Promoting integrity in the classroom

By Arlene M. Hibschweiler, J.D.; Kathleen Nesper, CPA; and Martha Salzman, J.D.

Editor: Annette Nellen, Esq., CPA, CGMA

Academic integrity is the cornerstone on which a college's or university's reputation and the value of its degrees rest. With coordination and effort, faculty and the schools at which they work can take steps to successfully promote academic integrity and prevent or reduce the number and severity of cheating incidents. Arguably, in no program is this more important than in departments that teach accounting or tax, where students will graduate to join a profession in which integrity is paramount.

A college or university can meet integrity goals, which are often reflected in accreditation standards, by implementing a comprehensive academic integrity program including communicating the organization's policies, encouraging faculty to take steps to prevent or reduce the opportunity for cheating, and handling incidents in a judicious and transparent manner. Taking steps to prevent or reduce the opportunity for cheating and creating this culture of academic integrity also serves to mitigate or eliminate potential legal liability if an academic integrity incident occurs.

This column briefly addresses the accreditation standards of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and the AICPA's Model Tax Curriculum before turning to a discussion of some principles that can be derived from a reading of legal cases involving academic integrity situations. The column concludes with a series of recommendations or best practices for promoting an ethical learning environment and suggestions for how tax professionals can support instructors in their efforts to promote academic integrity. Practitioners who teach part time and might not be aware of university policies on academic integrity can use these tips to avoid academic integrity problems and as a starting point for delving into campus rules and policies on this subject.

Accreditation and curriculum standards

Academic integrity policies, including their implementation and enforcement, are an important component of the accreditation process and recommended curricula. In its eligibility procedures and accreditation standards for both accounting and business accreditation, the AACSB lists encouraging and supporting ethical behavior by students, as well as faculty, administrators, and professional staff, as the first criterion representing the AACSB's core values and guiding principles (see AACSB, 2018 Eligibility Procedures and Accreditation Standards for Accounting Accreditation, p. 7, available at www.aacsb.edu; and 2013 Eligibility Procedures and Accreditation Standards for Business Accreditation, p. 6, available at www.aacsb.edu.

Both of these AACSB procedures and standards provide that the school or accounting academic unit "must have appropriate systems, policies, and procedures that reflect the school's (or unit's) support for and importance of ethical behavior for administrators, faculty, professional staff, and students in their professional and personal actions." Moreover, those systems, policies, and procedures "must provide appropriate mechanisms for addressing breaches of ethical behavior." Documentation supporting this criterion includes published academic integrity policies and procedures, descriptions of "programs to educate participants about ethics policies and procedures," and "systems for detecting and addressing breaches of ethical behaviors, such as honor codes, codes of conduct, and disciplinary systems to address inappropriate behavior."

The AICPA's Model Tax Curriculum (MTC) emphasizes the importance of ethics and includes understanding ethical responsibilities in its learning outcomes and sample syllabuses. For example, a learning outcome of the MTC is to "understand tax-related statutory, regulatory, and professional ethics obligations and identify tax-based community service opportunities." After identifying both Treasury Department Circular 230, Regulations Governing Practice Before the Internal Revenue Service (31 C.F.R. Part 10), and the AICPA's Statements of Standards for Tax Services (SSTS), as well as statutory obligations, the MTC notes, "[t]ax students should understand the relevance of these requirements and guidelines for tax practice and the potential penalties of violating these statutory, regulatory, and professional ethics standards" (MTC at p. 6, available at www.aicpa.org).

The task force that revised the MTC in 2014 stressed the importance of this learning objective but noted that schools might approach it in different ways in their curricula. For example, one program may have a stand-alone professional ethics course that includes a discussion of tax ethics, and another program may cover tax ethics in a tax course (Purcell, Nichols, Rhoades-Catanach, Rubin, Sawyers, and Spilker, "The Model Tax Curriculum: 2014 Revisions Provide a Valuable Tool for Accounting Programs," 45 The Tax Adviser 588 (August 2014)). In part, the approach to ethics should be influenced by a thoughtful examination of program and course content. It may be difficult to add a meaningful ethics discussion to an already-full tax course but also challenging to carve out units for a separate class. The MTC includes two sample syllabuses, reflecting either option. One has a separate unit on professional responsibilities in tax practice, and the other incorporates that topic in a unit on tax compliance, the IRS and tax authorities, and an introduction to tax research (MTC at pp. 9-12).

