Cheaters Sometimes Prosper

Historiann responds to the story of a cheating scandal at the University of Central Florida much the way that I do: before we get to talking about the misdeeds of the students, a 600-person course in strategic management taught very directly from a textbook, so directly that the professor felt comfortable using an exam provided by the textbook publishers, is really a far bigger issue.

Reading the astonishingly lengthy Wikipedia entry on strategic management provides a bit of insight in its own right. It’s a bit of a wonder to me that there are so many people who remain a-quiver with anger over the fading heyday of crit-theory jargon in the humanities when there are fields of professional training as chock-a-block with buzzwords as “strategic management” appears to be. I readily understand the need for people to act as strategic managers as described. I can see the validity of many of the debates that surround management in most organizations (business and otherwise): is strategy a matter of an astute, intuitive reading of the environment, or should it be driven by some kind of rigorous data collection, and so on.

But the idea that to be a strategic manager one ought to study strategic management? That’s mired in the big muddy of a lot of professional education. There are undoubtedly fields of professional work that have very steep requirements for highly specific formal knowledge before ever undertaking work of any kind. Still, even with professions like medicine and law where there is undoubtedly a very large body of formal knowledge that is necessary to successful practice, much of the real learning takes place through practice.

The establishment of formal certifications and informal expectations for professional degrees in many other professions is less about preparing people for the work they’re going to do and more about using educational institutions as a pre-screening device that saves employers the effort of having to consider an almost infinitely large pool of possible candidates for managerial or professional jobs. Some percentage of possible applicants will not have the money or the time to complete a degree. Some additional percentage will be unable to complete the certification due to life circumstances or sheer intellectual inability. At the end, potential employers get to look at a much smaller pool of applicants, but they’re not necessarily people who know much more about how to actually do the jobs for which they might be hired. Moreover, once sufficient numbers of certified people are established in a particular professional setting, they tend to busily go about altering the functioning of their work environment so that professional certification (and attendant jargon) is an effective social barrier to any outsider who might trespass.

Essentially this is mandarism, 21st Century American-style. Work that ought to call for a fairly heterogenous mix of people with different past experience and formal knowledge becomes a monoculture. Strategic management, for example, seems precisely the kind of thing where you might want someone whose sense of a business comes from the ground-up, say in sales; another person who sees the big picture of an industry; another person who has very formal training in data collection and institutional research; another person with an unusual disciplinary background (say, an anthropologist or a former military officer, etc.) I’d wager you’d do as well or better if you want to train “strategic managers” to simply expose them to a fairly vanilla liberal arts core curriculum with some special emphasis on economics and organizational sociology.

I suspect most students in these kinds of professional programs understand this perfectly well, that what they’re paying for is to survive a more or less mechanical process of screening, that what they’re doing in their courses has little to do with what effective work in these professional fields might resemble, that universities are trolls collecting tolls in order to clip-clop across the bridge.

In that context, it’s hardly surprising that students would cheat: it’s fairly difficult for faculties and administrators to act as if they’re upholding a sacred covenant when they’re really just gatekeepers churning six hundred people at a time through a purely textbook-driven course.

This is the same kind of cynicism that lets the now-infamous “Shadow Scholar” carve out a career as a ghostwriter of student papers. (Like a lot of folks who read the Chronicle article, I think Mr. Shadow is laying it on with a trowel, but I don’t doubt that there are people who do something like this for a living.) Over the last year, I’ve gotten emails from five online services that seem to me to be trying to leverage social media into cheating aids, such as Course Hero. I was initially a bit puzzled about why such services might contact professors as potential contributors, but in some ways the only difference between teaching in some for-profit online universities or teaching in some professional programs and contributing to cheating sites is that the latter pay off so poorly. In the end, a lot of this comes down to the same thing: being part of the machinery that processes people who are understandably desperate to buy an entry into a middle-class job. If there are crackdowns on cheating, that simply because the screening function of the machinery breaks down if every single person who pays the money gets the certification, both for some of the student customers and for the end consumers, the businesses and organizations who are subcontracting the work of mandarinizing the white-collar workforce out to universities.

I’ve observed before that one solution to the problem involves reconstructing professional and graduate education (including, yes, Ph.Ds in academic subjects) so that the value added by actual education is the first, second and last priority. Which means smaller classes, less teaching to templates and textbooks, a more problem-driven and experiential focus to education, and less disciplinarity and technical narrowness in fields that by their nature ought to be about intellectual and professional heterogeneity. Which of course also means that the economies that govern many large universities would need a massive overhaul. Those unable to take that on? Maybe they should just go out of business altogether.

