BUTTE – A group of "organized," "belligerent cheaters" overwhelmed several classes at Montana Tech this summer.
The spate of academic dishonesty, which resulted in the expulsion of 15 students, appears to have been far more systematic and widespread than previously reported.
Montana Tech professors and proctors were confronted by dozens of out-of-state Middle Eastern students blatantly cheating through a variety of methods, including smuggled cellphones, earpieces, fake calculators, smart watches, hand signals, mass bathroom breaks and at least one diversionary fake fainting episode, according to documents attached to a Faculty Senate report.
The report, authored by Montana Tech professors and proctors, details a summer-long escalation of cheating and resultant crackdowns culminating in students intimidating and threatening faculty members teaching general engineering courses that were populated at up to 10 times their typical class size. The documents, obtained by the Montana Standard, were not published online on the senate's website.
General engineering lab director Matt Egloff said the situation escalated as cheaters became aggressive when their academic dishonesty was exposed throughout the summer.
“Faculty and staff proctoring these tests were outnumbered about 10:1 by these belligerent cheaters for all of these tests. Most of the proctors and faculty are old, small, etc. – in other words not people trained to handle a fight with a single 20-year-old let alone 100 of them. Had these angry belligerent cheaters decided to riot, we would have been overwhelmed,” Egloff said in the report.
Summer enrollment for out-of-state undergraduate students grew this summer by 122 percent, with 130 students compared to last summer’s 59, according to the Montana University System’s summer 2016 enrollment report.
In terms of enrollment, “It was a very good summer,” Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Doug Abbott said.
Abbott said his office received reports of academic dishonesty concerning 46 students this summer. Thirty-one students were reported once, 14 twice and one student three times, for a total of 62 individual reported cases of cheating. The faculty senate report lists dozens more cases. Montana Tech’s academic dishonesty policy does not state how many infractions result in expulsion, but Abbott said he maintains a two-strike policy.
Five general and one mechanical engineering course are named in the report as affected by cheating. The general engineering courses are prerequisites for the more specialized fields of engineering offered at Montana Tech and other schools. According to the registrar’s office, summer enrollment for each of those three-credit courses added up to 486 seats.
With the cost of non-resident summer tuition for three credits $2,457 a head, Montana Tech counted around $1.2 million in tuition from the six courses highlighted for cheating this summer. Abbott said the dishonest students, including those expelled, were not reimbursed.
While instructors clarified in the Faculty Senate report that not all students in the summer general engineering courses cheated, most did. The final course average of the 56 students in Nathan Huft’s general engineering 201 statics class was 37 percent, an F grade, despite extra credit for bonus questions, attendance quizzes and exam corrections.
“As a result, there was more than ample opportunity to earn a good grade and three students earned a course total greater than 100 percent. Nevertheless, only about 10 percent of the class earned a C or better,” Huft said in the report.
Cheating was so rampant that Huft and other instructors were unable to keep track of every instance. Sixteen students were found using phones, smart watches or similar devices during the first exam, with many more suspected. Huft lists in the report instances of students turning in quizzes with the same name and ID number but different handwriting, answers with identical solutions or errors on 90 percent of quizzes.
Other instructors faced similar challenges with dozens of cheaters per class. They responded with harsher exam environments, which reduced cheating but didn’t eliminate it, precipitating a summer-long arms race between cheaters and instructors. When instructors began checking student ID cards, cheaters adapted by forging them. When students observed cheating had their tests marked, they’d come back for another test session and try their luck again. Students in Huft’s class were allowed crib sheets for exams, and apparently copied the answers verbatim from the previous year’s exam, despite the exam having completely different questions and answers.
“As the summer continued the testing area became more and more monitored, and in a seemingly proportional manner the effort to get around the rules and continue to participate in misconduct without getting caught grew,” an unnamed student proctor said in the Faculty Senate report.