Academic integrity policies differ from professional ethical standards, such as Circular 230 and the SSTSs noted in the MTC and serve a different purpose. However, they do share a common denominator: not to cheat or aid others in cheating, which is an important credo in both the academic context and for the practicing accountant. A chart that accompanies the online version of this column shows how a few sample parts of Circular 230 and the SSTSs can be related to academic integrity concerns (see Appendix A). Educating students in academic ethical standards through appropriate policies, training, and enforcement may help them better understand professional ethical standards and their importance. Moreover, by stressing ethics in their own classrooms, professors model a commitment to integrity for their students and help their schools maintain a strong reputation for academic responsibility.

Possible legal issues

Academic integrity issues usually arise without warning and, in the case of cheating on an exam, may require quick action to preserve evidence. That raises the question of whether a misstep in handling a possible cheating incident can lead to legal liability. Professors have been sued by students under both federal and state law, as shown in Appendix B. An analysis of these cases leads to some basic principles for instructors to follow to avoid litigation.

First, when cheating is suspected, it is important to be extremely careful about what information is disclosed and to whom. Professors have been sued for defamation where allegedly false information was revealed to others, and for invasion of privacy if the information shared was true. Second, a professor must carefully follow institutional guidelines concerning procedural protections that may be required under a college's or university's student handbook or other applicable documentation. Not following the applicable guidelines can lead to lawsuits based on breach of implied contract or other theories. Underlying many of the cases on liability in cheating situations is the theme that instructors must act professionally, dispassionately, promptly, and carefully. Failure to do so may give the student grounds to appeal and will almost certainly lead to much time spent in meetings with administrators and lawyers.

What professors can do

Given the accreditation standards and the desire to avoid potential legal liability, colleges and universities must adopt academic integrity policies, and professors must implement them in a meaningful way in the classroom. This can be done through various measures. Professors need to be extremely careful to follow institutional rules, at the department, school, and college or university level, when embedding integrity procedures into their courses. If rules the institution provides are insufficient, or if latitude exists, a professor could consider adding his or her own best practices. However, this should be well documented in the syllabus and with the chair's approval.

There are additional considerations in designing ethics measures, including course enrollment and cultural or similar issues. Academic integrity policies are not one-size-fits-all. Measures appropriate in a program with small classes may be wholly inadequate in a larger setting. Similarly, steps dictated by larger enrollments may be cumbersome and unnecessary in a small program or class. In devising integrity measures, institutions and professors need to consider the population served. Additional training or discussion may be required where many of the students may be unfamiliar with integrity expectations because of culture or other reasons. An example would be where a student comes from a society that considers plagiarism to be nothing more than cooperative learning.

Honor codes

Establishing an honor code is the single clearest statement that a college or university is serious in its commitment to academic integrity (Whitley and Keith-Spiegel, Academic Dishonesty: An Educator's Guide, p. 339 (2001)). The honor code should explicitly define and state the college's or university's policy governing the academic conduct of the stakeholders, including students, faculty, administrators, and professional staff. Designed properly, honor codes place responsibilities and obligations on students, not just on faculty, to promote a culture of academic integrity. The policy should be reflective of a broad strategy. Therefore, to be successful the college or university should use a multipronged approach to instill academic integrity into the system through clear syllabus language and the adoption of test procedures and mechanisms to discourage plagiarism and cheating (see McCabe, Butterfield, and Trevino, Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do About It, p. 195 (2012)).

