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Socializing the Corrupt: Cheating, Education and Law Enforcement in Pennsylvania

Law enforcement leaders create an educational system for socializing corrupt police in Pennsylvania.

(Photo: ini budi setiawan / Flickr)

Collaborations between higher education institutions and law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania have multiplied in the past two decades. Although many of these collaborations purportedly aim to improve law enforcement by educating current and future generations of police officers, they have unfortunately produced ethically questionable and socially deleterious consequences, such as lowering academic integrity standards, encouraging systemic cheating and artificially inflating graduation rates. As a result, higher education institution executives and law enforcement leaders in Pennsylvania have managed to create an educational system for socializing successive generations of corrupt police.

The expression socialization of the corrupt is Charles Bahn’s. In the 1975 article “The Psychology of Police Corruption,” he compares police corruption to academic cheating. In a study of students’ attitudes towards cheating and their actual cheating behavior, there was no correlation. Students who disapproved of cheating still cheated; others who approved of cheating chose to abstain. Bahn concludes that, “while verbal morality is learned, it is not necessarily true that the related behaviors are also learned.” The implication of this study for police training is that being taught the importance of an institution’s core values (e.g., honesty, integrity, fidelity) and expressing one’s commitment to these values do not curtail unethical behavior. Socializing the corrupt means filling students’ heads with empty slogans and moral platitudes, hoping that they will do what is right in any particular situation.

In their own lapses of moral judgment and unethical behavior, higher education and law enforcement leaders effectively socialize students to behave similarly. For this reason, we should be particularly alert to partnerships between higher education institutions and law enforcement agencies that lower standards for ethical conduct, fail to enforce academic integrity policies or tolerate and/or encourage systemic cheating. When cheating is systemic, the problem cannot be reduced to the actions of a few bad actors or wayward students. Instead, it must be appreciated in terms of the relations and processes of the whole system. Executive leadership, administration and/or faculty explicitly or implicitly accept and endorse certain features of the entire learning process (e.g., lack of exam proctors, students’ advance access to exam questions, widespread use of cheat sheets), the acceptance and endorsement of which gives an imprimatur to students’ cheating behavior. Although most (though not all) of these features violate college and university policies, they are tolerated — and in some cases encouraged — by instructors, administrators and executive leaders who prioritize the achievement of productivity goals (e.g., retention and graduation rates) over academic integrity. In Pennsylvania, collaborations between law enforcement and academic institutions that enable systemic cheating and socialize the corrupt are becoming increasingly widespread.

Penn State World Campus

As a higher education institution, Penn State has suffered its fair share of controversy over the past decade. The Sandusky scandal, Joe Paterno’s unpopular banishment (as well as his subsequent death) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association sanctions have scarred the institution’s reputation, though perhaps not permanently. The Paterno family and the successor to Penn State’s president Graham Spanier have sought to recover the good name of the former football coach and Penn State. I have worked as a philosophy faculty member at Penn State’s Hazleton campus for the past seven years.

To read more articles by Shane Ralston and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

When former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky raped boys from his charity, The Second Mile, Penn State administrators covered up the crimes in order to protect the institution’s reputation. However, the victims came forward; Sandusky was convicted on 52 counts of child molestation, and Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier and other university officials who failed to report the abuse were ousted. Not surprisingly, Penn State’s student enrollment declined sharply soon after the Sandusky scandal became news. Enrollment numbers, especially at the satellite campuses, are still far below what they were prior to the scandal. The only division of Penn State with growing enrollment is World Campus, Penn State’s online division.

In 2006, I was recruited to teach courses for World Campus. One of World Campus’s academic integrity policies, intended to prevent systemic student cheating, was that the final exams for all its courses had to be proctored in person by someone approved by the administration. Otherwise, administrators and instructors feared that students would pay someone more knowledgeable than them to take their exams in their place. This unethical form of student cheating, called “ghosting,” is specifically prohibited in the boilerplate academic integrity policy that is included in almost every Penn State course syllabus. For many students, finding a proctor and having the proctor approved by a World Campus administrator was an inconvenience. A year later, the policy had been largely scrapped in favor of the honor system for most courses in Penn State World Campus’s course catalog (only a few online courses in math, sciences and sociology still require proctors).

