On Friday morning we had yet another unpleasant interaction as a result of me reporting an honours-year student for academic dishonesty. I had already caught Kevin Yu cheating once. Then, marking his most recent assignment, I had recognised a sentence from another student’s work of three years earlier.
Some investigation established that the past student was now Kevin’s private tutor, and had written at least part of his essay for him. This had all happened some weeks ago. I had reported the matter and expected the disciplinary process to take its course. Apparently it was more complicated than this.
‘The situation with Kevin is a little awkward,’ said the Dean. We were in her corporate-style office and she was wearing her corporate-style costume of matching dark-blue skirt and jacket, which, according to Gene, is intended to make her appear more powerful. She is a short, slim person, aged approximately fifty, and it is possible that the costume makes her appear bigger, but I cannot see the relevance of physical dominance in an academic environment.
‘This is Kevin’s third offence, and university policy requires that he be expelled,’ she said.
The facts seemed to be clear and the necessary action straightforward. I tried to identify the awkwardness that the Dean referred to. ‘Is the evidence insufficient? Is he making a legal challenge?’
‘No, that’s all perfectly clear. But the first offence was very naive. He cut and pasted from the internet, and was picked up by the plagiarism software. He was in his first year and his English wasn’t very good. And there are cultural differences.’
I had not known about this first offence.
‘The second time, you reported him because he’d borrowed from an obscure paper that you were somehow familiar with.’
‘Don, none of the other lecturers are as … vigilant … as you.’
It was unusual for the Dean to compliment me on my wide reading and dedication.
‘These kids pay a lot of money to study here. We rely on their fees. We don’t want them stealing blatantly from the internet. But we have to recognise that they need assistance, and … Kevin has only a semester to go. We can’t send him home after three and a half years without a qualification. It’s not a good look.’
‘What if he was a medical student? What if you went to the hospital and the doctor who operated on you had cheated in their exams?’
‘Kevin’s not a medical student. And he didn’t cheat on his exams, he just got some help with an assignment.’
It seemed that the Dean had been flattering me only in order to procure unethical behaviour. But the solution to her dilemma was obvious. If she did not want to break the rules, then she should change the rules. I pointed this out.
I am not good at interpreting expressions, and was not familiar with the one that appeared on the Dean’s face. ‘We can’t be seen to allow cheating.’
‘Even though we do?’
The meeting left me confused and angry. There were serious matters at stake. What if our research was not accepted because we had a reputation for low academic standards? People could die while cures for diseases were delayed. What if a genetics laboratory hired a person whose qualification had been achieved through cheating, and that person made major errors? The Dean seemed more concerned with perceptions than with these crucial matters.
I reflected on what it would be like to spend my life living with the Dean. It was a truly terrible thought. The underlying problem was the preoccupation with image. My questionnaire would be ruthless in filtering out women who were concerned with appearance.
Gene opened the door with a glass of red wine in his hand. I parked my bicycle in their hallway, took off my backpack and retrieved the Wife Project folder, pulling out Gene’s copy of the draft. I had pruned it to sixteen double-sided pages.
‘Relax, Don, plenty of time,’ he said. ‘We’re going to have a civilised dinner, and then we’ll do the questionnaire. If you’re going to be dating, you need dinner practice.’
He was, of course, right. Claudia is an excellent cook and Gene has a vast collection of wines, organised by region, vintage and producer. We went to his ‘cellar’, which is not actually below ground, where he showed me his recent purchases and we selected a second bottle. We ate with Carl and Eugenie, and I was able to avoid small talk by playing a memory game with Eugenie. She noticed my folder marked ‘Wife Project’, which I put on the table as soon as I finished dessert.
‘Are you getting married, Don?’ she asked.
I was about to explain, but Claudia sent Eugenie and Carl to their rooms – a good decision, as they did not have the expertise to contribute.
I handed questionnaires to Claudia and Gene. Gene poured port for all of us. I explained that I had followed best practice in questionnaire design, including multiple-choice questions, Likert scales, cross-validation, dummy questions and surrogates. Claudia asked for an example of the last of these.
‘Question 35: Do you eat kidneys? Correct answer is (c) occasionally. Testing for food problems. If you ask directly about food preferences, they say “I eat anything” and then you discover they’re vegetarian.’
I am aware that there are many arguments in favour of vegetarianism. However, as I eat meat I considered it would be more convenient if my partner did so also. At this early stage, it seemed logical to specify the ideal solution and review the questionnaire later if necessary.