Cheating and Academic Discipline

Student cheating on college and university campuses includes taking credit for work completed by others, sharing answers on course assignments, failing to complete work on team projects, completing examinations for others, and plagiarizing term papers. Often referred to as academic dishonesty, student cheating is common on college campuses. Unfortunately, instances of cheating appear to be on the rise. Further, the advent of new technologies coupled with the electronic delivery of courses and programs (Internet-based programs) exacerbate the problem of academic dishonesty, particularly with regard to written assignments.

Students, faculty, and administrators indicate the need for action once students are found to have cheated. More specifically, students are troubled when cheating by peers is not addressed. At the same time, faculty members express concern about the lack of administrative support when they are addressing instances of cheating. In turn, administrators describe an increase in faculty indifference to cheating by students. In essence, all parties on campuses are aware of the need to address cheating, but there is disagreement regarding the assignment of responsibility and how to react.

Responses to cheating often result in disciplinary actions or academic sanctions. When instituting disciplinary sanctions, officials at institutions of higher education subject themselves to legal review. However, the courts have given considerable deference to postsecondary institutions that impose academic sanctions on students for academic dishonesty. 

Disciplinary Sanctions

When confronted with disciplinary actions such as expulsions from academic programs or institutions, students attending public colleges and universities have alleged that officials violated their rights to substantive and procedural due process. Yet the courts are unsettled on the question of substantive rights for students in higher education. In instances where the courts have agreed that students do possess substantive due process rights, students bear the burden of showing that institutional actions were arbitrary or capricious.

The courts have consistently required officials at public institutions to adhere to the general principles of procedural due process. However, the extent to which due process must be provided is vague. For example, in Board of Curators of the University of Missouri v. Horowitz (1978), the U.S. Supreme Court determined that medical school faculty provided adequate notice to a student who was being dismissed for her poor performance even though the faculty did not provide her with a formal hearing, which is a necessary element of procedural due process.

Private institutions, on the other hand, are not subject to constitutional due process requirements and have a great deal more latitude in the development and regulation of disciplinary rules related to cheating. Because claims of due process violations are not available to students in private institutions, these institutions are often challenged with contract law violations in instances of disciplinary sanctions. In essence, disciplinary sanctions for cheating at private institutions depend greatly on the language in university catalogs and supporting documentation such as class syllabi. 

Although some might allege that disciplinary sanctions occurred for malicious reasons, the courts have certainly agreed that the vast majority of these sanctions have been for legitimate reasons. 

Academic Discipline

The courts typically treat sanctions for cheating as an internal problem not subject to judicial review. They are reluctant to question the academic sanctions that university officials and faculty members impose on students who have engaged in academic dishonesty. In fact, the courts tend to limit their inquiries into awards of academic grades to considerations of whether educators acted arbitrarily or capriciously. In the academic cases, the courts have generally agreed that hearings are not required unless college and university rules require such proceedings as part of their appeal procedures. Still, officials must follow institutional procedures unless the processes exceed a college or university’s own procedures as publicized in handbooks, catalogs, and the like (Schuler v. University of Minnesota, 1986). 

Guidelines for Higher Education Institutions

Officials in higher education institutions continue to struggle with effective ways to combat academic cheating. The most common strategy used to address cheating, particularly in large institutions, is the judicial process of rule compliance. According to this approach, institutional officials should clearly define cheating, the consequences of cheating, and the process for appeal of subsequent penalties. Certainly, in instances of disciplinary sanctions, institutional officials should provide adequate notice to students, conduct hearings that are presided over by fair and impartial third-party decision makers, allow students to present evidence on their own behalf, and provide at least one level of appeal. Although the criteria of due process need not exist in instances of academic discipline, institutional officials should ensure that decisions are carefully considered and are not arbitrary or capricious.

Another strategy used to combat cheating is the implementation of academic honor codes or the integrity strategy. Not surprisingly, academic honor codes are used far less often than rule compliance. While the data do not support the contention that there are fewer instances of cheating when academic honor codes are utilized, such an approach attempts to promote responsible student behavior. The underlying principle of academic honor codes is that institutions are responsible for developing a sense of moral responsibility in their students. Discipline is a part of the integrity strategy, but only as an aspect of the developmental process.

In order for academic honor codes to be effective, the concept of academic integrity must be constantly and consistently communicated to students. For example, student handbooks and course syllabi should include detailed information on course expectations, while faculty members should initiate discussions of academic integrity frequently in class. Additionally, students play a large, and important, role in both the educational and judicial processes, whether as judges or by encouraging peers to refrain from engaging in acts of academic dishonesty. 

Mark Littleton

See also Catalogs as Contracts; Due Process, Substantive and Procedural

Further Readings

  • Beckham, J., & Dagley, D. (2005). Contemporary issues in higher education law. Dayton, OH: Education Law Association. 
  • Dutile, F. (2001). Students and due process in higher education: Of interests and procedures. Florida Coastal Law Journal, 2, 243–290.
  • McCabe, D. (2005). It takes a village: Academic dishonesty. Liberal Education, 91(3), 26–31.
  • Sinson, S. (1997). Judicial intervention of private university expulsions: Traditional remedies and a solution sounding in tort. Drake Law Review, 46, 195–232.

Legal Citations

  • Board of Curators of the University of Missouri v. Horowitz, 435 U.S. 78 (1978).
  • Schuler v. University of Minnesota, 788 F.2d 610 (8th Cir. 1986).