Scandal in Mind, Fuqua Welcomes MBAs

New-student orientation puts renewed emphasis on the honor code and ethics in the wake of cheating expulsions at the Duke B-school

With a new MBA class arriving, administrators at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business are trying to move beyond last spring's cheating scandal, while simultaneously addressing cultural differences that may have led to the incident, which resulted in mass suspensions and expulsions (see, 4/30/07, "Duke MBAs Fail Ethics Test"

Preventing such a situation from happening again is a top priority for the school, which greeted a new class of 431 first-year students in early August. Among the orientation activities was a session on the school's honor code, during which they talked about how international students might view ethical issues through different lenses.

The cheating scandal, which resulted in the one-year suspension of 15 students and the expulsion of nine students, was on many students' minds as they arrived on campus for orientation. Over the summer, school officials had been working hard to contain the fallout from the nationwide publicity over the scandal and calming fears of incoming students that a Duke MBA had become tainted. "When they first brought up the honor code, it was like, 'Oh gosh, what is going to happen now,'" said Kaamil Isles, a first-year Fuqua student. "You worry that the actions of a few students or subset of students will affect how teachers perceive us and potentially, the people who hire us."

Sending a Strong Message

Administrators hope to assuage students' fears that the school has lost trust in them by reassuring them that the school does not plan to change its educational practices. However, the school is taking new steps this year to ensure that all students, no matter what culture they come from, understand how to interpret and abide by the school's much-vaunted honor code. "We wanted to send a strong message to the students that we were not willing to change our teaching methods in response to the honor-code violations," said Bill Boulding, senior associate dean for daytime programs.

Over the summer, administrators conducted an exhaustive review of how the school presents the code to students during orientation and over the course of their two years at the school, from the admissions process to investigations of alleged violations. They asked professors to make sure that students are clear about how to conduct themselves during assignments and exams. There will be renewed emphasis on the code in academic settings this year. It will be discussed in more depth in a new three-week program at the school called the Global Institute and will be woven into the school's new curriculum, debuting this year.

Orientation for first-year students was a starting point for discussion on the topic. At the event, administrators and students guided a discussion of the honor code within the context of last year's cheating scandal. Boulding, who spoke at the event, emphasized that students need to buy into the school's honor-code culture, no matter what country they come from or education system they were raised in. "I wanted to drive home the point that we are all one culture here at Fuqua and we all have to accept the same standards, even though you might have been brought up in an education system where the accepted practices varied considerably," said Boulding.

Questions About Cultural Distortions

Indeed, the cultural issues at play in the case are ones that have taken on renewed importance in recent months. Nearly all of the 38 students found guilty of cheating by the school were Asian, according to papers filed by Robert Ekstrand, a Durham (N.C.) attorney who last spring filed appeals on behalf of 16 students. Those appeals were all denied by the school. Duke officials would not release details on the case, except to say that the students involved were from "multiple countries and multiple continents."

"It is a cultural issue, a very serious one. It is subtle and is capable of repetition without notice," Ekstrand said in an interview earlier this month. He declined to discuss details of the cases because, he said, the issue remained open.

Meanwhile, in a brief submitted to the school during the appeals process, provided to BusinessWeek by one of the disciplined students, Ekstrand asserted that the students may not have been given a fair trial by the school because of the manner in which the investigation was conducted, one that did not take into account the legal cultures the students came from.

Tripped Up by the U.S. Legal System?

According to the document, in the students' home countries, confessions are looked upon as a way to bring a person back into the larger group. The accused is expected to show remorse and his desire to be reintegrated. It's a philosophy that is "fundamentally different than that of the American legal culture," Ekstrand wrote. "When they were confronted with allegations of wrongdoing, they were predisposed to avoid even the appearance of a disagreement with the school's allegation. To these students, it would be illogical for them to admit violating the code, and then dispute the extent of the wrongdoing."

This worked against them during the initial judicial board hearings, Ekstrand wrote. Many of these students offered long and rambling confessions that expressed their remorse and repentance for their actions. Judicial board members may have misinterpreted the students' remorse, viewing their confessions through the lens of the American legal culture, Ekstrand argued.

Indeed, two of the students found guilty by the school, both of whom are Asian, spoke with BusinessWeek in Durham earlier this summer and agreed that cultural differences played a role in how they chose to answer the school's charges and defend themselves.

"Totally Changed Our Career"

One of the students received a one-year suspension, while the other was expelled. Both filed appeals that were turned down. They said they were unclear what evidence the school had against them when they were asked to issue a confession by the investigator assigned to the case. They also said they did not understand what it meant to have "the right to avoid self-incrimination," an option guaranteed to students in Fuqua's honor code.

The two students, who had established an e-mail address with the name "Fuqua Facts," asked that their names not be disclosed because they are hoping to return to Duke. They remained on the Duke campus after most of the other accused students had left, hoping to reverse the school's action, "I spent a lot of time during the hearing to say how I felt regretful and sorry about the charges. I didn't defend myself point by point," said one student from China, who received the suspension. "Now, I think this was a significant mistake."

The other student, a former financial-services worker from Beijing, who was expelled, added: "Even if we made a mistake, we just wanted to talk to the school. This has totally changed our career and lives."

But while the students and Ekstrand hold out hope that the incident will be reviewed, Duke business-school officials say they have no plans to reopen the issue. "For us, it is the end of the appeal process," Boulding said.