Syllabus language

Colleges and universities should encourage faculty to establish clear policies in the course syllabus and communicate specific expectations at the start of each semester. Policies should include standards of conduct and specific principles and expectations regarding the use of electronic devices, cheating during an exam, plagiarism on assignments, and examination and makeup policies. The syllabus should include references to any college or university policies that may apply, such as the honor code and proper classroom behavior. Course syllabuses should describe (or cross-reference the policy that describes) the consequences of cheating, listing the range of sanctions that may apply, and make it clear that unethical behavior can jeopardize a student's career plans in much the same way that unethical actions by a CPA can result in professional discipline, including loss of license. The sample syllabus language in Appendix C can help supplement any university or college required text.

Test procedures

Faculty should adopt sensible test procedures that make it difficult for students to cheat. Before the test, the instructor should provide complete and equal information about exam coverage, format, grading, and the weight of the exam relative to the entire course grade. If prior tests are available to anyone (e.g., a former student or a student club repository), the instructor should consider making an example available to everyone. Secure access to the new exam should always be maintained, and alternate versions should be written, particularly if the faculty member teaches multiple sections. If the course has multiple sections, the instructor should consider holding the test at a combined session outside of normal class time. The faculty member should post exam procedures in advance of the test and remind students to review them. Exam procedures should cover various topics, including what students can bring into the test room, and prohibit them from resuming work on the exam if they leave the room.

On the day of the exam, the instructor should arrive at the test site early to clear the room of stray objects and arrange the seats if necessary. A seating chart should be established and posted so that students sit randomly and, if possible, in every other row or seat to leave empty chairs between them. Students should be required to keep items, other than those necessary to take the exam, securely in backpacks stored ideally at the front or back of the classroom, including cellphones, earphones, smart watches, and all other devices with an on/off switch. If there are no clocks in the room, the instructor can keep track of time on the board or set a timer on the computer if the exam is in a technology-equipped room.

The instructor should make it clear to the students that if they are found to be in possession of any unauthorized material during the exam, they are in violation of procedure and will be construed as cheating. If scratch paper is required, the instructor should make it available with the test. A student should not bring paper to the exam. Calculators should be allowed only when required; any calculator permitted should include only the functions necessary to complete the questions. Departments should consider purchasing low-cost calculators that can be handed out for exams to ensure students only have devices offering basic math functions and nothing else.

The instructor should proctor the exams adequately and carefully, continually circulating throughout the room in a random fashion observing students and their behavior. Students who look around the room to see the location of the professor or other proctors may be identifying themselves as cheaters and should be given discreet but special attention. Students should not be allowed to leave the room for breaks once the exam has begun until their exam is complete and has been collected. Upon submission of the exam, the proctors should check individual student photo identification cards. Instructors are advised to include an acknowledgment of the test procedures posted before the exam signed by each student as part of the test submission. An example of such a form is shown in Appendix D.

Prevent plagiarism

To prevent plagiarism, faculty should design writing assignments to analyze topics rather than to present facts. To increase interest, consider student input into the choice of topics or assignments. The professor should clearly state how students are to cite sources to avoid any confusion. The syllabus should alert students to the use of anti-plagiarism software such as TurnItIn.com or Google to check their work. Instructors must guard against "contract cheating," which occurs when a student purchases an assignment from an online platform or obtains assistance to complete an assignment using a chatroom or a social media site, and should frequently reiterate the expectation of adhering to academic integrity principles when completing assignments. When confronting a student suspected of plagiarism, the instructor should gather the evidence and facts and be respectful. If the student denies it, one option is to test the student for mastery of the topic.

Discourage cheating

In addition to test preparation and preventing plagiarism, faculty can take several steps to reduce the pressure on students and to discourage cheating. A good policy is to establish clear, consistent grading criteria and use grading rubrics. An instructor can ensure the course expectations and assignment load are reasonable and should base final grades on a variety of multiple assessments that are fair and reflect the course content taught. The syllabus should announce the resources that students may use to complete assignments, such as teacher assistants, peer tutors, and writing centers available to English-as-a-second-language students. Finally, the class should be designed to ensure that students are given a reasonable time to complete assignments.

