Interview with Dr. Daniel Wueste


We had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Daniel Wueste, this year’s keynote speaker for Academic Integrity Week, and Director of the Robert J. Rutland Institute for Ethics at Clemson University. We asked about academic integrity and how it affects graduate students as scholars, researchers, and as teaching assistants. Here’s what he shared with us:

Graduate Connections (GC): What is academic integrity? Doesn’t that simply mean students not cheating on papers?

Daniel Wueste (DW): It is true that for many students, as well as faculty, what the words ‘academic integrity’ bring to mind is student cheating. Many faculty would add that it is essential that steps be taken to prevent cheating and, more often than not, what they have in mind is a swift and severe punitive response to cheating. This is, however, unfortunate, for several reasons.

There is much more to academic integrity than taking steps to prevent cheating…

There is much more to academic integrity than taking steps to prevent cheating, including an opportunity that I believe is too often missed—an opportunity to help students acquire the ethical sensitivity, skill, and commitment they will need to lead lives of integrity and make the world a better place. The beginning of wisdom in this regard comes with recognition that when we talk about academic integrity we’re talking about integrity within the academy; it’s the same idea that will be in play when our students graduate and enter their professions or business, for example.

When we think of academic integrity as "students-not-cheating," as primarily a matter of making and enforcing rules that forbid certain behaviors, we invite or encourage what has come to be called compliance mentality, which is an unintended and most unwelcome consequence.

GC: Compliance with the rules sounds like a good thing. In fact, it’s what we want, isn’t it? Why would compliance mentality be unwelcome?

DW: That’s a good question. First, I should say that compliance mentality is the name for an organizational phenomenon—it occurs when, for example, employees treat policies and training programs as just the latest hoop that management has set up for them to jump through. Although employees jump through the hoops, they see the policies as teenagers see what their parents tell them—or they see the policies as being like stupid laws, as legal requirements that have no call on anyone beyond the fear that failure to comply will lead to a sanction.

Your readers may be familiar with compliance mentality in the context of NSF or NIH supported research where the term ‘compliance’ is heard very often and more than a few would say—in something like the voice of an unhappy teenager—there are lots of hoops to jump through.

What’s missing here is a sense of genuine participation, belonging, or ownership on the part of the party addressed by the policy. When employees are jumping through the hoops, they seem to be saying, "Just tell me what I have to do and I’ll do it." That’s a problem. Well, it's a problem if we're trying promote responsible conduct in the arena of research…

The critical point is that responsible conduct is more than what conduct that falls within the parameters of a rule. If responsible conduct is what we’re aiming at, it matters how it comes to pass that conduct is within the boundaries established by a rule. If we’re aiming at responsible conduct, we can’t count our efforts a success if the explanation of the conduct’s being within the ambit of the rule is mere coincidence, fear of sanctions, or rote memorization and mechanical application of rules.

If what one does complies with a rule merely coincidentally or because one is "programmed" to perform the action (by means of rote memorization), or simply because one fears a sanction in case of non-compliance, even though the conduct may be quite agreeable, it can scarcely be said that it constitutes responsible conduct. At this juncture our interest in promoting what’s called RCR overlaps mightily with our interest in academic integrity. In fact, one might say—with some justification that the goal is the same—it’s only the terminology that is different.

GC: It’s not entirely clear how the responsible conduct of research and academic integrity are connected. Is it that both aim to prevent cheating in some sense?

DW: Well, there’s a sense in which that’s right. In both cases, we seek to prevent cheating in the sense of violations of the rules of the enterprise, the research enterprise in one case, and the academic enterprise in the other. When I speak of rules here, what I have in mind aren’t rules that have been enacted or come from outside. No, I’m thinking about principles within the enterprise, expectations regarding conduct that are intimately connected to the possibility of success.

Research involves the expectation that, for example, data won’t be fabricated or falsified—the F’s of FF&P. Fabricating or falsifying data are wrong and were wrong before—and quite apart from—NSF or NIH rules about them. They’re wrong because they undermine the possibility of success in the research enterprise, which, in itself, as distinguished from upshots such as biological weapons or cyber warfare, is at least morally innocent and, I should say, quite reasonably thought of as morally good. That noted, the key point is that in doing research, we seek truth, but truth can’t be found in this way if data are falsified or fabricated. So, again, the norms of the research enterprise aren’t imposed on researchers from the outside; there’s nothing here remotely like stupid laws, which I referred to earlier. These norms have a call on those addressed by them because what they require is critical for success in the undertaking, which they joined voluntarily.

The connection between RCR and academic integrity comes into focus when we recognize what’s at stake here, in addition to the success of the research enterprise, namely, the integrity of individual researchers, the integrity of the institutions where they do their research, and the integrity of the research enterprise. These stakes are interrelated, of course. Trouble on one front invariably has an impact on the others; put another way, these are reciprocal relationships. In the end, I think that is a good thing. It is in any case a simple matter of fact. If you’re familiar with the work of the International Center for Academic Integrity, in particular with what have come to be called the "three P’s" of academic integrity, the linkage should come clearly into view.

GC: Some readers will be wondering about the three P’s, so please say a bit about what they are.

