No privacy for plagiarists

Loye Young was fired as an adjunct professor at Texas A&M International University for publishing on his course blog the names of six students caught plagiarizing in his management information systems class.  He’d warned in his syllabus that he would “promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating, or stealing.”

“Plagiarism is manifestly unfair and disrespectful to your classmates,” Young wrote on his blog. “There are students taking the course who are working very, very hard to learn a subject that in many cases is foreign to them. A plagiarizer is implicitly treating the honest, hard-working student as a dupe.”

University administrators put the failing grades on hold and referred the cases to an honors council.  Young, who runs a computer company in Laredo, was fired on charges of violating a federal privacy law that “bars the release of educational records about students without their permission.”

Young says the university wants instructors to keep quiet about cheating.

“People here are told that students should be babied and that we need to keep ‘em in to get enrollment and state funding,” he said. “Well, I want students — when they complete my course — to actually know something, and they can’t if they plagiarize everything.”

“Only in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ can a diploma educate a scarecrow,” Young wrote. Many TAMIU  business students are unemployable because they “cannot or will not read and follow simple instructions, and they certainly cannot write simple declarative sentences.”

Should plagiarism be a private matter between the professor and the cheater?

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  1. Much as I deplore plagiarizers, Mr Young violated a condition of his employment (and the law) by publicizing students’ grades; putting his employer in jeopardy. Young’s heart is in the right place, but he lost his head.

    It’s much easier to (1) report the incident to the appropriate Assistant Dean of Students so he knows what’s coming, (2) give the offenders a very low grade for the assignment–zero is often appropriate–and (3) let the chips fall where they may–usually on the letter “F”–when final grades are computed. In one case, I didn’t get past step (1); the Assistant Dean gave the student the bum’s rush and instructed me to assign the “F” immediately. All done well within the law, and filled with cold, cold, sweet, sweet revenge on the plagiarists, who get their grades just before Christmas.

  2. Yeah, Mr. Young seems to be the suicide bomber for academic integrity. I’d guess he got to the point where he only cared about publicity. And he seems to have succeeded at getting some.

    I’m thinking that any University that would want to maintain a good reputation would expel or suspend students who cheated. Of course, this determination has to be done fairly. But from what the provost said, it sounds as if TAMIU is not trying to serve the kind of people interested in a reputation strong academic integrity.

  3. Mr. Young violated FERPA. There is no controversy here.

  4. The federal law is FERPA. There really needs to be clearer guidelines. I was told I couldn’t blog as a student teacher because I was violating FERPA, even though I never discussed academic performance and used pseudonyms for all the students, and didn’t identify the school name. No way was I violating FERPA, but I had to pull down the blog.

    At the same time Dan Greene is violating FERPA most days by openly discussing students and their grades in easily identifiable ways. California Teacher Guy was clearly just warned about his blog and told he could be fired (I am inferring this from what happened).

    The rules should be obvious. But I don’t think either I or CTG were anywhere near violating rules (unless he was using real names), and this guy and Dan Greene are both violating FERPA every time they mention a student’s grades. Go figure.

  5. Bill Leonard says:

    Two thoughts:

    1. No need to publicly identify plagiarists. Simply fail them in the course. And this probably is where the individual in question opened himself to criticism; he should simply have failed the jerks out of hand, and said no more.

    2. This instructor, as in 1. above, erred in publicly identifying the plagiarists. That said, if the university cannot stand behind an instructor, assistant, associate or full professor in a matter of clear plagiarism, is that a place where any honest human being would want to work?


  6. Should plagiarism be a private matter between the professor and the cheater?

    I don’t believe the matter should be made public, but it shouldn’t necessarily remain private between the professor and cheater either. My university has an honor system which seeks to educate students about academic integrity. The honor system only works when violations are reported.

    The prof in this post was indeed a “suicide bomber for integrity” as pm points out. Getting caught and experiencing the consequences of the poor decision making ought to be humiliation enough. Violating federal privacy law is not a good way to make friends with your employer.

    Our school has a special grade of “XF” for those who fail a course due to integrity issues. Those receiving this grade must take a special course about academic integrity to have that grade removed from the transcript. So in a way, although transcripts are not public information, any prospective employer who asks for college grades might possibly see one of these red flags if the student doesn’t take care of it.

    (If anyone is interested, K-State’s honor system home page is at

  7. “Mr. Young violated FERPA. There is no controversy here.”

    Not as to the present case, no, but as to the question it raises: should FERPA be amended for just such cases? I would say, absolutely, yes. A record of intellectual dishonesty is something the public should be aware of: the law should not prevent this, but rather should encourage it.

  8. Dave, I’m not sure I agree with you in this case, but I do agree that FERPA needs to be revisited by Congress.

  9. Does the violation of federal law leave Young open to being sued for damages by the cheaters?

  10. As much as I loathe plagiarism and would like to see those who do it fail in every way they can be failed, I do agree that Young violated FERPA.

