Caltech has a serious problem with undergraduates cheating on academic work, which Caltech administrators appear to be ignoring. A few years ago, one alumnus considered the problem so bad that he urged other alumni to stop donating. I attended Tech (that’s what we called it) for a year and a half in the 1970s. I didn’t think cheating was a problem then. Now it is.
A recent article in the Times Higher Education Supplement by Phil Baty praised Caltech’s “honor system”, which includes trusting students not to cheat on exams. A Caltech professor of biology named Markus Meister told Baty that “cheats simply cannot prosper in an environment that includes such small-group teaching and close collaboration with colleagues because they would rapidly be exposed.” That strikes me as naive. How convenient for Meister that there is no need to test his theory — it must be true (“cheats simply cannot prosper”).
A few years ago, a Caltech alumnus named Peter Seidel, after receiving a donation request, told his fellow alumni not to donate until the system was cleaned up. Here’s some of what he said:
I found out today that Dean of Students Jean-Paul Revel said the following to my dad on the phone while I was at Caltech (Not realizing that my dad is a former Caltech student and BOC [Board of Control] rep) “Peter has a real problem with cheating. The fact is that people cheat. Peter needs to get over it.”
I think it’s safe to say that the Caltech ‘Honor Code’ is obsolete. [= is no longer working — Seth]
There is a small and growing population of students at Caltech [who] are systematically cheating, and the Caltech administration is aware of it but refuses to do anything about it. I suspect the problem began when Caltech started advertising its ‘Honor Code’ to prospective high school students in the 90’s, which lead to self-selection of students who were willing to bend the rules.
In my personal experience, I caught students cheating red-handed while I was a student, and though I took my findings to the BOC, nothing ever came of it.
I also went to one of my professors (along with several of my classmates) and we explained that we were very concerned that there was a significant amount of cheating going on in his class. While he was very empathetic and gave us a significant amount of his time, ultimately he essentially said that his hands were tied because the school does not allow him to give proctored exams.
The Caltech exam system is set up in such a way that it is extremely easy to take extra time on an exam, open a book on a closed book exam, or search for the answers on the internet. Most exams are taken by students alone in their dorm room, with no one watching, at the time of their choosing, with the student timing themself and with both the coursebook and an internet connection in the room, with only the student’s integrity preventing them from using resources they are not allowed to use. For that matter, many quizzes and exams are turned in to unlocked boxes in empty hallways where it would be simple to take another students answered exam to copy or check answers against, and then return it when turning in one’s own exam. <
In my job in the financial industry I interview a number of Caltech seniors every year for potential jobs. And unfortunately, I have to try to answer the question 'Is this person a cheater?' as part of my interview process. I have seen examples of resumes where students flat out lied about their GPA.
But probably the most blatant example . . . is a student [he means graduate -- Seth] that I recently interviewed [who] claimed, as his two 'hobbies', to be a member of the Caltech fencing team his freshman and sophomore years, and a member of the Caltech chess club all four years at Caltech. As it happened, when I was handed his resume, the coworker sitting to the left of me was a former Caltech grad student that coached the fencing team during those years, and the coworker sitting to the right of me was a former Caltech undergrad who was an avid member of the chess club as both an undergrad and an alum. Both of them also happened to be part of the group scheduled to interview this student, and received copies of his resume. I asked them what their opinion was of the candidate.
Neither of them had ever heard of him.
We decided to go ahead and give the candidate an interview, and give him a chance to explain, in case we were somehow misunderstanding the resume. The first person to interview him was the former fencing coach. The interview began normally, and then after a while they had the following exchange (I'm paraphrasing somewhat):
Former fencing coach: I see you have two years on the Caltech fencing team.
Candidate: That's right.
Former fencing coach: Well, I was the coach at that time... and I don't remember you.
Candidate: Well, it wasn't actually my freshman and sophomore years; it was just my freshman year.
Former fencing coach: I was the coach both years.
Candidate: Well, I wasn't really on the official team, I just took the PE class that taught fencing.
Former fencing coach: I taught that class.
Candidate: Well, I didn't really take the whole class. I signed up for it, but I only went to the first week, and then I dropped it.
After the first interview, we decided we wouldn't be making him an offer, but I decided to go in and talk to the candidate anyway. [In] the meantime, the coworker who was a Caltech chess club member asked another chess club friend of his if he knew the guy, and he didn't. I told the candidate that we wouldn't be offering him a job, but I wanted to talk to him about his resume. I told him I had heard about the previous interview, and that there were also a couple members of the Caltech chess club who did not know who he was. He responded 'Well, it wasn't a formal team, and not everyone went every time.' I asked him what night of the week the club met, and he told me (confidently) 'Saturday nights.' (I knew that it was actually Friday nights.)
When people cheat and get away with it, they are more likely to cheat in the future, Seidel believes — a very plausible idea. Given the disinterest of professors and administrators in the problem, the Caltech mascot should be a monkey with its hands over its eyes.