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McGill, S --- "Integrating academic integrity education with the business law course: why and how?" [2009] LegEdDig 8; (2009) 17(1) Legal Education Digest 25

Integrating academic integrity education with the business law course: why and how?

S McGill

25 (2) J Legal Stud Educ, 2008, pp 241–282

As a member of the academic integrity committee at Wilfrid Laurier University, I was part of a cross-disciplinary group of faculty and administrators asked to review and revise the existing academic integrity policies and procedures. During the completion of this task, there was often lively debate about fundamental legal topics such as due process, privacy, intention, whistleblowing, misrepresentation, and intellectual property. As the content of these debates began to spill into my business law classroom, I wondered why I was not using this very student-centred issue to teach the procedural and substantive legal content of the course.

This article advocates integrating academic integrity education into the business law course. Many have suggested teaching business ethics this way but have ignored the natural overlap in legal content with the traditional business law course. Rather than highlighting only the ethical components of academic integrity, this approach emphasises the legal aspects of academic misconduct. It connects personal student experiences with many of the substantive legal topics covered in the course, thereby improving the learning opportunity.

Academic integrity also provides a student-centred example of the natural link between law and ethics. Students often mistakenly believe that satisfying technical requirements of the law amounts to ethical behaviour. Although a law may be founded on a broad ethical principle, its application may be quite narrow. Students have trouble understanding that legal requirements set the minimum standard of acceptable behaviour, and ethical behaviour often requires a higher standard. Contrasting the specific language of the academic misconduct regulations with the expansive goals of academic integrity policy highlights the connections and distinctions between law and ethics.

In addition to its contribution to the substantive goals of the business law course, academic integrity education reduces the incidents of academic misconduct, an area of particular concern in the business faculty. Research has established a link between academic misconduct and unethical workplace behaviour. Therefore, enhancing academic integrity education may reduce student academic misconduct in the present and may have a positive effect on the conduct of the business community in the future.

When using the phrase ‘academic integrity’, I refer to the general ethical climate in the academic environment, in addition to any specific codes of conduct regulating behaviour and imposing sanctions. It is designed to capture the broad ethical attitudes, perceptions and standards of the academic community with respect to academic behaviour as well as specific conduct or misconduct expressly designated as unacceptable. The phrase ‘academic misconduct’ refers to the specific conduct designated in the university academic misconduct policy as unacceptable behaviour worthy of penalty. Distinguishing between integrity and misconduct helps students understand the connection between ethics and law. Finally, ‘academic misconduct policy’ refers to two key components: the university’s published code of conduct (substantive component) and the enforcement process followed before penalties are imposed (procedural component). Much of the overlap between academic integrity issues and the business law content focuses on these two academic misconduct policy components.

Cheating is an epidemic among university and college students, and business students are no exception. In a recent 2006 study, 537 students from an American college responded to a survey requiring them to rank the acceptability of unethical and illegal business practices. The study found that all students viewed illegal behaviour as unacceptable, but business students were more tolerant than nonbusiness students of unethical business practices. Business students are also more likely than nonbusiness students to participate in questionable ethical behaviours. In addition to being more likely to cheat, business students feel more justified in doing so than do other students.

If cheating students are more likely than honest students to engage in workplace misconduct once employed, then reducing academic misconduct is one way of addressing future unethical conduct in the workplace. Much has been written over the need to address business ethics in the business school environment as a way of encouraging ethical conduct in future business leaders. In 1995, Barbara Cole reported a study of 537 business students from twelve different schools and 158 business people; she found that students responded less ethically than business people to business scenarios. Despite the ongoing debate over whether ethics can be taught, most business programs now include business ethics education and identify business ethics education as an overall program goal. In fact, often this forms part of the business law course content.

Students are able to transfer the ethical issues raised in academic misconduct scenarios to the business environment. In a 2004 study, academic content questions were paired with similar business content questions to determine if attitudes toward ethical behaviour changed between an academic and business setting. The study found that most students had similar attitudes in the two venues, and business students generally rated the situations as less unethical than did nonbusiness students. In particular, business students found falsification of job applications to be less unethical than did nonbusiness students.

The more comfortable a student becomes with cheating, the more often he or she will repeat the conduct in the future. One key indicator of whether a student will cheat in the future is whether the student has cheated in the past. Those students who have cheated in high school are more likely to cheat in university.

Understanding why students cheat is a complicated task. The reasons lie in a combination of personal values, individual characteristics, and institutional factors. Many studies have isolated individual characteristics such as gender, age, class standing, and discipline. Male students are more likely to cheat than female students; younger students are more likely to cheat than older students. Students with low grade point averages (GPAs) show a higher propensity to cheat than students with high or mid-range GPAs and, as has already been noted, business students are more likely to cheat than nonbusiness students. In the search to understand why some students cheat, other researchers have identified the following institutional or contextual factors: pressure to achieve good grades; probability of being caught (low faculty reporting); opportunity (available technology or few safeguards); social acceptability among peers (perception that everyone does it); low jeopardy (light sanctions even if caught); faculty member (instructor) tolerance; lack of knowledge of the rules; and time pressures.

