If we consider deviance as a breach of expectations, then any organization or occupation is likely to provide distinct opportunities for legal and/or ethical violations. College and university faculty members are professionals employed within the occupational context of higher education. Thus, the opportunities for deviance available to them derive from their roles in professional disciplines and in the occupational setting of the university. While some professors are more involved in teaching or governance at their home campus, others are more focused on research or other activities of nationwide professional associations. Both these “local” and “cosmopolitan” roles can produce deviant behavior.
Two dimensions of activities are helpful in delineating the nature of academic deviance (Heeren & Shichor 1993). First, one can distinguish between professional and occupational forms of deviance. The first of these refers to breaches of the ethics associated with professions, while the second points to the kind of normal crimes that people may commit in their usual line of work. This second dimension also has to do with deviance vis a vis property or persons. Though there is some overlap in these categories, they do permit the differentiation of four basic classes of academic deviance (see Fig. 1).
|Focus of Deviation
|Theft or misuse of resources
|Plagiarism or falsification of data
|Sexual harassment or exploitation
|Biased evaluation as referee for grants, jobs, articles, etc.
Figure 1 Dimensions and examples of academic deviance.
Occupational deviance among academics shares many features in common with deviance in other occupations. Just as white collar workers or laborers pilfer property belonging to the organization which employs them, so also may professors. It seems that the more universities become entrepreneurial in obtaining outside funding, the more these kinds of opportunities will be available and exploited by faculty members. An academic example of misappropriation of resources occurred in 1995 when doctors working at a fertility clinic affiliated with the University of California at Irvine gave the eggs of some women/patients to others without the donors’ knowledge or permission (Dodge & Geis 2003). Occupational deviance with inter personal implications would include such behavior as sexual harassment of students, staff, or colleagues and exploitation of human participants in research.
Professional deviance reflects the distinctive features of university and disciplinary organizations, especially their reward and opportunity structures, constitutive roles, and systems of social control. Because academics are rarely strongly motivated to pursue a professional career for reasons of money or power, the attractions of occupational deviance found in material gain and personal domination seem less central to their efforts. However, professional deviance, centering on issues of intellectual capital, is inherently closer to the career goals of faculty. Hence, when such misbehavior is likened to property offenses, it takes the form of misappropriating intellectual property. Two well-known and serious forms of this type of deviance are plagiarism and the fabrication or misrepresentation of research findings. These offenses are essentially acts of theft and fraud.
Where professional deviance is interpersonal, it entails evaluations of the work of others in the academic roles of scholar, teacher, and col league. Such evaluations are evident in refereeing journal articles and grant proposals, grading student work, and evaluating faculty colleagues who are candidates for promotion or tenure. Deviance in these contexts involves breaches of the expected impartiality. For example, a reviewer may recognize the author of a manuscript and slant the review positively or negatively accordingly. Because of the ambiguity of evaluation criteria and the meager accountability of the review process, the biased offender is not likely to be caught. Peer reviews for tenure and promotion and letters of recommendation provide similar opportunities for partiality in evaluation.
The teaching situation also allows biased evaluation to occur, as in the overvaluing of student work in light of the student’s physical attractiveness, litigious attitude, or importance to the university’s athletic program. According to the norms of universalism, none of these particularistic criteria should enter into the assessment of student performance. A more general overvaluation of students is the widely reported practice of grade inflation (Arnold 2004). Among the reasons suggested for this trend are attracting or retaining students where budgets are enrollment driven or improving student evaluations of a faculty member coming up for promotion. Whatever its sources, this grade inflation is deviant in that standards are lowered for ulterior reasons.
Though academic social control is similar to other forms of professional social control, in key ways it is also very different. Much of the evaluation of peers and students is protected by layers of confidentiality, anonymity, collegiality, and claims of academic freedom. Consequently, professors are granted considerable trust in carrying out these responsibilities. At the same time, scholarly work has a collective side which can operate to ensure that, prior to publication, academic work is ethically and competently done. One aspect of this is the existence of Institutional and Human Subjects Review Boards, which aim to prevent exploitation before the launching of a research project. In addition, prior to publication, most articles will be scrutinized through the peer review process. After publication, this skepticism is continued through the critical response of peers to weaknesses and gaps in the finished work. Contrary to other work settings where open criticism of peers is regarded as a breach of personal loyalty, academics are more likely to prize and reward that kind of ”whistle blowing.” Finally, in most cases, the immediate professional rewards of academic success and recognition are relatively minor. Instead, the most important rewards are associated with more lengthy and distinguished contributions to scholarship. A single instance of plagiarism or falsifying results is not likely to provide significant reward. If a discovery is so spectacular as to provide immediate recognition, it would be the subject of careful scholarly scrutiny and would increase the chances of having the offense discovered.
Some occupational offenses, such as sexual harassment, have been thoroughly researched (e.g., Elgart & Schanfield 1991). However, the extensive professional trust granted professors, along with the confidentiality and anonymity of much of their work, has made it difficult to do much systematic research on most forms of academic deviance. What is known is often anecdotal and, even when thoroughly studied, findings are simply qualitative case studies of ”scandals.” Whereas journalists have uncovered violations such as the extensive ”ghost writing” of medical journal articles (Barnett 2003), our understanding of academic deviance would be significantly enhanced if disciplinary organizations would undertake more methodical investigations.
- Arnold, R. A. (2004) Way that Grades are Set is a Mark Against Professors. Los Angeles Times, April 22.
- Barnett, A. (2003) Revealed: How Drug Firms “Hoodwink” Medical Journals. Guardian, December 6.
- Dodge, M. & Geis, G. (2003) Stealing Dreams: A Fertility Clinic Scandal. Northeastern University Press, Boston.
- Elgart, L. D. & Schanfield, L. (1991) Sexual Harassment of Students. Thought and Action 7: 21-42.
- Heeren, J. W. & Shichor, D. (1993) Faculty Malfeasance: Understanding Academic Deviance. Sociological Inquiry 63: 49-63.
- Kennedy, D. (1997) Academic Duty. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Kohn, A. (1997) False Prophets, edn. Barnes & Noble, New York.