlier and is equally pervasive in much of middle and high school education. It actually starts earlier in elementary school and unfortunately parents may be playing an enabling role in the cheating that is going on. We all recognize that parents play a critical role in the education of their children and that teachers together with parents are key factors in the success of children. But where should parents draw the line in helping their kids. My wife and I both read to and listened to the reading of both of our kids when they were very young. I hope we helped them read earlier and more fluently. But we have never felt that their homework was our homework and we never hovered over them until their assignments were perfection. And we never have felt that their grades are our grades and that we had to help them in any way possible to get the highest grade possible.

Homework is to be the results of the students’ efforts, not the results of the students’ efforts plus substantial help from your parents or others. Take home exams are the results of the students’ efforts not the result of the students’ efforts plus the help of others. Grades are based on the work done by the student, not (under usual circumstances) by a group. At every grade we need to reinforce the importance of the students’ efforts and at every grade we need to reinforce the penalty that will be paid if that effort turns out to be the result of someone else’s intervention. And the penalties need to be much harsher for any repeat offense.

Monday, September 17, 2012


I’m watching our students, especially our 1st year students, walk around campus from class to class- with backpacks filled with books. And I know from looking at course outlines that textbooks in paper format continue to dominate higher education classes as they did when I went to college. There is even a feeling, still prevalent, that regardless of all the technological advances, textbooks, as we have always known them, will continue their dominance for at least another decade. I don’t think that will happen.

Up to a few years ago, as part of preparing for any vacation, I would identify the books I wanted to read (usually escapist fiction), purchase them (in paperback if at all possible) and place them in my carry on. My Kindle serves that purpose now and I have no regrets having made the change. Any office paperwork I now bring along on vacation is via Dropbox and the convenience without the weight is a real plus.

My kids who are entering middle school and high school are not being issued textbooks. Instead they will be issued educational materials loaded on iPads, and the costs are comparable to using standard paper textbooks (even factoring the cost of the iPad). Over time, education on the middle school through high school levels will become more and reliant on iPads and eBooks. Textbooks will be relegated to an occasional use basis for specialized circumstances.

We already see the transformation of libraries that has and still is taking place. Where 15 years ago, we had a main library building as well as a large satellite library building, we now are able to build in significantly more student individual and group study space in our main library building and we no longer have a satellite building. And our reference librarians are spending less time at the reference desk and instead spending more time teaching students to be sophisticated users of information technology.

Now I know firsthand there are still some disadvantages with the iPad/eBook technology. Highlighting and making notes in the margin are still not as convenient as with a paper version textbook. I often highlighted simply because it allowed me, in reviewing the material, to focus on what was most important or to highlight material which I needed to spend more time studying. EBooks on the other hand have the benefit of including more dynamic illustrations and/or video clips that can illustrate and enhance the material being studied. The ship has sailed on the issue of iPads, tablet computers and eBooks. We need to adjust and get on board so as to maximize the benefits from this imminent change.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dutch Treat

I just returned from a family vacation week in the Netherlands spending time at the Floriade (which is the once every ten years flower show) as well as time in Amsterdam and the surrounding areas. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Certain observations and comparisons are inevitable and these observations may help us and our county in the years ahead.

First is the observation regarding scale. Everything seems smaller. Not the people but the cars, the homes, the stores etc. And yet it is clear that smaller works very well. The largest cars I saw during the entire week, with very rare exception, were no larger than our mid size cars and SUVs were few and far between. (Under the heading of full disclosure, I did see one Chrysler 300 and 2 Bentleys. Interesting, I thought the Chrysler stood out in a more distinctive way.) Now back to smaller cars: think about the savings in gas if we can adjust to a smaller scale. We have been slowly moving in that direction and I don’t think we are any the worse for that movement. We should continue this effort; it would be a great way to counter rising energy costs.

Housing, even in very upscale areas, also seems noticeably smaller. The square footage is much more limited and attached housing is much more prevalent, even in the suburbs. Many of the apartments and houses also came with roll down window shutters that provide extra weatherproofing and storm protection. And stores and restaurants are noticeably smaller. Now I happen to like large stores and huge malls in our country because of the selection that is available, but once again are we using our resources as efficiently as possible? I had no trouble finding anything I wanted even though the stores were often, by my definition, cramped.

Having done significant driving and also traveling on buses and public trams, I can also tell you that the infrastructure seems much better maintained. Bad roads were few and far between, though the roads were often too narrow for my comfort level. Highways had fewer lanes but Amsterdam did have traffic that rivaled downtown Manhattan. Therefore, the car was returned the day we arrived in Amsterdam. The trams in Amsterdam were clean and modern and the rail system throughout Europe is first rate. Now, infrastructure needs as we know are usually financed by government and here the Netherlands scale (tax rates) may be larger rather than smaller than that of the United States.

A comprehensive comparison of the Netherlands and the US requires more than a few observations and facts. Education, health care, a safety net, defense expenditures etc. are all part of the equation. And the reality is we want it all and we want it on the largest scale possible. We should as a people be able to do some downsizing (cars, homes etc.) on our own initiative and with miniscule impact on the quality of life. For the rest we need to confront the choices that we have been reluctant to confront. We know we can’t provide more with fewer resources. Government needs to cut back on spending, or increase taxes, or do both. Having all of the above is not an option. I look forward to the Presidential candidates giving us the necessary facts that will allow us to make these necessary decisions regarding who to vote for and what direction our country will follow.