When I complained in 2009 about the disappearance of proctors, I soon found myself without courses to teach the following term. In 2015, when I was invited back to World Campus and taught one course, I complained about poor course design and my suspicion that many students were cheating. One of the most engaged and industrious students in the course, Matthew Gagala, also complained to the philosophy department chair and academic division dean that the course was poorly designed. I was promptly told that I would never teach another philosophy course for World Campus again.

The removal of the proctoring safeguard is obviously a sore issue for faculty, since we are duty-bond to uphold academic integrity standards. For executive leaders and administrators, though, dispensing with the proctoring requirement meant one less barrier to increasing enrollments and generating tuition dollars from Penn State’s only growing division.

Penn State World Campus serves an emerging and largely untapped student population from the corporate and military sectors. These students have limited time. For most, their employers are willing to pay the entire tuition bill or a substantial portion of it. Retaining and graduating these tuition-paying students is a major objective of Penn State. Many who earn their Penn State degrees through World Campus, particularly those serving in the military, eventually pursue careers in law enforcement. The removal of the exam-proctoring safeguard signaled to students that cheating in online courses was not only tolerated, but to some extent, also encouraged by Penn State. Academic integrity was nothing more than an empty slogan that took up space in the cluttered policies section of a course syllabus.

The decision to scrap the proctor requirement in most of the World Campus courses is not on par with the Sandusky scandal cover-up. Nonetheless, the lesson Sandusky teaches us is that we should voice our outrage when Penn State’s leaders try to hide the truth. Former Penn State student and instructor Kristin Rawls hopes others will see the Sandusky scandal as a call for social action and public accountability. “Ultimately, I hope that the Sandusky case will have an important public impact, empowering others like me to speak out and motivating the public to demand answers about just what goes on in State College — even beyond the football stadium,” she writes.

Likewise, we should ask why World Campus decided to lower its academic integrity standards and demand accountability, including an explanation of what alternative to in-person proctoring prevents ghosting in Penn State’s online courses.

In their own examination of the fallout from Penn State’s Sandusky scandal, Henry and Susan Giroux noted, “The corporate university is descending more and more into what has been called ‘an output fundamentalism,’ prioritizing market mechanisms that emphasize productivity and performance measures that make a mockery of quality scholarship and diminish effective teaching — scholarly commitments are increasingly subordinated to bringing in bigger grants to supplement operational budgets negatively impacted by the withdrawal of governmental funding.”

Penn State’s key productivity measures include enrollment, retention and graduation rates, which help in the recruitment of new cohorts of students who apply, accept and enroll at Penn State every year. Lowering academic integrity standards and encouraging systemic cheating in online courses has artificially inflated the figures for these output measures, including (but not exclusively for) military students, many of whom go on to pursue careers in law enforcement. In this way, Penn State has contributed to socializing new generations of corrupt police in Pennsylvania.

Harrisburg Area Community College

Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) has become embroiled in its own share of controversy over the past two decades, including employee theft of a quarter-of-a-million dollars by an executive vice president and warnings from their accreditor for lack of student learning and curriculum assessment. The same accreditor, Middle States Commission on Higher Education, had also warned Penn State over its mishandling of the Sandusky scandal.

In 2004, a cheating scandal erupted at HACC’s municipal police academy. Cadets in the present and past classes reported that copying exams and employing them as cheat sheets was tolerated and even encouraged by instructors who announced in class that test questions and entire exams were reused from term to term. The release of the copied exams to the media led to an administrative crackdown and enforcement of HACC’s long-neglected academic integrity policy.

In its press release, HACC’s leadership team offered its own account, clearly aimed at softening perceptions that the cheating was systemic:

The cadets involved had received copies of questions gleaned from earlier tests. Many of those questions are used from year to year and they are supposed to remain confidential even after the cadet leaves the academy. The earlier tests appear to have been recreated from memory after leaving the exams. There is no indication that physical copies of the exams ever left the testing room.

After three parallel investigations, no instructors or administrators at HACC’s municipal police academy were punished for reusing test questions or entire exams. While a majority of the cadet class had been involved in the cheating, only two would be dismissed from the academy. HACC’s leadership merely assured the public that it was “working with the Municipal Police Officers Training Commission to enhance the security of the entire testing procedure.”