Many of these reasons are the same as those given by corporate cheaters, most notably performance goals and peer tolerance. Business students identify fear of being caught and severity of consequences as the most important considerations when deciding whether or not to cheat. It is possible that these reasons are just excuses used to justify known dishonest behaviour; even so, research shows that eliminating the justification for past cheating reduces the likelihood of future cheating.

Including academic integrity and misconduct content in the business law course can impact at least four of these institutional factors or excuses: it can teach students the rules, it can change peer perceptions of social acceptability, it can change a perception of faculty tolerance, and it can raise awareness of serious sanctions.

One 2001 study compared the focus placed on academic integrity at two business schools and found that placing a high priority on academic integrity through educational emphasis decreased the incidents of cheating.

Education is of particular importance as the student population becomes more international. Significant differences exist between the attitudes, beliefs, and likelihood of cheating of students from different countries.

Making the academic integrity honour code and the academic misconduct policy of the institution part of the substantive business law content sends a very high priority message to students while actually informing them about the specific misconduct rules. Both of these strategies help reduce incidents of academic misconduct.

Success will depend on faculty member commitment. The attitudes and behaviours of faculty members have been found to be one of the strongest influences on student attitudes about ethics. One 1993 study surveyed ethical attitudes of faculty members, seniors, and freshmen students and found that seniors had attitudes more in line with faculty members than did freshmen. A factor in this was perceived to be increased exposure to the ideas and values of professors. Another 1990 study found that the behaviour of business faculty members was the most influential factor in ethics education. If faculty members present no position on academic misconduct and rarely enforce the rules, then students will believe that faculty tolerate the conduct and that they are unlikely to be caught or punished. This will influence the attitude of the student with respect to the importance of academic integrity. What is the attitude of faculty members toward academic integrity? Even faculty members are confused about the rules and distinctions between unethical, illegal, unprofessional, and socially undesirable behaviour.

Students often describe instructor commitment and awareness of institutional policies as key factors in the decision not to cheat. Faculty members generally tend to ignore academic misconduct. One well-known study found that 65 per cent of faculty members reported having discovered one or more students cheating, but only 21 per cent reported the incidents. Possible reasons for this failure to report include lack of familiarity with the process, difficulty of proving allegations, dissatisfaction with sanctions, fear of litigation, sympathy for the student, faculty time commitment, and damage to a faculty member’s reputation or teaching evaluations. Business faculty members have been found to be even more tolerant of academic misconduct than instructors in other faculties.

As individuals, our perceptions and sense of truths are shaped by the lessons of our past experiences. Change, and therefore learning, occurs when the new experience is no longer explainable based on past experience. We are called upon to revise our past perceptions to make sense of the new experience.

As educators, this is what we strive to achieve: we hope students will identify the issue we present as one relevant to their sense of consciousness so they will make the effort to reconcile any disjuncture and thereby trigger learning. The greater relevance the issue has to the student, the more likely the student will make the effort to learn from the experience.

Drawing on students’ primary experience is likely to engage a student in the topic under consideration. Using the subjects of academic integrity and misconduct to personalise specific topics in the business law course will create a primary experience more relevant to the student’s present circumstances than other usual examples from the still unfamiliar business context or legal environment. Therefore, using the academic integrity context to identify the principles included in the business law course improves and expands the student’s learning opportunities.

Academic integrity is an experiential example of ethical principles in the student environment. In addition, understanding the link between ethical principles and the law is a fundamental underlying concept in the business law course; ethical values find their way into judicial decision making and legislative intent. Studying the academic code of conduct together with the academic misconduct definitions and sanctions shows this link in action. It provides an important example of the role of the code of conduct and the ability to enforce the code of conduct.

The academic integrity topic may also give added credibility to business law faculty teaching ethics; sometimes faculty are seen by students as being isolated in an ivory tower separate from the pressures of the business world. Applying those same principles to the academic world where the professor has expertise and standing may credentialise the professor in the eyes of the student and increase the impact of the ethics content.

Academic misconduct policy is an opportunity to focus on a student-centred example of legal principles in practice. The school’s academic misconduct enforcement process is a visible demonstration of many of the same due process principles taught in business law. Analysing the academic misconduct enforcement process in place at the specific educational institution can highlight such issues as burden of proof, standard of proof, and admissibility of evidence. It is also perfect for developing an understanding of the role of discipline in professional organisations and the difference between civil, regulatory, quasi criminal, and criminal regimes. One popular topic for class debate on due process is whether judges should be elected or appointed. The issue of student representation on academic misconduct adjudication panels parallels this issue. A review of the sanctions for academic misconduct raises an opportunity for understanding the goals of criminal sentencing in contrast with the goals of civil law remedies. Few courses in the overall business program offer the broad overlap with academic misconduct policy as the traditional business law course.