DW: The three P’s of academic integrity are Policing, Prevention, and Promotion. Policing and prevention, which more often than not involve a deterrence orientation and advocacy of swift, sure, and severe sanctions, are rather law-like. These ideas are always part of the conversation when academic integrity receives widespread attention, which is usually the result of a scandal such as the one currently brewing at Harvard [1]. They are, as I said, rather law-like; they don’t involve an understanding of the rules as having an ethical dimension, in the sense of it being one’s responsibility to follow them. They involve a "follow-them-or-else-you’ll-regret-it" understanding of the rules. Put another way, they don’t presuppose a sense of ownership or acceptance with respect to the rules, which would give rise to a sense of responsibility. Promotion—the third P—differs from the other two in this regard.

We shouldn’t abandon policing (conscientious but non-invasive proctoring, for example) and prevention (by means of test design, or seating arrangements, for example), but we’re likely to have more success on the academic integrity front if students embrace the norms of the academic enterprise and internalize the obligations they impose. Put another way, we’re more likely to succeed in cleaning up the cheating mess if students recognize the ethical dimension of academic integrity—if they move beyond merely knowing that cheating is wrong to knowing why it is wrong. That way they are much less likely to see the rules in the way teenagers see what their parents tell them, or to repeat another analogy I used earlier, as being like stupid laws. Unfortunately, the question why cheating is wrong is rarely addressed as a serious question, though it is in fact a serious question that deserves an answer.

GC: You know what’s coming next: Why is cheating wrong?

DW: Well, a good place to start is with a claim I have heard very often, namely, that cheating is a victimless crime; no harm, no foul. It’s not true that cheating has no victims. Several victims can, in fact, be identified. Students who don’t cheat are victims when, for example, grading is done on a curve. Employers and their customers or clients are victims; employers have been misled and may find themselves assigning tasks to employees who, their grades to the contrary notwithstanding, don’t know how to do what needs to be done. A college or university, its current students, future students and alumni, are victims when a cheating scandal receives widespread attention. And we shouldn’t forget the cheater; the damage done to his or her character, though self-inflicted, is quite real—real enough to say that he or she is a victim. In short then, cheating has victims and its wrongness can be shown by pointing to the harms they suffer.

But there’s more to this story. Quite apart from the consequences, cheating is wrong because it is unfair; cheaters have an unfair advantage—they get the benefits of others abiding by the rules as well as the payoff of cheating (in, for example, a high score on an exam) without bearing the burden (of following the rules) that other students carry. Cheating is also unjust, because it undermines good faith efforts by faculty to see to it that students get what they deserve, that is, grades they have earned. In addition, cheating violates student rights that arise from the implicit (if not explicit) social contract students are party to when they voluntarily become a member of the university community. Moreover, cheating thwarts the aspirations for genuine excellence of individual students and the college or university they attend.

GC: Is this where ethics enters the picture?

DW: Yes, that’s right. What we have said here in making the case for the wrongness of cheating points to three things: (1) the damage that will be done; (2) the unfairness, injustice and violation of rights that cheating entails; and (3) the fact that cheating thwarts aspirations to genuine excellence. Considerations from three distinct ethical perspectives converge in support of our judgment of wrongness. Cheating is wrong because it has bad consequences, violates the rights of others, and sets us back in our quest for excellence.

GC: You discussed ethics and integrity in the context of the responsible conduct of research, academic integrity, and as part of every individual’s identity. Can you say more about this?

DW: Ethics is often thought of as a set of standards that tell us what is right and what is wrong or, put somewhat differently, standards that help us see what our duty is, what we ought to do. Another way of thinking, which, interestingly, is articulated in a DVD produced by the Office of Research Integrity, suggests that ethics is a matter of aspiration, of standards that speak to how one should act, given that one is striving to be one’s best self. In both cases, the standards are tied to values. We all realize that what we say and what we do don’t always match up. They should, but they may not. A theorist might say that what we have here are two sets of values; on the one hand we have stated values and on the other operational values. One way of cashing out the idea of integrity is to say that at bottom integrity is what one has when these two sets of values coincide. That’s good so far as it goes, provided that the values in question aren’t those of, say, a concentration camp commandant or serial killer. Still, something is missing. This way of putting it suggests, rightly, that integrity is an achievement. However, integrity is a special sort of achievement, in particular, it’s not an achievement in the same way that getting one’s diploma or winning a trophy is an achievement. These achievements involve closure—we’re done; the diploma goes on the wall, the trophy goes in the case. Integrity is an achievement without closure—it’s the project of a lifetime. So, building on the first suggestion, I should say that a more complete explication of integrity is that it is the project of achieving and maintaining the coincidence of the two sets of values; it’s the ongoing project of making oneself.

If we think of integrity in this way, as a life-long project, as a task, it is easier to see that what is known as academic integrity is not sui generis; rather, rightly understood, academic integrity is the idea of integrity—the same idea that is in play elsewhere— within the academy.

GC: One final question: How can graduate teaching assistants promote academic integrity in the classes they teach?

DW: They can take time to talk about it in a way that helps students see that it’s not a set of rules that is being imposed on them, but rather, a set of expectations intimately connected to the success of the educational enterprise. In this regard, talking about fabrication or falsification of data and how that undermines the research enterprise may be helpful. They might also take time to talk about how cheating isn’t a victimless crime and the other ethical considerations that lead to the conclusion that cheating is wrong. Finally, they should keep in mind that whatever else they do as teachers they’re also teaching by example.