In Huft’s class, a student pretended to faint, forcing instructors to call paramedics. When he hit the floor, proctors caught four other students bring out hidden smart phones. The student refused medical attention when the ambulance arrived, and the name he gave was not on the class attendance list.
Bracing for finals
Egloff and other faculty members met with Chancellor Donald Blackketter, who personally taught one of the summer classes, to formulate a strategy for finals week. Students would be required to bring ID cards, and phones, watches or other gadgets would not be allowed – everything in students’ pockets would go in baggies on the floor. Pencils would be provided to thwart scanner pens, and calculators could not be shared. Students who came late or left the room early for any reason would get a zero. No talking would be allowed.
Egloff said in the report that as many faculty as could be found were brought in to proctor final exams for the general engineering classes. General engineering professor Larry Hunter was one of them.
“Some students were apparently ‘tasked’ with creating a disruption so that others could exchange answers during the distraction. Even at this late date students were attempting to keep cellphones available during the test – after they had been told they could not do this,” Hunter said in an email attached to the Faculty Senate report.
“This appears to be a well-planned and organized deliberate attempt to cheat,” Hunter said in the email.
Egloff requested earlier in the summer to hold the substantially larger classes in the gym, where proctors could separate test-takers. Abbott said this request was refused because athletic camps had booked the gym far in advance. Finals were held in the Student Union Building.
Egloff requested administrators ask Butte-Silver Bow police to station officers on campus until testing was complete. Unlike the University of Montana and Montana State University, Montana Tech does not have its own campus police force.
“I did not think it was necessary nor a good idea to have uniformed police occupy our campus,” Abbott said in an email to the Standard. “When is it a good idea to have uniformed police officers occupy a campus?”
Kevin McRae, the deputy commissioner of higher education for communications and human resources, said he doesn’t know if a university without a police force even has the technical authority to station police on campus.
“Therefore, from my perspective, the provost wisely declined to pursue the professor’s suggestion,” McRae said.
Finals week threats
Police weren’t stationed on campus during finals week, but they had to show up anyway.
The increased security for finals caused many students to fail their tests. Some students were late, others provided fake IDs, refused to sit in assigned seats, refused to stop talking or signaling, or were found with hidden ear pieces, among other infractions.
One student ejected for cheating began screaming.
Maggie Peterson, vice chancellor of administration and finance, happened to be an impromptu proctor at the time. She had stopped in the Student Union Building’s Marcus Deli to buy a soda when faculty asked if she could help out spur-of-the-moment during testing in the Copper Lounge.
When the disrupting student refused to leave, Peterson confirmed she called security, who called police.
“I had never helped out ever before,” Peterson told the Standard. “I just kind of stood there and helped to make sure no one left.” Other ejected students joined in, as well as students still taking tests.
“Aside from Dr. Blackketter administering his own test, she was the only vice chancellor or dean who came down to witness and assess firsthand, what we were all putting up with all summer long,” Egloff said in the report.
Egloff said in the report that students screamed at faculty, proctors, staff and student employees present in the SUB, calling them racist and attempting to goad them while filming them with phones.
Female employees were singled out for verbal harassment, and one female student was tripped as she walked through a large group of ejected students, according to the report.
The report said large groups of students “mobbed” an instructor and several proctors after testing finished to get their tests back, and security guards had to intervene.
The report says when a mob of students followed instructors back to the Science and Engineering Building, security had to shove them out the door and lock it behind them.
One proctor received threatening messages on his phone after the tests.
“Many faculty and staff expressed concern for their personal safety during and after these classes,” Egloff said in the report.
“Bottom line: Faculty, staff, and students were put in serious danger all summer long from this group of belligerent cheaters,” the report ended.
Other schools not informed
Provost Abbott said the home institutions of Montana Tech’s summer cheaters were not informed of their students’ academic dishonesty. He declined to disclose what schools the students came from, citing student privacy concerns.
Nathan Huft said numerous students in his class missed exams and provided doctors’ notes for makeup tests. He said in the report some notes were suspicious, with medical excuses from doctors in Los Angeles and Pocatello, Idaho.