Barring that kind of reconstruction, it’s hard to get too exercised about aspirant mandarins cheating their way through the screening process. After all, in more than a few workplaces in contemporary American life, proficiency in cheating is arguably one of the best skills you could master. Bank managers are telling us all with a straight face that while they flagrantly cheated their way through the procedures governing foreclosure and holding mortgages, we need to just look past that and let them go about the necessary business of getting out of the mess that securitization of mortgages left them (and us) mired in. We’ve been told to overlook mind-blowing fraud in the supply of equipment and services to our Iraq and Afghanistan operations in the name of the greater good. If the cause is good, or even if it’s not, expediency now apparently trumps honesty throughout our political and social lives.

Accountability is for everyone or it’s for no one. Or maybe, as in the case of this cheating scandal, it’s only for the dumb chumps stupid enough to get caught and powerless enough that they have to don their sackcloth and ashes and duly perform their false regrets.

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4 Responses to Cheaters Sometimes Prosper

  1. Chris says:

    Agree with your general comments on professional education, but the shot at the field of strategic management is missplaced.

    Placing the name of the field in quotes etc. based on an admittedly messy wikipedia page doesn’t reflect a ‘liberal arts” analysis. The vast majority of strategic management courses are practice based using the case approach, simulations or field projects. The course was established in the original MBA curriculum at Harvard Business School as perhaps the only integrative, inter-disciplinary course in business, which continues through today. Don’t have all the facts of the UCF course, but if it is really a 600 person lecture with all grades based on MC choice questions, then that college is to blame not the field.

  2. Western Dave says:

    Sorry Chris, not buying it. I looked at three strategic management classes offered by Harvard’s business school, (two of which were extension courses). They spend a whole week on SWOT analysis? Really? Funny, the first time I did one, it took five minutes to explain the process. Of course, the results were ignored, but that’s a different issue. I’m with Tim, you could cover most of this field by being reading a couple of articles, and then finding the people in your organization with the skills to fix it. Everybody in a meeting not being heard? Who has the degree in women’s studies, African-American Studies etc. that can put better meeting practices into place. It’s more systemic than that? Hire a lawyer to train managers on how to create a compliant and safe workplace. Having trouble understanding why there are problems between international divisions? Where’s that ex-Anthropology PHD student that dropped out and went corporate who can help cut through the crap. Or the comp. lit. major. Programs like strategic management breed people who are good at implementing pre-packaged programs but not at interpreting their results or making the necessary changes. They’ve missed the whole point of an interdisciplinary approach (bringing multiple-discordant voices together and then trying to make some sense of all noise).

  3. G. Weaire says:

    I don’t disagree with a lot of this – in fact, I’m not sure that I disagree with any of it in principle. But I worry about some of it. Specifically:

    “… so that the value added by actual education is the first, second and last priority.”

    Worry no. 1: the “value” of education. This is not an objection to defending the value of what I do, nor is it to retreat into the “until you’ve done it, you can’t appreciate the value of it. ” (Although I do have some sympathy for that cliche, it’s not a trump). I’m comfortable about having the “value of education” as a contested area in which I have an obligation to be part of the conversation.

    It’s the opposite that worries me – that your argument demands that we somehow resolve all that. I can’t see how one could embark on a project to restructure higher education in the way that you want without a firm consensus on what we mean by “educational value.” Practically speaking, I doubt that’s even possible to achieve – and certainly the difficulties are formidable, the risks of groupthink masquerading as consensus real. I fear that any process of transformation in the name of the value of education would therefore get highjacked in the interests of other things entirely.

    Your thinking on this point seems a little hard to square with your “Let there be diversity in higher education!” strain of thought. I’m more drawn to the latter.

    Worry no.2: Much of the response to the Shadow Scholar (and that sort of thing) has made far too much of credentialism. (Credentialism is a problem, mind you.) This is a current manifestation of a phenomenon that’s much older than credentials.

    As long as education has some link to status, then there will be markers of education that confer status – and there will money in enabling people to simulate those markers. What I’m working on at the moment is weirdly relevant: the Roman Empire was a period in which there was no concept of credentials at all, and yet a lucrative career could be had helping the well-off to fake erudition in various ways.

    Credentials are the current markers – but what you would have to achieve is more fundamental than simply reorientating education away from credentials and towards “actual learning.” I’m not sure that it can be done.

  4. nord says:


    Strategic management plays a big part in why Sony and Nintendo, two early leaders in consumer electronics have struggled with competitive changes. Perhaps you could offer them a 5 minute SWOT to point them in the right direction? While you’re at it – let me know when smart phones, net books, etc. will replace laptops.

    In any event, most folks taking a “strategic management” course as an undergrad aren’t going into corporate strategy. At the business school level, the answer is different, but then again, if you look at the background of typical high level MBAs, they are far closer to Tim’s heterogenous mix of backgrounds than say, Swarthmore undergrads.

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