Almost every topic in the business law course can be adapted to include academic integrity education. The topics identified here are just a sampling of the possibilities and have been selected because they connect well with the two general academic misconduct policy components: the code of conduct including sanctioning guidelines; and the enforcement process associated with violations of the code of conduct.

It is not suggested that every possible topic be used. The instructor should introduce the academic integrity issue early in the course and then select two additional legal topics spaced throughout the term. Ideally, one topic would be adapted to the procedural academic misconduct enforcement component and the other to the substantive academic misconduct code of conduct.

The academic integrity issue is initially introduced with an academic integrity quiz in the orientation or first class of the term. The questions deal with the various topics that are discussed below and allow the quiz to be used in successive terms no matter which legal topics are chosen for use in the specific term. Students are asked to choose an answer from among the highest to lowest ethical standards. The results for each question form the basis of a class discussion focusing on the legal principle presented by the question and the ethical value behind the principle. The distinction between academic integrity and academic misconduct is highlighted. This is an opportunity for the instructor to link law and ethics. The ethical values of the community as a whole will shape the interpretation and development of the law just as the academic integrity climate at the university will influence the level of academic misconduct.

The second and long-term use of the quiz is to introduce the specific business law topics as they are reached during the course. For example, one popular topic is whistleblowing; question three of the quiz asks the students whether or not they will report a fellow student if they become aware that he or she is cheating. This question and the results returned on the first lecture are used to introduce the whistleblowing topic in the corporate governance class. The quiz ensures that students have considered the implications of whistleblowing in the student environment before they are asked to understand the concept in the workplace.

Students can gain an understanding of the role of a code of conduct by reviewing the codes of conduct that apply to them now, as students of the university. Students are asked to search the code for examples of misrepresentation as academic misconduct. Common examples are misrepresenting someone else’s work as their own, misrepresenting the state of their health to obtain a deferral of an exam and misrepresenting their religious commitment to obtain extra benefit such as time on an assignment. Would this give rise to a tort action for deceit? A discussion follows about whether damage has been sustained by the professor or the administration relying on the misrepresentation. The differences between a tort action and discipline proceedings are introduced.

When dealing with the concepts of innocent, negligent, and fraudulent misrepresentation by professionals, the role of the professional organisation and its standards of professional conduct are central. In addition to being the standard of care in a negligence action, the standards of practice and the professional rules of misconduct form the basis of disciplinary action against a professional. Any disciplinary action undertaken by a professional organisation must meet the requirements of procedural fairness and natural justice.

When a university disciplines a student for academic misconduct, it faces the same procedural fairness obligations as a professional organisation when dealing with its member. Academic misconduct hearings provide a very student-centred example of professional discipline.

The academic misconduct code of conduct provides a firsthand example of a standard form contract interpretation issue. What if the student is not aware of the academic misconduct policy when he or she accepts the offer of admission? How is a student supposed to know the rules and why is a student bound by this code of conduct? If the university and student relationship is presented as contractual (even though it is not only contractual), then the contract between the student and university is a standard form contract or contract of adhesion.

What steps does the university take to bring these terms to the attention of the student? Most universities now have electronic calendars available through their Web sites with a link to the code of conduct. This is an obvious example of external terms incorporated into the contract through either a click wrap or browse wrap agreement. It provides an easy opportunity for academic integrity integration. Students are asked to trace their registration steps online and determine if the academic misconduct policy forms part of the contract between the parties and whether the contract is a click wrap or browse wrap agreement. How can the university improve its process to ensure that the codes of conduct come to the attention of the student during contractual negotiations? Students are able to use traditional rules of offer and acceptance, as well as consumer protection principles associated with contracts of adhesion, to determine if the codes of conduct form part of their contractual relationship with the university. This exercise allows the student to experience firsthand the offer-and-acceptance process while heightening awareness of the codes of conduct.

One of the most natural correlations with academic misconduct is the topic of whistleblowing. New corporate governance rules in the United States impose a positive obligation on lawyers and accountants to report accounting and securities misconduct often referred to as ‘Up the Ladder Reporting’ and ‘Noisy Withdrawal’. The students debate the pros and cons of student reporting. Often issues of broken relationships are raised and this corresponds well with the concern for the violation of the solicitor-client relationship. Retaliation and alienation are other reasons often cited for a failure to report academic misconduct. This invites an assessment of what protections would be necessary to secure reporting and whether the criminal code section goes far enough.

When academic integrity content is integrated into the course, students receive a more experiential learning opportunity. Students will not only learn the substantive legal topic being taught but also gain familiarity with the university academic misconduct policy. Students will see faculty and the administration assigning a high priority to academic integrity and research suggests that this will decrease the incidents of academic misconduct. Research shows that student academic misconduct is an indicator of future unethical business behaviour; therefore, reducing student academic misconduct may improve the ethical performance of future business leaders.

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