Metallurgy professor Bill Gleason said an email was sent out early in the summer requesting more proctors because of a substantial increase of non-resident summer students from Idaho. Gleason could not recall who sent the email.
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Two-hundred and fifty miles south of Butte on Interstate 15, Idaho State University in Pocatello has had cheating problems of its own. The New York Times reported in March that cheating by Saudi and Kuwaiti students at ISU is a byproduct of scholarships provided by sponsor governments, regardless of a student’s grasp of English.
ISU’s associate dean of science and engineering David Rodgers told the Times 80 to 90 percent of cheating reported in recent semesters in his department involved the university’s roughly 1,500 foreign students, of whom Saudis and Kuwaitis make up 77 percent.
Rodgers told the Montana Standard that cheating at ISU has been on a case-by-case basis, and not like the large coordinated effort seen at Montana Tech this summer.
Rodgers said if ISU students were in fact heading up the road to Butte to garner general engineering credits from Montana Tech, the classes offered this summer wouldn’t even transfer back to ISU as fulfilled prerequisites for more advanced courses, only as engineering elective credits.
If any of Montana Tech’s cheaters did come from Pocatello, Idaho State University isn’t rushing to claim them.
“Idaho State University will not comment on alleged infractions committed by former students at other colleges and universities that are unrelated to our institution,” said associate vice president of marketing and communications for ISU Stuart Summers in a statement.
“If another institution takes action under its conduct code against a continuing ISU student and the information is brought to our attention, the student could be subsequently charged with a violation of the ISU Student Conduct Code. The ISU Academic Integrity and Dishonesty Policy does not apply to students who take coursework elsewhere and are engaged in and found responsible for academic dishonesty,” Summers said.
Many of Idaho State’s Saudi students study under the same Saudi government program as the 36 Montana Tech students implicated in a bribery and grade-changing scandal in 2012. Those students paid tuition courtesy of the $6 billion King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which sponsors up to 90 percent of Saudi students studying abroad.
According to the Institute of International Education, the number of Saudi students studying in the United States rose 128 percent to 7,886 students in 2006, the year after the King Abdullah Scholarship Program was created. It has continued to grow, with nearly 60,000 Saudi students studying in the United States a decade later, the fourth largest nationality of foreign students in America. Saudi Arabia was the leading country of origin for students in Montana and Idaho in 2015, with Saudi students making up over 15 and 26 percent of each state’s international students, respectively.
But according to Moody’s Investor’s Service, plummeting oil prices caused the world’s biggest oil exporter to slice its 2016 education budget by 12 percent — nearly $7 billion — in February to reduce deficits. Reuters reports that includes new eligibility requirements for the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, restricting students to the world’s top 100 schools or top 50 academic programs in their field as determined by the Saudi Ministry of Education.
Montana Tech does not appear on any of the Ministry of Education’s top school lists, and neither does Idaho State.
The Idaho State Journal reported ISU’s Vice President of Enrollment Management Scott Scholes reached out to the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in February for clarification. He still hasn’t gotten it.
Scholes said the number of new Saudi students enrolled this semester has been “next to none,” but couldn’t attribute that to new restrictions in the Saudi scholarship program. He said they had very low numbers of new Saudi enrollees the previous two semesters as well, as the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission limits the number of students who can study in each field at ISU, and the most popular, science and engineering, have been at capacity.
Faculty rethinking police
The Montana Tech Faculty Senate has dug in, meeting on a weekly basis to decide best how to revise the “academic dishonesty” policy so it best reflects instructor and student needs.
From the teaching perspective, the majority of faculty senators agree that improvements are needed to better train instructors and students in what constitutes cheating — what the student handbook refers to as “academic dishonesty” — and safety procedures.
So it seems that policy is in flux, but the faculty senate is hard at work finding solutions. On Sept. 21, the senate voted to ask the campus Academic Standards Committee to consider using an “XF” grade on a transcript to identify cheating. It also voted to request that the online reporting form become more user-friendly, comprehensive and automatically populate fields when instructors report a student.
