A Scandalous Confession
I have complicated feelings about this. Sit down everyone, because you're about to hear a confession.
A couple of years ago, I was disillusioned with being a perpetually unemployed lawyer and decided to go back to school again to pursue something more economics focused. I had to take some calculus classes. At this point, it was more than a decade since my last calculus class, and I had sharp memories of how awful that whole subject was. (If anyone is curious, I agree with Stephen Wolfram on how terrible and inconsistent math notation is, and I personally find it to be a significant barrier to making sense of otherwise intuitive mathematical concepts.)
I did ok given the circumstances, on track with getting the median in the class. I knew that wasn't going to be good enough, and because the entire class was on a curve, I brainstormed ideas on how to get an edge over my classmates.
Several years ago, I went through a rather traumatic episode which left me despondent, near-suicidal, and briefly (3 hours) psychiatrically committed. This happened during my time at law school, and for that reason, I associate a lot of negative sentiments with school in general. It's the honest truth that these events have left me debilitated in everyday life mentally, socially, and professionally. I don't want to downplay their effects.
However, when I reached out to the university's disability accommodations office, my goal was overwhelmingly to find an edge over others. The process was painfully easy. I told them the truth, about how I find aspects of school to be traumatic given my history. The psychiatrist easily signed off on it and recommended more time on tests. The disability accommodations office easily accepted the suggestion and gave me 50% more time on a test deliberately designed to be difficult enough to not be completable within the allotted time.
I never lied or mislead anyone about my behavioral health, but I didn't even need to. No one at the university ever pushed back or questioned the suggested accommodation. They were extremely nice, extremely polite, and of course, extremely accommodating in large part because case law encourages them to do so to avoid litigation. Through almost no work at all, I suddenly had a significant edge over almost all my classmates.
If you're feeling angry about hearing this, perhaps it's a consolation to say that I ended up dropping out of the class anyways. The extra time was not enough to help me to the extent I was aiming for. But this experience stayed in my mind when the 2019 college admission scandal happened.
One of the "strategies" used by the parents was exactly what I did, but much more brazen in its lack of foundation. The idea is to get a psychiatrist to diagnose a learning disability, and the DSM is fluid enough to medically warrant that in most cases, but sometimes outright bribery was used. People with learning disabilities would get extra time on college entrance exams, and while several decades ago their SAT or ACT score would come with an asterisk next to it, successful ADA litigation eliminated that. The expectation now, at least within wealthy communities, is that you're a fool if you take exams without getting a learning disability diagnosis.
So this is why I feel complicated about the Rutgers cheating scandal. The students that were caught are going to be punished for cheating explicitly. They passively looked up answers to a frustrating math question. I haven't been in full college for a long time now, but it's perfectly plausible to see that behavior justified as "if others are cheating, I'm the fool for not" when classes are graded on a curve. You lose when you don't defect. When you broaden your definition into the gray area of learning disabilities and perhaps even other forms of explicit academic fraud uncovered by the 2019 scandal, who exactly are you impressing by sticking to principles?
If you cheat successfully, either explicitly or implicitly, it's pretty much guaranteed that your subterfuge will never be uncovered through work performance. No one will notice, no one will care, but you will benefit by having well lubricated career tracks in front of you.
I generally consider myself honest to a fault in my daily life, but I felt bitter after my previous and recent submersion into academia. I know full well now, that if I had the chance to do it all over it, I would cheat prolifically as much as I could get away with. I would look up answers on the internet, I would get learning disability accommodations, I would get stimulant prescriptions, I would do whatever the fuck it took to get an edge over my classmates who a significant portion of which are already doing the exact same thing.
Because why wouldn't I? We know that a lot of education is more signaling than anything else. Someone who gets a job instead of you isn't because they are more qualified. We know it's a big combination of networking, nepotism, implicit and explicit biases, etc. Besides not getting caught, literally the only motivation is a vague adherence to a moral principle of lawful alignment. But that adherence will have no practical benefits. It won't get you a job. It won't get you promoted.
Part of what makes punishment moral for me is when it is proportional and equitable. Singling out the 126 students with dire consequences does not feel fair, especially because it's unlikely to have a deterrent effect on the ones that are not caught, and especially because it will do fuckall about achieving a semblance of a meritocracy within academia which would make the rules worth following.