Are MBAs Less Ethical Than Other Graduate Students?
In 2006, Donald McCabe, a Rutgers professor, roiled the business school community with his study on student cheating. Spanning 5000 students and 32 institutions in the United States and Canada, McCabe found that 56 percent of graduate business students (the majority being from MBA programs) had engaged in cheating (i.e. plagiarism, turning in another’s works, or using cribbed notes during tests). Surprisingly, this was nine percent higher than graduate students from other disciplines.
Now, McCabe is returning with a follow-up study, set for release in late 2014, on the same topic. Chances are, it will show similar results. “Some say cheating has gone down slightly,” McCabe muses. “Don’t believe it. Students are doing it more but they don’t consider it cheating. You don’t have to look that hard to find cheating.”
In the aftermath of the economic collapse, where MBAs (in particular) were chastised for chasing the quick buck at the expense of transparency and the common good, McCabe’s research is a reminder that business schools, despite beefing up ethics and sustainability offerings, will probably never fully stamp out greed, entitlement, or recklessness among students.
Then again, students may just be following the lead of their business schools and potential employers, which sometimes pretend to look the other way or sweep incidents under the rug. Bloomberg Businessweek reports that only three of 25 schools replied with specific instances of honor code violations in a 2007 informal survey (Most schools provided boilerplates of their ethics policies). And this may stem, as McCabe notes in the Globe and Mail, from a fear of litigation and retaliation:
“Over the years, Dr. McCabe, who joined Rutgers in 1988 after more than two decades working for large corporations, has witnessed diminished vigilance by professors. Cash-strapped schools can’t afford to spend a lot on increased monitoring of submitted work and exam behaviour. When a student is outed, he or she is ready to fight back, sometimes hiring lawyers. For professors, much work and time are required to build a case in a situation where often the student gets off lightly.
Feeding the fraud is a culture of collusion where students don’t report cheaters. There is also less respect for college authority and a cultural shift in attitude, where no one wants to get left behind in the race to a prestigious job and fatter paycheque, Dr. McCabe says.”
In particular, McCabe argued in his 2006 study that an atmosphere of apathy chilled any student attempt to report academic dishonesty:
“If students believe faculty members either don’t care or don’t want to get involved in cases of academic dishonesty, they are less likely to get involved themselves. Why would a student risk reporting a peer, a difficult thing to do under any circumstance, if the faculty member is unlikely to take action. And, if faculty members take no action, students can only believe that cheating is going to be commonplace.”
McCabe also blames companies for their amoral credo of “It’s the bottom line that matters. It’s not how you get there. ” Since business students work for years before enrolling in MBA programs, they’ve already been immersed in “get it done at all costs” environments before even stepping foot on campus.
With technology making it easier for highly competitive (and financially-driven) students to cheat – and with little risk of punishment to engaging in the practice – McCabe isn’t surprised that cheating still thrives (even if he only has past studies and anecdotal evidence to back up his assertions).
So how would McCabe fix the problem? His 2006 study devoted three full pages to the topic, with solutions ranging from stronger enforcement of the honor code to fairer grading practices to handing out multiple versions of an exam. In the end, it is near impossible to fix human nature. With a new study coming out, one can only wonder if that nature has evolved towards higher ethics or devolved further into our worst instincts.
If you ask McCabe, you can probably expect him to answer the latter.
To read McCabe’s 2006 academic study on b-school cheating, click here.