Mail Room

May 3rd, 2007

Caught Cheating

I read with interest (and some personal regrets) your cover story on cheating (“Cheaters,” May/June). I graduated in the 1990s and once took a class from a professor who was also a dean at the time. For the final exam that spring, we were given a set of questions to take home and complete within a specific time frame. We were to drop off the exams in a designated room, where we would also pick up the exams when the professor had finished grading them. The room was open but not monitored or staffed.

My grades in that class had been decent but not spectacular, and for the final I was in a time crunch. Running up against a particularly difficult question with no time left, I panicked. I brought my unfinished exam to the drop-off room, then thought of the pile of graded exams next to me. I picked up the first graded exam I saw, turned to the question I had struggled with, and copied the answer. I turned in my exam with the copied answer submitted as my own.

For a few days I was relieved but uneasy. When I went to pick up my exam and saw the professor had given me an A+, my conscience got the better of me. I decided to set the record straight.

I went to his office, knowing full well this could be the end of my academic career at Brown. When the professor saw me, he congratulated me for having done such a great job on the final exam. I was silent for a few moments, then said, “Professor, there is something about this final exam that I think you should know.” And I confessed.

He appeared subdued for a few minutes as I sat there waiting for him to speak. He finally said quietly, “Well, thank you for telling me this.” He gave the exam back and asked me to finish the question on my own.

If ever there was reprieve for the guilty and mercy for the weak, it was at that hour. I went home and worked on the question feverishly, alone and unaided. A week later I sent in my finished question along with a handwritten letter of thanks. Although my professor never replied to that letter, his initial grade stood, as did my final grade for the course. I went on to graduate without ever facing disciplinary action.

One thing I learned at Brown for which I will always be grateful is the importance of character. In my case, the lesson was taught not by a permanent black mark on my transcript, but by a professor who took pity on an honest confession and gave me a second chance.

The writer’s name is withheld at his request, because he fears that revealing his identity may jeopardize his planned career in academia.

I read “cheaters” with great interest. In 1986 my application essay to Brown was included in a book called 100 Great Application Essays, published by the Harvard Independent. I have watched in horror and amusement as this essay has surfaced again and again over the years under the names of different students. The Web site of the New York City Board of Education currently includes the essay, with just one word changed, as an example of “performance standards in English and language arts.” The board seems to believe one of its students is the author.

It is a strange feeling to be plagiarized. I feel at once outraged, bemused, mildly flattered, and as though I have had something stolen. What bothers me most, I think, is that some lazy high school students out there stole my very thoughts and dreams from 1986 because they were unable to come up with their own.

Joanne Wilkinson ’90, ’95 MD
Saunderstown, R.I.

When I was grading physics tests at Brown to earn extra money, identifying those who copied was easy, especially if they made the same numerical mistakes. Both the giver and the recipient got zeros. There were few first-timers and no repeaters. How sad it is that cheating is an oft-rewarded national pastime. A culture of sleaze, indeed!

I realize that identifying cheating is more difficult these days. This old curmudgeon believes Brown should spend the time and money to stop cheating in its tracks. If all papers must be run through an expensive scanner, so be it. Cheaters should get zeros for a first offense and be expelled the next time. What’s a nineteen-year-old to do? Straighten up and fly right. What sort of graduate does Brown intend to send out into the world?

Fred Collins ’47
Green Valley, Ariz.

While teaching at a state university, I routinely checked all seminar papers for plagiarism. On average, six out of every sixty papers included either ideas presented without attribution or material copied verbatim. There were often just as many borderline cases. My response was to confer with each student. Not once did a student plead ignorance. If I were working with well-educated and highly intelligent Brown students, I would be more skeptical than Dean Carol Cohen seems to be.

The dean needs a reality check in another area as well. My less privileged students coped with the pressures of jobs, families, and financial hardship but realized that those pressures did not justify cheating. How sad that the dean seems to think Brown’s highly competitive academic environment somehow changes the ethical context for cheaters. Cheating is always wrong. Every reasonable effort should be made to discourage and detect it. Far from undermining a community of trust, consistently maintaining standards creates the basis of trust. Running every student paper through check systems might be costly, but it is not off base.

Roger M. Olien ’73 PhD
Austin, Tex.

I was pleased to read about the different approaches at Brown to academic misconduct. Earlier this year I had two undergraduates who submitted the same assignment, word for word. The decision I faced might have seemed easy: according to my syllabus, they should have received a failing grade for the course and a referral to the judiciaries. However, it broke my heart as a teacher to take these actions.

I agonized over whether such punishment was the best way to make them realize what they did was wrong. As Associate Professor Karl Jacoby pointed out, cheaters are cheating themselves. However, ultimately I decided I have a responsibility to maintain a learning environment that is fair to students who do not cheat.

Chao-Yang Lee ’00 PhD
Athens, Ohio

I read “cheaters” with mixed feelings. I am glad Brown is honest with itself about the severity of the problem and the fact that there is no easy answer. I applaud the University’s resistance to police tactics and its insistence on an atmosphere of trust and academic integrity.

