Columbia J-School: At Stake, 'The Value of Our $60,000 Degree'

The paranoia was arresting at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on Friday afternoon, Dec. 1. It wafted out from the Lecture Hall, where about 200 graduate students from a “Critical Issues in Journalism” class faced allegations of cheating on a final essay test.

Two girls scrambled to the door when they spotted reporters lingering in the hallway. One shrieked, “So they can just stand here and listen to everything?” The department intern, guarding the entrance with her trusty V.I.P. student list, shooed reporters away from the door. Word made it to dean of students and moderator Sreenath Sreenivasan within minutes and he (falsely) announced that reporters were “recording” the meeting, according to Barbara Fasciani, director of communications and special events for the J-School.

There were rumors and speculation. A student had contacted administration and accused classmates of cheating on an open-book, take-home final exam. Students accessed the test online over a 30-hour period and had 90 minutes to complete it once they logged in. Reportedly, one student submitted the test in 32 minutes. The administration revealed no names. Fasciani said the ambiguity of the situation and the anonymity of the source has students on edge.

Most students ducked reporters’ questions as they exited the meeting. “There’s no story here,” one said.

“The more you guys write about it, the more the value of our $60,000 degree goes down the drain,” another student said.

Maybe they were just rushing off to start working on the new final essay question, due this Thursday in hard copy. But the most popular response to reporters’ inquiries was a phrase normally dreaded by journalism students: “No comment.”

This was strange. Even stranger is that a student would cheat on a pass-fail essay test in the first place. Motivations are few. Were students trying to screw over Samuel Freedman, the Times columnist and class professor? Was it that oft-blamed culprit, Ivy-league pressure? It’s not unreasonable that students might see their Columbia degrees as golden tickets to a tour of the media factory–a field that may be reducing more positions than it creates.

David Callahan wrote in his book “The Cheating Culture” that the obsession about advancing in the world “can easily justify the dishonest means.” A plagiarism slip here, a source fabrication there–factor in a curmudgeonly professor for a required class and you may acquire a case of cheating on a take-home final.

But cheating on an ethics test only gets you kicked out of school and shamed by the media. And according to some students, the administration isn’t trying hard enough to find the alleged cheaters, and whether it was two or ten of them, they want them exposed.

“There’s not enough digging going on here,” one said. “I don’t want to sit next to someone who cheated on the test.” She also surely doesn’t want people thinking she is one of the tricksters. Another student pleaded with reporters: “You have to believe one bad egg doesn’t spoil the whole bunch.”
—Gillian Reagan