Similar to Penn State, HACC does not require proctors for online exams. A relative of mine in one of HACC’s Associates programs once confessed to me that she had cajoled boyfriends and family members for years to complete her online coursework for her, including writing her papers and taking her online exams. As an educator, I felt I had an ethical duty to report her plagiarism and ghosting to HACC. Without inspecting all of the available evidence, HACC reported that it had completed an investigation and found no reasons for disciplining the student. I then filed a FOIA request to find out why HACC would so easily dismiss these flagrant academic integrity violations, but HACC denied my request on the grounds that disclosing the investigation records would violate the student’s privacy, as protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). I believe that the FERPA exemption claim was only a pretext to hide the mechanisms by which HACC tolerates and encourages systematic student cheating for the sake of bolstering its retention and graduation rates.

Pennsylvania State Police Academy at Hershey

In February 2016, another cheating scandal came to light, this one at the Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) Academy in Hershey. The similarities between it and the HACC municipal police academy scandal would shock, except for the long history of police training collaborations between PSP and HACC. (For instance, PSP and HACC jointly manage a Polygraph Institute at the Northeast Counterdrug Training Center.)

The official story of how the cheating scandal was exposed is that an instructor found a cadet’s cheat sheet and contacted the media to report the wrongdoing. However, this account overlooks the curious fact that the cheating was made possible by the PSP instructor (and others like him at the Academy), who recycled test questions and entire tests from term to term. An alternative story offered by dismissed cadets is that one cadet had a crisis of conscience, alerted the media and administrators at the Academy, only to become a casualty of the affair, one of the 29 cadets who either quit or were forced to leave the Academy.

Many of the incoming cadets have little or no college education. Their anxiety about memorizing the procedures, laws and codes in the 1,900-page Criminal Justice Handbook likely influenced their decision to cheat. Almost identical to the HACC cheating scandal, prior cohorts of cadets had prepared the cheat sheets and handed them to successive incoming classes. Some instructors looked the other way, while others openly supported reliance on these inherited shortcuts. According to a report from Wallace McKelvey on, four cadets who either gave up or were told to leave anonymously described the cheating scheme as instructor-approved.

McKelvey writes: “Instructors routinely told the cadets, ‘the next class should have it easier than you did.’ That meant that members of the 143rd class provided study materials to the 144th class that they had been given by the members of the 142nd class.” After a cadet confessed, he learned the truism that a good deed never goes unpunished. “Telling the truth did nothing for me,” he said.

Meanwhile, in an earlier report on, McKelvey also reported that an anonymous source within the PSP Academy expressed disappointment that the platitudes about honesty and integrity that instructors teach cadets never influenced their behavior:

One thing I preach to young troopers is don’t lie, period. Police officers don’t get rich from this job. The one thing you bring to this profession, and should leave with, is your integrity.

Another lamented, “You’re not supposed to lie, cheat, or steal.” Nevertheless, Bahn’s conclusion rings true in the wake of the PSP Academy cheating scandal: verbal morality and actual moral behavior, never the twain shall meet.

An Unfortunate Way Forward

Besides the collaborations between HACC and the PSP, Penn State has also offered to become a partner with the PSP in its struggle to overcome this public relations nightmare and recruit a larger and more diverse police force. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf described the challenge the state of Pennsylvania and the PSP face: “We’re trying to address the issue of replenishing the state police force with more cadet classes. Obviously, if there indeed is a cheating scandal and people disqualify themselves because they aren’t living up to the high standards of the state police in terms of integrity, that will create a problem, but I’m doing what I can.” Penn State researchers will survey cadets and determine ways to boost recruitment, retention and graduation rates, similar to how Penn State overcame the Sandusky scandal by tapping a new population of students through its online division, World Campus. Unfortunately, this way forward may mean that the PSP Academy emulates HACC and Penn State, continually lowering academic integrity standards and encouraging systemic cheating, while maintaining secrecy and silencing dissent for the sake of artificially inflating productivity figures. In short, Pennsylvania is now poised to socialize whole new generations of corrupt state troopers.

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