On the other hand, I am stunned at my own naïveté. The Brown that I attended was intellectually exciting and creative precisely because its student body valued learning for its own sake. Cheating flies in the face of that. How can students reach a college campus without understanding what constitutes cheating?

When my children attended a prominent private school in our city, I discovered that parents saved children’s sixth-grade science tests and handed them to younger siblings, who achieved high grades but never knew the satisfaction of mastery or the joy of learning.

When I was a student at Brown, there was a premium put on taking risks and a tolerance for mistakes. I can’t imagine a better deterrent to cheating, except parents who teach the importance of doing the right thing.

Wendy Schornstein Good ’80
New Orleans

I was dismayed to read that penalties for cheating “might include withholding credit, notifying parents, noting the infraction on a student’s transcript, and suspension.” The list conspicuously excludes expulsion.

In case other readers were similarly concerned, I am writing to share what I found out by reading Brown’s Academic Code: expulsion is an available punishment for cheating. So is retroactive withdrawal of an awarded degree. This is, surely, as it should be.

Jacob T. Levy ’93

Tsunami Relief

Thank you for reporting on the important work of Brown alumni in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to correct some important errors in your coverage. You report that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimate of global mortality from diarrheal disease is between 2 and 10 million people. Actually, the most recent WHO estimate is 1.8 million deaths per year, although other sources (including the United Nations Development Programme) suggest the number may approach 5 to 10 million.

Again citing the WHO, you report that 1.1 billion people lack access to safe water, when in fact that statistic refers to the number of people lacking access to an “improved” water supply (e.g., a household connection). Tap water is rarely potable in the developing world, and therefore the population lacking access to safe, clean water may actually be 2 billion or more.

Finally, you report that I found 30 to 50 percent diarrheal incidence among internally displaced people in and around Banda Aceh. That is false, since I conducted only water-quality analysis, not health monitoring. Disease surveillance in the region was led by the national ministries of health, the WHO, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among other groups. Initial anecdotal reports suggested numbers in the range you reported, but a CDC study of 400 households in Aceh in January found diarrhea in roughly one in four children younger than five. The WHO reported in March that “millions of tsunami survivors through South Asia and East Africa have escaped the horrors of major epidemics of communicable diseases in the immediate aftermath of the disaster” and credited this to “the resilience of the public health systems and response capabilities of the affected countries, the hard work by local communities, and national and international support.”

Jeff Albert ’92
The writer is a visiting scholar at the Watson Institute and a AAAS Fellow at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Help for Soldiers

As a career military officer, i have often felt disconnected from the Brown community. Emily Gold Boutilier’s article “Coming Home” (May/June) was truly gratifying. The technological potentials being explored at Brown are essential to the recovery and reintegration of wounded soldiers.

A number of soldiers from my transportation unit have been maimed in the war on terror, but they have never lost heart. I am a witness to their desire to live life to the fullest. If the fertile minds at Brown can provide the instruments for recovery, the spirit of the soldiers who benefit will certainly ensure that the investment is well utilized. My thanks to doctors Roy Aaron, H. Michael Frisch, Deborah Ciombor, and their teams.

Dave Cotter ’77
Newport, R.I.

Thank you for the timely and moving article “Coming Home.” It dovetails with the work of the poetry therapy community. Poetry therapy is the use of the poetic in all literature—not necessarily poetry—for healing and personal growth.

I am a licensed clinical social worker and a registered poetry therapist. At a recent conference of the National Association for Poetry Therapy, we unveiled an initiative to provide short-term writing therapy to returning combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. If any veteran, veteran’s group member, or relative is interested in learning more about our work, e-mail me or visit

Mari Alschuler ’80
Plantation, Fla.

Family Values

As a part-time lecturer and mother of two, I read Frances Goldscheider’s review of Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness (“Mommy Fearest,” Arts & Culture, May/June) with piqued interest and a sense of relief.

The book does not sound like it paints a picture of American motherhood. Rather it paints a picture of a rarified upper class. Professor Goldscheider points out that “the upper middle class is the opinion leader.” It is also the weaver of our cultural imaginings.

I thought, back in the 1980s, that I was going to juggle a full-time career and child rearing. That’s not what happened. I am teaching part-time and am not on the tenure track. I live in a small rural town where most parents in the local elementary school have high school degrees, and not much else. When I was finishing my dissertation, my children went to a woman’s home for day care. I was not worried about the absence of preschool academics, because my children were happy and I felt assured they were in a safe and loving environment.

The Oxford American Dictionary, in its definition of the word valorize, includes as an example of usage the following sentence: “The culture valorizes the individual.” That’s for sure! Which may be why it does not valorize child rearing, family and communal time, and all the other elements that make a sane and loving world.

Annabelle Cone
Cornish, N.H.

Hatchet Job

I used to think the most engaging theatrical performance I’ve ever seen was when I sat in the front row for the London production of Cats. That was until I saw Abe Smith ’04 perform his one-man, one-act play on Sunday night of Commencement weekend last year.

