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Wily MBA students lead cheating pack
By Al Lewis, Staff Columnist
Denver Post
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Cheating in business starts with cheating on tests, and nobody cheats more than people working on their MBAs.

In a survey by professors at Pennsylvania State, Rutgers and Washington State universities, 56 percent of MBA students admitted to cheating -- as in sneaking notes into tests or stealing another's work to complete one's master's thesis.

The survey of 5,331 students at 32 graduate business schools in the United States and Canada will be published this week in the journal Academy of Management Learning & Education.  The findings will be discussed at the 2006 Center for Academic Integrity International Conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder on Oct. 19 and 20.

One of the study's authors, Donald McCabe, a management professor at Rutgers' business school in Newark, N.J., told me he was disturbed at how cavalier graduate-level students have become.  They not only cheat;  they brag about it.

"At some schools, if you're the guy who can steal the exam and give it to everybody else, you're kind of a folk hero," McCabe said.

Reminds me of junior high school.  Do they shoot spitballs too?  You'd think adult graduate-level students would be more serious about actually learning something.

MBAs are not the only ones cheating.  Of graduate engineering students, 54 percent admitted to cheating, making them a close second to MBAs.  Among science students, it was 50 percent.  Of education students, 48 percent.  Of law students, 45 percent.  Among social-science and humanities students -- and this really does not renew my faith in humanity -- it was only 39 percent.  (In the interest of full disclosure, communications majors are big cheaters too, ranking right up there with engineers, said McCabe.  But the percentage was not released because the sample size of these students was too small.)

Business students have led the pack in cheating for decades, according to McCabe, a renowned expert on academic dishonesty.  In 1997, McCabe did a survey in which 84 percent of undergraduate business students admitted cheating versus 72 percent of engineering students and 66 percent of all students.  In a 1964 survey by Columbia University, 66 percent of business students surveyed at 99 campuses said they cheated at least once.

"Business students seemed to have already incorporated into their psyche this bottom-line mentality," McCabe said.  "Getting the job done is what's important.  How you get it done is less important."

It should be no surprise, then, that Jeff Skilling, the former chief executive of Enron who now awaits sentencing on fraud charges, is a Harvard MBA.  Or that Qwest's former chief executive Joe Nacchio, awaiting trial on insider-trading charges, has an MBA from New York University.  Nacchio has pleaded not guilty.

MBAs are the guys who come into a business and immediately start angling it for themselves.  They are the ones who get paid six, seven or sometimes even eight figures to lay off thousands of people.  They are the ones who work at companies such as Arthur Andersen, bagging millions of dollars in consulting fees as they cook and shred the books.

McCabe says he's never found a school where he's been unable to find cheating.  But he says there is less cheating at schools where students are asked to adopt honor codes.  Fewer people cheat when it is socially unacceptable to do so or when it is left up to one's own conscience to keep a personal promise, he said.

The University of Denver's Daniels College of Business not only expects its students to live up to an honor code but incorporates ethics discussions in its courses.

"We elevate it to a level of social consciousness," said Stephen Haag, Daniels' associate dean for graduate programs and academic centers.

The school's namesake, the late cable magnate Bill Daniels, wanted to teach students that true business success goes hand in hand with honesty.

"At a lot of these MBA schools, the notion of needing to compete and win is so great," said Haag.  "Students are there to do nothing but get the big job on Wall Street and make a whole lot of money.  That is not what we're about. ... We are about saving the world.  And you can't save the world cheating on tests."

Al Lewis' column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Respond to him at denverpostbloghouse.com/lewis, 303-954-1967 or alewis@denverpost.com.

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