Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Lie, Cheat, and Steal!

As Marcella Bombardieri stays on top of the latest developments in the case of Marilee Jones, the former MIT admissions dean who recently admitted to lying about her academic credentials, for The Boston Globe, Martha Waggoner has been tracking the unraveling of the "largest cheating scandal ever at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business" for Associated Press. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle seems to have deployed a whole stable of writers to "get to the bottom" of Sunday morning's catastrophe at the MacArthur Maze; so yesterday Demian Bulwa and Marisa Lagos reported:

California Highway Patrol investigators are looking into whether a car fire in the MacArthur Maze late Saturday was in any way connected to the disastrous gasoline tanker wreck that happened at the same spot four hours later, or whether it was nothing more than coincidence.

However, whether or not this car fire made conditions more hazardous at the Maze does not excuse the fact that the fire was caused by the driver of a truck hauling highly flammable material, who was going well above the 50 MPH speed limit; nor does it excuse the context that, when traffic is flowing at all through the Maze, just about everyone is disregarding that speed limit. In other words, even before we think of extending the discussion to the current administration of the Federal Government, isn't it about time for a general public review of the question: Do the rules matter any more?

My first job after I finished by doctorate was teaching computer science at the Technion in Haifa, Israel. I had to deal with a lot of culture shock, particularly since this was my first exposure to the phenomenon; but, after a while, I began to establish a pretty good conversational rapport with most of my students, many of whom were older than I was because of compulsory military service. I do not know if it is still the case; but, when I was teaching, all students were regularly called up for reserve duty (usually a couple of weeks) in the middle of an academic semester. We, as the faculty, had to accept this as a fact of life and work around the constraint. If a student happened to be away during an examination, it meant writing a second examination.

During one of our informal conversations I raised the idea of an honor system that would then provide an ethical framework within which all students would take the same examination and grading would be more uniform. Everyone gave me the same reaction, "You really don't want to do that!" I was then given an impromptu seminar on the extent to which academic cheating was a way of life in a culture in which it was next to impossible to keep up with all the things you had to do, both in and out of the university. While I was sympathetic to their plight, I replied with a question: "How would you like to be operated on by a surgeon who had cheated his way through medical school?" (In today's context of the Marilee Jones story, I realize that it had even occurred to me that a surgeon might have lied about his credentials!) The only answer they could sputter back was, "That's not the same thing!"

That is the issue that now has to be held up for public review: When is it all "the same thing?" There is clearly a continuum of ethical and moral stances that one can take, which is the most important lesson coming out of the Berkshire Hathaway story. However, there is also the question, "What are the consequences that will impact my own life?" I would not even try to enumerate the number of drivers dealing with the consequences of one truck driver cheating on the speed limit, regardless of whether or not that driver's past criminal record (or recent clean record) is taken into consideration. (I will, however, make the disclaimer that my wife happens to be one of those drivers.) On the other hand I think it is far more difficult to frame the consequences that ensue from dishonest actions on the part of students and/or administrators at major reputable institutions such as the Technion, MIT, or Duke. Indeed, I am not even sure how much it matters to know which institution happens to be the site of dishonest behavior. Clearly, when the institution was Enron, the consequences could be translated into a lot of individuals having a lot of personal pain. On the other hand, when, around the same time as the Enron scandal, the institution was the New York Stock Exchange (remember that one?), the consequences were harder to identify, let alone assess.

Calling for public review, of course, is not going to make it happen. Indeed, in my darker moods I have joked about the fact that, before I die, I would not be surprised if the very word "consequence" would end up being listed as archaic in my Shorter Oxford! I suppose that the situation is not that different from the climate crisis. All the signals that indicate the need for debate and action are there; but we have lost the will to invest those "intellectual ergs" (as Andy Grove called them) in either debate or action. Vonnegut anticipated that we would come to this, and it may be better for him that he did not live to see it happen.

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