A Crooked Path Through B-School?

A new study says B-schoolers are more likely to cheat than other students. Now administrators are fighting back

Is cheating a basic part of B-school?

Apparently, in many cases, yes.

A study released this month by researchers found that B-school students were more likely to cheat, or at least to admit to cheating, than students in other graduate programs. And schools are fighting back, with ethics codes, pledges, and, in some cases, a zero-tolerance policy.

It appears that the anti-cheating forces have good reason to worry. The new study, "Academic Dishonesty in Graduate Business Programs: Prevalence, Causes, & Proposed Action," surveyed 5,331 students at 32 graduate schools in the U.S. and Canada between 2002 and 2004.

According to the researchers, 56% of graduate business students admitted to cheating one or more times in the past academic year, compared to 47% of nonbusiness students. The research will be published in an upcoming issue of the Academy of Management Learning & Education.

Why the moral lapses among aspiring business leaders? No one knows for sure, but those who gathered the results are willing to speculate.

For starters, there's probably something different about the kind of people who are attracted to business in the first place. Linda Treviño, Cook Fellow of Business Ethics at the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University and one of the researchers who worked on the study, says the most likely reason is that business students are more bottom-line driven, which could drive their willingness to cheat.


  Although this is one of the first studies focusing on graduate students, few people were surprised by the results. Data from the 1960s to today have consistently showed that undergraduate business students were more likely to cheat than their counterparts studying other fields, the researchers say. The reason most business students give for cheating is the perception that their peers are doing it and therefore they must follow suit, according to the latest study.

Donald McCabe, Treviño's partner on the study and a researcher who has analyzed cheating at high schools and universities for 16 years, says the best way to combat the problem is to get students involved in the solution. That means students need to be made accountable for their actions and responsible for the judicial process, he says.

The goal should be to make honesty a true part of the culture by paying more than lip service to it. Putting peer pressure on students to be honest is the key.

In fact, Charlie Vaughters, a second-year MBA student, says part of the reason he chose to enroll in the the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration was because of its commitment to its honor code. A tradition that goes back more than 140 years, the honor system boils down to one simple fact: The university and all of its schools, including Darden, have a zero-tolerance policy for cheating.

There's only one punishment if you're found guilty by a jury of your peers at the university: expulsion. Experts say it's one of the most effective university honor systems in the country.


  Few Darden students ever end up getting charged with cheating, and no MBA student has been expelled in the past three or four years, says Vaughters, who is a member of the university Honor Committee and the Darden Student Assn.'s vice-president for honor.

The reputation that this tough policy has bestowed on Virginia students has served Vaughters well. He recently landed a job offer in his field of banking because the boss said he never had to question the integrity of a Darden student. Hard work and dedication is what pays off in the end, says Vaughters.

What separates Virginia from other schools, say educators, is that integrity has become a part of the school's tradition. Students are made aware of the policies and expectations from the moment they apply—and discussions about ethics happen almost on a daily basis until graduation, says Vaughters.

Other schools are developing similar programs. For example, this semester, Penn State, led by Treviño, is creating an Honor Committee of students and faculty to help build academic integrity.

Some B-schools are already on board. At Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management, the Honor Council is committed to educating students about the honor code and ethical values.

Dane Honhart, Owen's Honor Council chairman, says the constant turnover at two-year graduate programs poses a challenge. "Unless the ideas of honor and integrity are reinforced, I believe, those ideas can be washed away in a short time," he says. That's why Honhart and his colleagues prefer to be proactive about cheating.


  The Honor Council reminds students that it's to their benefit to do the right thing. "If you're cheating you're doing a disservice to yourself because you're throwing away your opportunity to learn," says Honhart.

Many students appear to be listening. Only 1.5% of about 400 Owen students end up facing cheating charges in a given year, and they aren't necessarily found guilty, estimates Honhart.

At Vanderbilt, the flagrancy of a student's actions determines the punishment. Few students ever face expulsion. In fact, Treviño and McCabe say they favor a system that chooses to educate students about their mistakes as opposed to expelling them.

The more disturbing possible explanation for cheating is that students think this conduct will be expected of them in the workplace. "They might feel they're emulating behavior that will help them find success in the real world," says McCabe, also a professor of management and global business at the Rutgers Business School in New Jersey.

That kind of thinking makes many B-school administrators quake. Many of them have been struggling with how to address moral questions since corporate scandals, from Enron to Parmalat, started making headlines in recent years.


  This summer, Thunderbird, The Garvin School of International Management proposed a solution. It adopted a Professional Oath of Honor, which is intended to be similar to the doctors' Hippocratic Oath.

Thunderbird Students, upon graduating, sign a pledge promising to, among other things, "strive to act with honesty and integrity" and "respect the rights and dignity of all people." It's an extension of the code of conduct that students are expected to follow while at Thunderbird.

Students and administrators who helped create the oath wanted to put forth the idea that business management should be treated like a true profession with certain obligations, says Gregory Unruh, director of the Lincoln Center for Ethics in Global Management at Thunderbird. "If you don't address ethics at B-school, the lesson is that you support [unethical behavior] or that you can get away with it," says Unruh, who adds that he and his colleagues hope to give students the courage to always take the high road.

Most educators agree that teaching aspiring MBAs to handle ethical dilemmas is fundamental because it will determine future practices in real business. Cheating or corruption in the corporate world might offer great results at first, but it will eventually have a catastrophic impact on the bottom line.

"Without trust, honor, and integrity, business can't function for the long term," says Richard Brownlee, professor of business administration at Darden. And the company's name isn't the only one at stake when you make a poor ethical decision. Whether in B-school or at work, say educators, your reputation is only as good as your actions.

Do you think B-school students cheat more than students in other disciplines? Talk about it in the BusinessWeek.com B-schools forum thread, “Lying and Cheating”.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.