    My course policy is automatic 0 on the assignment, and an automatic referral to the Academic Affairs committee if it happens again. So far, I’ve only had to use the first option. (Though I did have a student who failed my class once – in part, because he plagiarized his research paper – come back, take the class a second time, and plagiarize again. With his 0, I wrote on his paper, “Did you really think I would have stopped checking?” I suppose I technically could have referred him to Academic Affairs but just didn’t have the energy to deal with his sad face. And yes, he failed the second time through.)

  11. There’s something perversely funny about the fact that FERPA explicitly allows for an institution to disclose its academically honorable students but isn’t allowed to identify the academically dishonorable ones. From the DoE web site about FERPA:

    Schools may disclose, without consent, “directory” information such as a student’s name, address, telephone number, date and place of birth, honors and awards, and dates of attendance.

  12. Once, in a computer programming class, I was accused of cheating. Only that, I had not. The professor was an ass and accused me and another guy – who I did not know well at the time – of cheating and copying each other’s code. Only that, I had not.

    I had no way to prove it and he had no way to prove it. I went to the dean. The issue was dropped. I guess the way to prove it was to escalate it. That, and I had really good grades – consistently, my entire life.

    How do you prove some one plagarized? Some times you can, some times you can’t. Publicly naming the plagarizers would be the wrong thing to do, unless you really knew they cheated.

    If my name was ever included on a list like this, I would press charges.

  13. Honorable people and institutions know better than to shout from the rooftops about dishonorable behavior going on on their watch. They would rather deal with the sad evidence privately. Making a stink about it casts dishonor on the entire college, which gets a name for being the place where “the cheating scandal” occurred.

  14. FERPA should never have been passed. When parents call me, I cannot discuss their son’s or daughter’s academic performance with them, because it would violate FERPA. Even after grades have been sent out, I cannot discuss a student’s academic performance with the parents — who are paying tuition — because of FERPA. If a university decides to handle a crime internally, the student is protected from any prosecution because of FERPA. It’s one of the five or six most idiotic laws ever passed.

    Having said that, I agree that this guy should have been sacked for what he did. We pass academic dishonesty cases on to the Dean of Students, and they deal with it appropriately.

  15. “If a university decides to handle a crime internally, the student is protected from any prosecution because of FERPA.”

    AFAICT, this is not correct. FERPA prohibits disclosing the results of some disciplinary proceedings, including those that may involve the commission of a crime, but FERPA doesn’t prohibit a separate criminal prosecution for the crime.

    When I was a TA I had one blatant case of copying – in a 4th semester German class I taught, the students were assigned a 3 page essay as homework. The student instead copied three pages from a short story by Thomas Mann and turned that in, without even changing the title. Obviously, this was fairly easy to detect.

    I was just a TA, so I brought this to the attention of the professor who supervised the section. My university had 3 options for first offense cheating – fail the assignment, fail the course, or fail the course and be expelled from the department for one year. Simply failing the student for the assignment did not seem enough of a penalty since the cheating was so pervasive. Also, failing him only for the assignment would provide an incentive to cheat, in a way – the student stated that he copied the paper because he didn’t think he would have time to do it otherwise. Meaning that if he doesn’t do the paper, he gets an F, but if he cheats, he might get an F, or he might get a better grade. Therefore, cheating is the better option.

    But he did admit the cheating upon being confronted with it, so the most severe option didn’t seem warranted. But being failed from the class did have significant consequences – as the student was a graduating senior and the class was the final sequence of the foreign language requirement, the student did not graduate on time and, apparently, could not begin work at the job he had already been offered on time. On the other hand, he was allowed to repeat the course in the summer and graduate in the summer, which may have allowed him to still keep the offered job,starting 2 months later.

    All in all, though, I thought that this was a very reasonable way of dealing with the matter.

  16. GoogleMaster says:

    I went back and read Mr. Young’s class blog, not only the entries talking about plagiarism but the entries for the weeks prior to that.

    The plagiarized projects were submitted as posts to that very same blog. That is, the students’ work was already public by virtue of having been posted on a publicly accessible site.

    For you FERPA-knowledgeable folks out there, would it have been a violation of FERPA for Mr. Young to comment on one of the offending blog posts something like “This article is copied directly from (source) without credit or reference. This is plagiarism, so you will receive a zero for this assignment, per the course rules which were laid out in the course syllabus.”?

  17. “AFAICT, this is not correct. FERPA prohibits disclosing the results of some disciplinary proceedings, including those that may involve the commission of a crime, but FERPA doesn’t prohibit a separate criminal prosecution for the crime.”

    What you’re missing is that universities investigate internally for the sole purpose of not involving the justice system. I’ve seen it happen many times. Theft, burglary, vandalism, assault, etc.

  18. I cannot imagine that there is a college or university anywhere in the United States that does not have a clear policy and procedures regarding plagiarism–that has been well-vetted to comply with FERPA and any other relevant laws. It isn’t up to individual professors to set their own policy/practices in this arena. Unless the TAMIU policy either directed to instructors to blog about such cases, or granted them free rein to develop their own policies (both of which are pretty doubtful), they were right to discipline the instructor.

