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Founding father of research on academic integrity retires from Rutgers Business School

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Rutgers Business School Professor Donald L. McCabe has heard a lot about cheating – how prevalent it is, how technology offers new ways for students to cheat and how upsetting it can be for students who do not cheat.

But in his nearly three decades of research, surveying college students to learn more about the state of academic integrity, one phrase he elicited about cheating still rattles him: “It’s no big deal.”

"That’s been the most disappointing and frustrating thing,” McCabe said. "There’s a generation that’s willing to do anything they have to do to get the job done.”

In the classroom, getting the job done may mean securing a top grade, but McCabe’s research has raised concerns that if students will cheat for grades, their cavalier attitudes about integrity could carry over to other areas of their lives.

In addition to widespread cheating among college students, McCabe’s research showed indifference among many students about the wrongness of it. McCabe’s findings stirred concern, discussion and in some cases, a return to honor codes.

McCabe, who is often referred to as the “founding father” of research on academic integrity, is retiring in June after 26 years at the business school.

Rutgers Business School and the Institute for Ethical Leadership will honor him with an academic integrity award in his name.

McCabe, 70, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012, will be presented with the award in the fall. In the future, the Donald L. McCabe Award will be given to a student, faculty or staff member who promotes the values of academic integrity at Rutgers Business School.

McCabe said he plans to finish some research studying student attitudes about cheating, including a 10-year study in Canada and an update involving 31 schools he surveyed nearly 25 years ago. His current research, he said, is likely to reflect more disturbing news: that little has changed in the attitudes or practices of students. "Students aren’t admitting to it as much and they’re doing things (taking material off the Internet) that they don’t consider to be cheating,” he said.

Ann Buchholtz, a Rutgers Business School professor of leadership and ethics, said McCabe highlighted the important role universities have in fostering academic integrity in his 2012 book "Cheating in College: Why students do it and what educators can do about It.” In the book, McCabe describes the college years as critical ones for ethical development.

"I love that point because we’re working with students who are developing who they are and what we do here will impact who they become,” she said.

McCabe isn’t sure an honor code or an award will reduce cheating or help reverse a culture that is growing more tolerant of the behavior. At Rutgers Business School, the new award’s greatest impact may result from the competition among students vying for it in the future.

"The award may help bring out some ideas and different perspectives,” he said. "That’s where the real value is going to be.”

McCabe said the cheating trends aren’t likely to shift until people’s ideas of what’s important changes. "I think it’s going to take another generation of adults,” he said, "who don’t place as much value on grades and where someone goes to school.”