Professionalism and Honesty: Integral to Higher Education?

by Gregory Tayrose

 Harold Sox stated professionalism “connotes everything that we admire in our colleagues and strive for in ourselves.”1   I will now assume we can all agree that maintaining honesty with our patients is an important aspect of our profession.  I will also propose that honesty as a personality attribute should be integral to the character of physicians.  In addition, if I have not been too presumptuous or ambitious with my expectations already, I also think that other professions and institutions should share the same goal.  In fact, the Center of Academic Integrity, located at Duke, has an “Academic Integrity Assessment Guide” which is “the most powerful tool to assist colleges, universities, and secondary schools to assess the climate of academic integrity on their campuses.”2 

      Apparently the Dook Fuqua School of Business did not get the memo.  Nine of its students are facing expulsion, fifteen students will be suspended for a year, and nine more will fail a course as a result of a cheating scandal.3 I know it is hard to imagine, but other flagship schools educating some of our country’s brightest students make the effort to admit students based on more than simply high scores. . . such as those with good character.  In fact, one of MIT’s former Deans of Admission, Marilee Jones, took time, in what I believe must have been a busy schedule, to give presentations surrounding what should be expected of budding scholars. 

      Ms. Jones has received multiple awards, including MIT’s highest award for administrators, the “MIT Excellence Award for Leading Change,” and awards for her  “special service of outstanding merit.”4  She has been described in the New York Times as being, “the voice of reason and sanity.” She remarked that children today are a “poorly nourished generation” with “overstressed kids and unrealistic parents with high expectations.”5 I understand the argument, and commend her for spreading a positive message aimed at lowering pressure for students navigating through the educational system, but an important fact that she did forget to mention is how she misrepresented her credentials when first applying for her MIT job.  At various points in her career, she claimed to have degrees from Union College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the Albany Medical College, but she apparently had no degree from RPI, did not ever attend Albany Medical College, and it is unclear if she had an undergraduate degree at all.6

      It would be easy to believe that these two previously mentioned examples are anomalies in the academic world, but this is not the case.  One of the scandals should not surprise anyone. . .as Dook was the school involved (if my last comment offended anyone not affiliated with Duke, please know I am sorry).  But, in the same News and Observer article I read about the MBA scandal, an eye-opening survey was mentioned.  It stated that 47% of graduate students across the nation admitted to cheating in the last year.3 

      I will not pretend to have a solution, and I will not pretend that cheating does not occur at most places of higher learning.  At a minimum, I think certain procedures should be implemented.  First of all, I believe that professionalism and honesty can be taught and fostered.  Learning about professionalism does not have to be done through silent teaching, but can be formally integrated into curriculum.  Admissions offices can investigate claims made on applications, and background checks can be performed prior to admission.  We, as a community, can be more active in self-regulation, and perhaps some can put aside their questionable motivations and remember why we learn – to help others.  Cheating on a test will certainly not help a patient nor will it facilitate our patients’ trust in either doctors or medicine.  I really wonder what a scandal, like the MBA incident, would do to the field of medicine if one “actually” occurred at a medical school.  How would our next patient view us?  For those with questionable motivations and actions, realize that the negative consequences are potentially much greater than a quick trip to the honor court.   
 

1. Sox HC. The ethical foundations of professionalism: a sociologic history.

Chest. 2007 May;131(5):1532-40.

2. The Center of Academic Integrity Home Page.  2007.  <https://secure2.mc.duke.edu/academicintegrity/index.asp>.

3. Stancill, Jane.  “Cheating shakes business school”.  The News and Observer online.  Published: May 01, 2007 12:30 AM. Modified: May 01, 2007 05:20 AM.  <http://www.newsobserver.com/102/story/569568.html>.

4. Sos, Zac and Davis, Richard.  “MIT dean resigns in lying scandal”. CNN online.  Posted: 5:56 p.m. EDT, April 29, 2007. <http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/americas/04/27/mit.dean/index.html>.

5. Lombardi, Kate Stone.  “High Anxiety of Getting Into College”.  NY Times online.  Published: April 8, 2007.  <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/08/nyregion/nyregionspecial2/08wecol.html?ex=1333684800&en=8b1ca5abc401c0cd&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss>.

6. Semenkovich, Nick. “Admissions Dean Resigns After Lying on Résumé”.  The Tech online.  Vol 127(21).  Friday, April 27, 2007. <http://www-tech.mit.edu/V127/N21/jones.html>