The Score

November 19, 2022

On this episode of The Score, we’re speaking with Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, NWCCU. The Commission is one of seven institutional higher education accrediting organizations recognized by the US Department of Education. Their mission is to ensure that colleges and universities meet standard levels of quality set by the US Department of Education and each state.

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Show Notes

High points of the conversation follow.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (15:44): But they’re going to have to vouch that that information is, the veracity of this person that is submitting that information. We want to make sure that it’s not just somebody that’s got some ax to grind or is ticked off with that particular thing. So, all of that including, if there’s any instances of cheating on campus, that is also submitted to us. And then if comes to our office, we go ahead and make that available to that group of evaluators as well. Remember, it’s not a one and done, we have a seven year cycle, we get these annual reports, we may get complaints or input coming any time of the year. When that comes, we actually follow up. We will investigate. My staff will go and investigate.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (16:36): At any time, you could have complaints coming to us, or anonymous letters come to us, or whatever else, I mean, particularly if it’s some issues related to integrity and cheating and things like that. We’re going to go ahead and follow up on those.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (18:54): When it comes to cheating, a lot of these things are dealt with locally. Now, if it’s just a one-off, let’s say if it was just one student, I felt sorry for that particular student, he or she got caught or whatever happened, and that they deal with it, there’s a grievance process. There’s all this efforts that really there’s no egregiousness on the part of the institution that they’re dealt with. Then they go on to do whatever it is based on the findings.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (19:23): But if it’s a huge number of students, like happened at some institutions that you and I know of, if that comes up, then it floats up to us at that level that, “Oh, wait a second. There’s something else going on.”

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (24:20): Because, again, we can’t use hearsay and lack of evidence. You got to submit all of the evidence. If you’re accusing somebody of demonstrating zero or poor academic integrity, then you better have some very significant evidence for that. So, we ask you to go and submit that, it’ll come through our portal. And one of our staff members, we have assigned staff members to each institution, and they look at it. Then, we convene, including our general counsel and myself, we have a conversation. We look at all the evidence that’s been submitted.

Kathryn Baron (25:06): So, as an accreditor, I think you have a unique perspective on the impact of cheating or on the integrity of a college or university. I’m wondering, when you’re looking at this part of the student success, the fundamental part of that, do you gather information, even if it’s not a giant big incident like Harvard and the hundred students who cheated, but just over the seven years, there’s a number of them that have been accrued. Do you gather that information to say, “Okay, we didn’t have this one giant situation, but we see here that,” I don’t know, “500 students have been sent to this academic integrity commission, because they were accused of cheating.”

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (26:02): Again, I’ve been here as the president of the Northwest Commission now for a bit over four years, coming on almost five years. In that time, I’ve not seen that information. We do require institutions, that’s sort of happening on our 163 campuses. Now, we will… Not in the hundreds you’re talking about. Maybe the occasional one-off here and there.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (27:20): In terms of cheating, where there’s a wholesale cheating of tens and hundreds of them. I’ve not seen any evidence of that in the last four plus years that I’ve been here. In fact, if I were to go back and, of course, I’ve spoken with my colleagues, so what’s the situation going back eight, 10 years ago? And asking my colleagues that have been here for that length of time, and they have not seen it … has there been any prevalence of cheating on a particular campus? I’ve not come across any.

Kathryn Baron (28:16): I guess, there are two ways of looking at those numbers. One are, when a student has been caught or is suspected of this and sent to through a formal process, or the student does it and nobody finds out. The reason I’m asking is because, on The Score, we’ve spoken to different researchers and their data is based on student surveys. In those, we’ve had 50% to 60% of students admitting that they cheated at least once. Most of this is probably not in any dataset, because it’s just them responding anonymously on a survey. I’m wondering then, you haven’t seen this as a big problem in terms of the official data, but do you think it’s as large as that? Do you have a sense of whether 50% to 60% of students have cheated at least once?

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (29:21): Yeah. Well, I mean, first of all, you got to look at the nature of the question that is asked and how it’s framed and all that.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (29:28): If it’s an open-ended question, it’s anonymous and things like that, did you cheat? “Yeah. You know what, it was a closed-book exam, I opened the book or whatever. I’m fessing up.” Versus what happened at Harvard and other places. We’ve had at medical schools and dental schools and things like that, some very significant level of cheating. Also, you and I talked a little bit about this previously, some of those have not been borne out to be true anyways. Okay?

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (29:58): So, the bottom line is, I’m not seeing those particular studies that you’re referring to. Is it possible? Anything is possible. I mean, we’re talking about human nature. I mean, given those studies that have been done by Stanford and other institutions, where they would go ahead and drop a dollar bill or a hundred dollar bill or whatever, you know how many of us don’t just pick it up and stick it in our pockets and walk away. I mean, how many of us are going to just actually take and say, “Hey, sir, did you lose this? I just found this.” Yeah, many of us do it. Of course, we were taught that, right from wrong, and things like that.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (30:31): This is like, I’m sure it’s happened to you. I go to a grocery store and I’m handed extra change or whatever. I give it back. That’s what I was taught to do. But some of us don’t and some of us do. Going back to this question of cheating, is the cheating a concerted effort to where a whole bunch of students hacked in to, let’s say, a database of questions or changed the grades? Which has all happened. I mean, we’ve seen, what do you call, instances of this. In fact, the Educational Testing Service, which does the tests of English and the foreign language or the GRE folks, that do GRE exams and all that.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (31:59): If 50% of the students are cheating, they’re doing little bitty things. But what you’re getting at is this, the death by a thousand cuts, if you have this sort of thing that’s going on, what does that say to student education? I mean, do we really want, as the joke goes, do we really want a person that cheated in a medical school to do surgery on your heart? I mean, these are the kinds of things that we need to consider as well. Then cheating is inappropriate or incorrect in any context, small or large, there is no such thing as a small cheat versus a large cheat, cheat is cheat. Yeah, that’s what I’d say.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (33:04): That’s true not just of medical schools, and dental schools, and veterinary schools, and in the broadly writ health sciences, et cetera. But you see that sort of a post graduation credentialing taking place, i.e., you pass an exam, board exam, whether you’re an attorney, or a psychologist, or whatever, if you want to go onto practice or you apply that in practice, if you’ve cheated throughout your college career, you’re going to get busted, because you don’t have the knowledge base. That’s a built-in part of the checks and balances that we’ve got.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (33:41): But somebody that cheats on an English exam, copied, plagiarized or whatever else that happened. And we see that, you and I talk a little bit about this, too. We’ve got technology available today where we can see if the student has plagiarized or not. Also, we’ve got these mills, particularly in English speaking countries across the world, that will sell you an essay on whatever topic you want for 50 bucks or 10 bucks or whatever. You get all these kinds of things. Institutions, the faculty members are already tied up doing a lot of things and now they got to check whether this has been copied, or plagiarized, or somebody else wrote it and things like that. This is all part of this context that we’ve got.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (35:06): I mean, we all have our ethics statements and our institutions have, they post that on the wall of each room and the professor comes in and reads that out loud, saying, “You will adhere to these principles of being ethical and professional,” and things like that. By the time you come into college, as you know, it’s way too late, it should be happening at home. It should be happening… If you have a home, a lot of students don’t have homes, that, too. But it should be happening in K through 12. It should be happening in kindergarten. And first, and second, in elementary school, that’s where we learned these things about the good and the bad and the ugly that we’ve got of cheating or whatever else that we’ve got. I think, by the time you get to college, these things are already set.