Alas, there was no Sunday night of Commencement weekend this year, as the University has cut the festivities to less than forty-eight hours. The University argues that under the old format many alumni left after Field Day on Saturday. What about the rest of us? The University has taken a hatchet to the schedule. Gone were many of the a cappella concerts. Gone was the Final Fling. Gone were the fascinating class seminars and a quarter of the forums. WaterFire conflicted with the Pops concert.

The University argues it saves money with the shorter format. But what is it giving up? Alumni donate because they feel a connection to Brown, and returning for Commencement renews those ties like no other knot can. Because the weekend is now so short, fewer alumni may come back to begin with, deciding it is not worth the long trip from places like the West Coast, where I live. The less frequently alumni return to campus, the less money they give. If the University feared too many people would leave after only two days, they’ve proven themselves right. This year 100 percent of us did not stay the entire weekend.

Dave Morris ’88
San Francisco

Liberal Bias?

Your May/June issue carried a three-quarter-page summary of reporter Seymour Hersh’s lecture on campus, which evidently consisted of a virulent anti-Bush personal and policy tirade (“The Last Muckracker,” Elms). However, in the same issue you found space to squeeze in only a three-by-five-inch comment about the lecture by Hoover Institution Fellow and former Reagan policy analyst Dinesh D’Souza, with absolutely no discussion of his subject or point of view.

Do I sense an example of political correctness in your otherwise excellent publication?

Robert G. Huckins ’48
Escondido, Calif.

Worth Every Bite

K. W. Oxnard’s “Remembrance of Foods Past” (Alumni POV, May/June) conjured up a madeleine of my own—a real one. Lisa Manfull ’66 and I were taking Albert Salvan’s course on Proust. On the last day of class, our thoughtful professor showed up with a large flat box containing real madeleine cakes from a French bakery. Lisa and I whispered together for a moment, then squirreled ours away while everyone else munched. After class, we scurried around the corner to the nearest coffee shop and ordered, of course, tea. Feeling like time-travelers, we went à la recherche of the Genuine Proust Experience as told in the beginning of Swann’s Way, dipping each bite of madeleine in the hot liquid. I still remember the lemony taste of the delicate, spongy, shell-shaped cakes filtered through Lipton, and I can see once more Proust’s bemused narrator with his quirky family, the lovesick Swann, and the beautiful Odette with her cattleyas.

Martha Cornog ’66


I loved K. W. Oxnard’s piece on foods from one’s past. Twenty-five years since leaving Brown, I still long for the hermit cookies at the Sci Li canteen, fried clams at the Ratty, Portuguese sweet bread, and Big Alice’s ice cream. Yum. The freshman fifteen were worth every bite.

Diane Barzman Heiman ’80

Bethesda, Md.

Not Palestine

“spring of freedom or desert Mirage?” (Elms, May/June) reported that elections have recently been held in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq. There is, however, no internationally recognized country called Palestine.

The British Mandate of Palestine, created by the League of Nations in 1922 to establish a Jewish homeland, was effectively terminated in 1948 upon the creation of the state of Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), created in Egypt in 1964 and currently headquartered in Tunis, has observer status at the United Nations. The PLO delegation does not represent a state.

The Oslo Accords created a Palestinian Authority that might have matured into a new Arab state, provided certain conditions were met, such as cessation of terrorist attacks against Israel. Unfortunately, the hoped-for progress did not occur, and no such state has yet emerged. The elections mentioned in the article took place in the Palestinian Authority, not in Palestine.

Michael N. Rader ’95
Brookline, Mass.

Our Fallen Marine

Brown has always challenged the status quo and resisted complacency, just as the good antiquities professor John Rowe Workman urged us to do. Sometimes, however, my fellow Brown travelers are a bit too out there. I am reacting to the letters from John Escher and Laura Mosedale (Mail Room, May/June) regarding the heroic death of U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Dimi Gavriel ’97.

There are plenty of forums for excoriating, in Mr. Escher’s words, “the Malvolios of the far right” and the “silly war” in Iraq, and for urging President Bush’s impeachment, as Ms. Mosedale does. But it is disrespectful and thoughtless to exploit and belittle the honorable ultimate sacrifice of a soldier who fought for his country by putting a political spin on his sacrifice. The insult is not worthy of a community such as Brown.

Bravo, Corporal Gavriel. May you rest in honorable peace. And may fellow alumni appreciate that your willingness to fight for liberty and democracy not only ensures their right to speak their mind, but also transcends it.

John Rebrovick ’80
Nashville, Tenn.

To follow up my letter about Dimi Gavriel ’97 (“A Marine’s Death,”Mail Room, May/June): the memorial to our fallen Marine over Commencement weekend was superb. In attendance were Dimi’s parents and friends, his Delta Tau brothers, and President Simmons. Dimi would have liked to see his friends meet one another. Everything was very tasteful. He would not have wanted a multitude of fanfare. Thank you, Brown, for allowing us our quiet time to say good- bye to a brother.

Patrick Clark ’79
Cranston, R.I.

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July / August 2005