“No one’s ready to take action until we’ve all talked about it,” said Faculty Senate Chairman Scott Risser. “It’s a process and we’re at the beginning of it.”
When the August expulsions came to light earlier this fall in an Aug. 17 Montana Standard article, Abbott said he could not comment on how many times a student cheats before being expelled.
But last week he told the Standard: “It’s our policy, that after two (strikes), you’re gone.”
As it reads now, the student handbook policy on academic dishonesty indicates:
- Instructors are responsible for taking reasonable precautions to prevent and discourage cheating and must report all cases to the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.
- If a student is cheating, the minimum penalty is assigning a failing grade on that specific assignment.
- In reported cases of repeated cheating, the Academic Standards Committee may consider additional penalties, including expulsion.
Abbott has since said that Tech doesn’t usually formally report students who are dismissed.
Egloff downplayed the written accounts, saying cheating occurs at many colleges today due to easy access to technology.
“In the modern age, with smart technology and being able to go on the internet and have people do your homework, (we) have to counter it,” said Egloff.
When contacted by the Standard, at least three proctors declined to elaborate and several professors and instructors did not return calls.
But Bill Gleason, a member of the campus safety committee, said in the latest faculty senate meeting that safety training “is a bigger issue than academic cheating, because people were threatened.”
Gleason noted that instructors, working in their own departments in separate buildings, typically work in isolation, attuned to their curriculum, individual syllabi and classroom expectations of adult students in hand.
“We’re very isolated on this campus,” said Gleason.
While faculty members consider clearer policy, each instructor and department follows their own policies within the more general academic policy in the student handbook. The Metallurgy Department, for example, hands off cheating reports to administration because instructors don’t usually have much time to deal with disciplinary issues.
“What we do in metallurgy is, once you call it cheating, it’s the administrators’ business,” Gleason told the Sept. 21 Faculty Senate meeting. “What happened to students is out of our control.”
Several faculty senators expressed concern about treating all students fairly, whatever the final amended policy. Many also are concerned about proper proactive training for faculty and students to deter cheating in the future.
Questions exist about some international students’ preparation for taking rigorous engineering classes.
In an anonymous student writing sample obtained by the Standard, an international student with very poor English writing skills accuses the university of stereotyping “Arab people” by fingering some as cheaters. The writer also threatens, “I will tell my government with what happens here” and “Also, I will tell my university What happen here with no respect and racism here. Thanks for bad semester and bad university.”
Abbott supported the rigor of prerequisite core classes like college writing.
He told the Standard:
“I am of the opinion that we do a very good job of not allowing students in courses for which they do not have the prerequisite (classes). But they can get those courses at another institution."
For example, he added, in order to get into a 300-level technical writing class, students must have passed English composition.
Chemistry professor John Getty did not teach last summer, but he teaches international students during the regular academic year. He told the Standard that many non-resident students have “terrible” writing.
“Many of them are barely able to function in English when they get here,” said Getty, a faculty senator.
Meanwhile, the senate seeks to move forward by improving policy and making the online cheating reporting form easier and quicker to use for instructors filing complaints.
Egloff, for one, did not want to speculate why visiting students would go to such organized lengths to win credits not earned.
“I can’t ascribe to the motives,” said Egloff, adding it’s important how Tech improves the system to prevent any future cheating of a similar magnitude.
“What do (we) do to adapt?” asked Egloff.
Whether Montana Tech will ever have to deal with such a pervasive cheating environment again, faculty are bracing for it.
On Wednesday, the Faculty Senate voted to invite Abbott to next week’s meeting on Oct. 5 to discuss the cheating debacle.
Egloff called the summer overwhelming, but was proud the faculty kept cheaters from getting away with it.
“It was ugly, but it was a success,” Egloff said. “Let’s make it not ugly next time.”