    If their policy included due process for the students by the honors council (likely), seems like the U has just followed their established policy/practices–which may take some time, but likely will arrive at justice.

    FERPA may prohibit unauthorized disclosure–however any student who needs to make use of their school records in any way (application to the next school, for instance, employment, etc), will be asked to authorize disclosure. Any refusal would raise questions.

  19. The professor stated upfront in plain language that plagiarism would not be tolerated and violators would be humiliated publicly. College students have to take at least some adult responsibility, even if they’re not ready for all of it. If it’s 100% certain they cheated, then I think they’re fair game.

    And that’s where it all breaks down. As a previous commenter noted, professors aren’t infallible in the area of plagiarism accusations. The whole system with the dean and the honor council and the “XF” or whatever doesn’t exist to protect plagiarists; it exists to protect the falsely accused.

    I really do understand the desire to punish plagiarists. I hate to admit that, in my experience, outright plagiarism is a 1-to-1 indicator of a fundamental lack of respect for others that never goes away and makes a person unable to function productively under the “constraints” of government, employment, religion, or even mutual friendship. That fact is tragic…but the idea of permanently labeling someone with that characteristic when that’s not the full story? Much worse.

  20. I am the professor who whacked this beehive.

    FERPA simply doesn’t apply.
    (1) Students have no privacy rights in works they posted publicly (or even within the class). The DOE has issued specific guidance to that effect.
    (2) FERPA applies to “educational records” as defined in the Act. No educational record was ever created or disclosed.
    (3) FERPA applies solely to records maintained by the institution. The course website was not maintained by TAMIU.
    (4) Even if FERPA applied to this situation, FERPA specifically allows students’ names, addresses, and other directory information to be published.

    TAMIU didn’t know what the FERPA rules were and apparently had never read it. Because I practiced regulatory law before going into finance and technology, the department dean asked me to advise the University about how FERPA applied to the course. I distributed my analysis to the administration a week before disclosing the plagiarists’ names. To my knowledge, no one in the world disputes my legal analysis on the subject.

    I followed University policy and procedures precisely. The University’s Honor Code actually imposed an obligation for me to do exactly as I did. See

    The department chair and college dean carefully reviewed the syllabus at the beginning of the semester, and in particular the language about plagiarism. Although they didn’t like the language, they ultimately approved it because I refused to continue teaching the course otherwise.

    On a moral and practical level, disclosure and the concomitant humiliation is appropriate. I have written an extended analysis here:

    I stand behind my actions. You should too.

    Happy Trails,

    Loye Young
    Isaac & Young Computer Company
    Laredo, Texas

  21. Chynell S. says:

    I think there should have been a more mature way of handling this issue. I think plagiarism can be a private matter between the professor and the cheater if the right consequences are issued. I agree in the sense that there should be some sort of reasonable punishment for cheating, but simply failing the student would have been appropriate enough for this situation. I do not think that the professor should have been fired for doing this. Think about it. He had good intentions, but since he violated a law he was fired. What about the student’s punishment? The equivalent should have been expulsion for the student. It almost seems like the university is backing the student. I am not too familiar with FERPA so I cannot make the call as to whether it was a violation of FERPA or not, but I think FERPA has a lot of fuzzy areas that are leading to confusion. Tom stated, “FERPA explicitly allows for an institution to disclose its academically honorable students but isn’t allowed to identify the academically dishonorable ones.” I agree that something is very wrong. Dishonorable students are not having enough harsh of punishments and we need to reevaluate FERPA’s guidelines. I also think it is ridiculous that a concerned parent cannot discuss grades with a professor.

  22. Chynell and Loye:

    I read through the TAMIU policies pertaining to plagiarism–and I think it takes considerable stretch, if not outright invention, to suggest that a professor is required to place a public notice of students caught cheating. The professor is the first line and has some specific responsibilities and responses. The professor is the one who gives the grade and that is pretty much granted as a right. The professor makes the determiniation of giving the automatic F with the notation on the record that this was for cheating. The professor has an obligation to inform specific persons–which will lead to further determinations to be made by the Honors Council–which will lead to anything from nothing additional (the notated grade, as determined by the professor, would be the only sanction) all the way up through expulsion from the university. This seems like considerable power–and as a result has some due process provisions–none of which include any ability to challenge the grade given by the professor.

    Without seeing exactly what the professor posted to the website, it is a little difficult to form an opinion regarding whether it violated FERPA. If it was a response that included a citation showing how the work was not original (essentially the professor’s statement in response), then I would believe that it falls outside of FERPA. However, if it communicated the student’s grade, then this is a student record, and would be covered by FERPA. I know that in public record’s law there is a distinction between what exists as a record, and what constitutes creation of a new record. Example: a public agency may be required to respond to a request for all expenditures. This would not imply an obligation for the agency to create a new record that communicates them all together in some format or compilation that is sought by some member of the public. While the students made their papers public by posting them on a website, adding the F grade to them was creation of a new record–which contained protected information.


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