Friday, February 5, 2010

Academic Integrity: A Constant in a Sea of Change

Guest Blogger: James DeBoy

American higher education embarked upon the road of mass education after World War II. The elite education system, designed for what WEB DuBois termed the Talented Tenth, was perceived by many in 1945 as undemocratic. With the influx of returning GIs and the emergence of community colleges, many of the traditional universities supplemented or revamped their classical- liberal arts focus with professional and or pre-professional programs of study. Normal schools (traditionally the providers of basic education) evolved into state teacher colleges while certain professional schools (e.g., pharmacy and more recently, PT and OT) escalated their credentials that would require graduate study. The late 1960s witnessed a proliferation of developmental/remedial courses designed to increase the likelihood of “underprepared” college freshmen achieving sophomore status; such actions were justified as college administrators more fully embraced the “mass education” model. One could argue that Lincoln entered the mass education fold in the late 1960s—a time when opportunities to enroll in white, “prestigious” colleges became available for high-performing African Americans.

Throughout all of these aforementioned challenges and concomitant changes to academe, one variable was constant: the academy’s adherence to principles of academic integrity was paramount. Students needed to adapt and adopt mindsets and behaviors if, in fact, they entered with values perceived as opposed to the academic culture. Yes, the more honest institutions provided additional opportunities for students with different feelings and habits to embrace/demonstrate the requisite skill set thought to be the necessary variables for degree completion. Despite the apparent change in (many) students flocking to our nation’s colleges in the post-war years, the university’s commitment to its “academic culture”, i.e., academic integrity, should not be compromised nor diminished. The academic integrity component to which I refer is the SLOs that are part-and-parcel of every academic/professional discipline: the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and habits of mind that academicians hold dear and deem absolutely essential for disciplines to be studies worthy of pursuit.

I have heard in recent years that faculty, curricula, and pedagogy must change to better meet the needs and wants of today’s “net generation”. I agree… to a point. First and foremost, we need to differentiate between needs and wants. Secondly, we need to keep in mind that one of the hallmarks of higher education has been its success in transforming students. Students of the net, me, and gimme generations (all generations) can, and should, change after experiencing 4 years of study. One operational definition of intelligence is the ability to adapt to a changing environment. Thus, if faculty teach and expect students to master x, x must be mastered. By all means, x must be authentic… connected to the real world of one’s chosen field. If faculty cannot justify x for being a part of the curriculum, if we cannot make connections of x to our profession or life, then we should probably not teach it.

Faculty can, and must, have standards to which they hold all students. To do otherwise is, in my opinion, a disservice to the students whom we are entrusted. Having said that, I am fully cognizant of unique learning styles, extenuating circumstances, and the like. While I can empathize, I must guard against sympathizing lest I lower my expectations. Students at all levels of the educational system (and marketplace) are better served for life after school when they consistently hear and see that performance supersedes intentions, promise, and ability. Students must learn early that causes (including inaction) have consequences: missed classes, late submissions, and blown opportunities are simply that… missed.

Pedagogically, many HPER faculty may be considered “conservative, old-fashioned, behaviorally rigid, and authoritative.” Formal training in the health sciences and physical education often times shapes that viewpoint. Perhaps, the content of the fields exacerbates a personal predilection for closure, structure, and practice. Principles and laws that guide HPER-related disciplines afford a sense of order in a chaotic world. In any event, HPER faculty seem to prefer environments and phenomena that are measurable, objective, and operationally defined. In short, we seek to identify, arrange, regulate, manage, systematize, classify, fix, and establish parameters that will assist our understanding of (and co-existence in) the world. We strive to share that approach/methodology with our students. In our opinion, the most efficient manner for doing so involves, by necessity, boundaries. At first, these boundaries may appear as deterrents to student growth and development but the opposite is true. Limits, i.e., faculty expectations/standards of conduct, will eventually set students free. To be truly free, one must be self-disciplined. Initially, some/many 18 year olds will need those limits imposed by faculty. Over the course of 8 semesters, other-imposed is gradually replaced with self-imposed. It has been HPER’s position that all students can learn and it is our responsibility to teach whoever enters our classrooms. While we start where students may be, we are obligated to take them where we (and those practitioners in the fields of HPER) believe they need to be in order to effectively deliver their services to society.

The beauty of higher education (critics will see it as the bane) is that multiple paths exist to truth. Each discipline may be different in its approach to understanding (and even defining) the problem. Within each discipline there exist myriad models to address the targeted concept. Academe is, by its very nature, diverse and, yes, sometimes divisive. Differences of opinion are expected and encouraged in a climate of open dialog. Some of my colleagues may agree with much of what I have said, some will accept parts, and others may reject my arguments wholly. And that’s OK—conclusions should be challenged… it is the stuff that shapes academe; it should be one of the constants in the sea of change.


  1. Dr. DeBoy, you nailed it re: differentiating between students' needs and wants ...

  2. Jim, you make several excellent points. I do not, however, think it is OK for colleagues to challenge conclusions or reject arguments, if the arguments are sound. I believe it is the duty of a university or, rather, its community to ascertain the validity and soundness of arguments if it does more than pay lip-service to critical thinking.

    Here is another way of looking at the main issue as I understand it. We need to decide whether (or not) we are a university and live up to our name and mission. A university is primarily an educational institution and one of higher learning. If there is very little or no education taking place at a sufficiently high level, an institution may still call itself a university but will cease to be one. An institution may grant students of whatever generation a degree for what they already know before enrollment or, rather, (what they come to know) after and as a result of enrollment and subsequent teaching. The second may arguably be considered an educational institution and, hence, possibly a university; the first may not. We will have to decide which kind of institution we are.

    The academic culture and integrity I am alluding to, here, are not the "student-learner-outcomes" (SLOs) you refer to but rather student priorities, values and attitudes concerning learning and education as compared with, say, partying or other non-academic activities. To survive as a university, students and professors as well as administrators will have to make education and not just graduation or degree-awarding or (degree-)receiving our primary business and occupation. Culture, here and for me, is being used in a narrowly sociological sense. For lack of a better term, permit me to call it general student-learner-prerequisites or "student-learner-incomes" (what students come to either the university or classroom with).