Handling and documenting academic integrity incidents

Although a professor may take all the right cautionary steps to prevent an academic integrity incident, one nonetheless may arise. In that case, the actions that the professor takes may come under scrutiny. To avoid liability, as noted previously, and for reasons of sound pedagogy, it is important to follow the college's or university's policies and procedures for handling and documenting the incident.

First, the professor must preserve any evidence. In the case of cheating on an exam, that may include unauthorized materials such as crib notes, the exam on which cheating is suspected, calculators containing unauthorized formulas, a picture of the screen of a cellphone connected to the internet or course website during the exam, and other sources. In the case of plagiarism of a paper or homework submission, it could be an internet source, textbook answer key, another student's work submission, or other sources.

When notifying the student of an allegation, the advice, again, is for the instructor to follow college or university procedures. A sample letter informing a student of an academic integrity incident is shown in Appendix E (although the university might have a suggested form or template). The student should be allowed to respond in person if possible or in another manner if a discussion in person is not possible (e.g., phone call or email). For any in-person meeting or phone call, the instructor should have another person present to take notes or record the meeting (in either case, with the student's knowledge and consent). The instructor should share his or her concerns, allow the student a limited time to respond, and be prepared to disclose the evidence gathered. Per college or university guidelines, the student might be entitled to have a representative at the meeting. The instructor does not have to reach a decision at this meeting.

After the meeting, the instructor should consult the department chair, academic program director, or Office of the Dean of Students regarding the interaction with the student and the final decision and possible sanctions. Following university or college guidelines, the student should be notified of the decision, any sanctions imposed, and his or her right to appeal the decision.

What practitioners can do

By virtue of their position as professionals and practitioners, CPAs have an important role to play in supporting a tax program's efforts to ensure academic integrity. Early in the academic year a firm could help an accounting department organize a technical or other presentation addressing what is expected of students in a tax or accounting program, including the importance of academic and professional integrity. This should also be stressed in all the firm's recruiting efforts.

Practitioners can also help instructors in staffing an exam with proctors. Since exam schedules typically are set before the semester begins, firms or retired tax professionals may be able to build proctoring into their schedules, especially in large classes with multiple sections, where exams may be given at night or on weekends. In addition, accounting and tax professors could coordinate to have one or two days, early in the semester, when a CPA appears in multiple classes to discuss the importance of integrity for students and professionals. These remarks should describe ethics as a continuum, linking classroom integrity policies to what will be expected of the students when they are practitioners who must follow rules such as those found in Circular 230 and the SSTSs.

Firms should reinforce their concern with academic integrity whenever possible in contacts with students, including when supporting the school in other roles, such as a CPA who conducts mock interviews. The underlying message that practitioners should aim to deliver is that in addition to following all relevant guidelines for professional responsibility, tax professionals, and students who hope to join their ranks, must be guided by uncompromising integrity.

Setting the tone for professional conduct

Given the trusted role CPAs occupy in providing services to both businesses and individuals, ensuring the integrity of practitioners is critical. This begins at the college or university level and requires more than training students in professional responsibility rules; it also involves an active commitment to academic integrity. Institutions must adopt appropriate policies and procedures, educate students about them, and put them into practice. This effort must obviously involve professors and also must include other campus personnel including administrators, academic counselors, and, ideally, practitioners. The benefits of well-designed and carefully implemented integrity programs may relate directly to accreditation and avoiding liability, but most importantly they set an ethical tone in the academic context that may translate to ethical CPAs in the professional one.  

 

Contributors

Arlene M. Hibschweiler, J.D., is a clinical associate professor, Kathleen Nesper, CPA, is a clinical assistant professor, and Martha Salzman, J.D., is a clinical assistant professor, all in the Accounting and Law Department at the School of Management, University at Buffalo. Annette Nellen, Esq., CPA, CGMA, is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, Calif., and is the immediate past chair of the AICPA Tax Executive Committee. For more information about this column, please contact thetaxadviser@aicpa.org.

 

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