Imagine two students being penalized for cheating because they used the same formula for water, i.e. H₂O. Unreal as it may sound, Catherine Wagner recounts this and many other fascinating incidents from the bowels of a prestigious university.
The spellbinding real-life story told by Catherine Wagner in her book, Easy Marks: Cracking a University’s Academic Integrity Con, leaves us outraged at the injustice perpetrated against an innocent student. We are highly impressed by the brilliance with which the author countered her accusers with a cool-headed strategy based on logic and perseverance. Catherine’s book is an outstanding example of investigative journalism.
Catherine Wagner was a happy-go-lucky 19-year-old student at North Carolina State University in the class of 2016 pursuing a double-major in Chemical Engineering and Spanish. Her consistently high grades and top ranks throughout her educational career brought much happiness to her parents and herself. She was filled with idealistic dreams of being a good human being and eventually pursue a medical degree.
A naturally honest and truthful person, she was surprised at the anti-cheating obsession of one of her professors, which bred a culture of suspicion in her college. She took extreme precautions including completing academic integrity training to ensure that she even unknowingly did not violate the ethics guidelines.
Little did she know that it was all in vain. It didn’t matter how carefully she followed the rules, nor the fact that as an extremely talented and honest student she would never cheat even in her dreams. The cruel machinery had already moved and profiled Catherine Wagner as a potential target, who was destined to become yet another number in a clandestine research project. Catherine writes that the project perpetuated a myth of rampant academic integrity violations through false statistics. The project’s goal, according to Catherine, was to enable certain members of the faculty to attain national recognition and win financial benefits by positioning themselves as academic integrity champions.
These creamy benefits to the faculty came at incredible costs to the students. The students’ careers were destroyed and they were forever stigmatized as the ‘Cheaters.’ These students lost the opportunity to get good jobs, apply for higher studies in their chosen fields and were mentally traumatized which adversely affected their academic performance.
Catherine Wagner, a second year engineering student, was caught in the same trap. She was wrongfully accused of cheating. Catherine was charged with helping her friend with her homework in a way which breaks the university’s academic integrity rules related to copying. Her professor filed a ‘Report of Academic Integrity Violation’ against her and recommended what’s termed as an ‘institutional action sanction’ as punishment.
The sanction – on paper – amounts to about a 1% reduction in the overall grades of each student and a requirement to complete an ‘Academic Integrity Program.’ At first glance, the accusation and the corresponding penalty seem inconsequential. It’s not a big deal, Catherine is told.
The reality is different. This institutional action sanction, so trivial at first glance, is preserved in the university’s records for 8 years and is made available to job recruiters and also to the other universities, when the students apply for higher studies. Catherine realized that her medical school dreams would be certainly crushed as she was informed by an admissions expert on Student Doctor Network, “If you have an Institutional Action for cheating, stop right now. Your medical career is over.” No medical school wants a student whose integrity itself has been proven to be shaky.
Catherine describes how her life and career were completely disrupted in the following years as she single-handedly set out to expose the nefarious academic integrity con which trapped innocent students like her.
What emerges from the book is an extremely intelligent and law-abiding human being who assembled a team of learned academic persona and distinguished legal luminaries. Her own parents brought intelligent perspectives to the table and supported Catherine with their insight. With guidance from her support team and extraordinarily detailed research on her own, Catherine put together an amazing point by point rebuttal of the accusations.
When Catherine and her friend were accused of copying because their homework papers seemed so similar, her father asked a simple question: “Did your professor compare your homework with the rest of the class?” He further explained that “it would be invalid to conclude that two papers in a class are similar without first comparing them to the papers of all the 189 students to determine whether or not the papers of the accused were more similar than those of the rest of the class.” Catherine writes that the university never replied to this question and stonewalled her requests to examine the other students papers even in an anonymized form. In an engineering class where the students follow the templates and frameworks taught by their professor, the correct answers are certainly expected to be similar. Catherine writes that the question “If they were more similar than the rest of the class?” was never answered by her professors.
Catherine Wagner countered the false allegations with composure and logic. She set out to prove that the enforcement of academic integrity rules was ad-hoc, discriminatory and was based on inconsistent practices.
Even as many kind and capable people helped Catherine with their valuable insight; in the university appeal rooms Catherine had to stand alone and face her accusers. Her accusers were all senior professors and the university office bearers. We have to remember that, unlike Perry Mason, Catherine was not a veteran of court-room drama. Yet, instead of being intimidated or worse, losing her cool, Catherine Wagner took the accusers through a questioning which sought to systematically debunk the false charges.
Did Catherine get exonerated as there was overwhelming evidence proving her innocence? You got to read the book to find out!
Observations and Review
In writing her book, Catherine has chosen to share her entire journey in how she fought to get the false accusation overturned. At times it seems that Catherine has gone overboard in providing the intricate details of every step in her fight for justice against the academic integrity con. This is meant to be an entertaining thriller not an academic paper, one feels like crying out.
We realize, however, that the details are important. The careful outlining of all the facts and the near verbatim re-enactment of her entire journey bring enormous credibility to the author’s story. It is not just the words of one person against another. Catherine, through her book, invites us to join her in her interviews and meetings with her professors and university office-bearers. We become flies on the wall listening and seeing the battle unfold before our eyes so we can form our own judgement.
Catherine emerges as a brave and law abiding human being. She would not accept a false guilty verdict. And yet she would carry on her struggle within the framework of law. Despite being shackled by the boundaries defined for her appeal (e.g. no lawyer, limited access to information and arbitrary rulings), Catherine does not give up.
The situation Catherine faced is the type of situation which forces law-abiding people to take to streets and turn into frustrated violent activists. Yet she battled the accusations with logic instead of violence. This is very impressive.
In the appeals room, cool and poised Catherine stood alone. What people like Carl Bernstein and Sydney Schanberg did, Wagner did single-handedly without the backing of the enormous resources that those journalists had. Her intelligent questioning is based on a foundation of extraordinarily detailed research and is supported by a presence of mind rarely seen in adults let alone in a 19 year old kid.
In an outstanding example of investigative journalism, the author courageously exposes the wrongs perpetrated upon innocent students. This is an important book – since the fact that this book has documented these wrongful activities so publicly will discourage further exploitation of the other students. It will force those in the position of power in the university to act more responsibly. In one of the last chapters, A Call for Reform, Catherine Wagner shares sagacious recommendations which universities should listen to.
The book gives us hope. When faced with injustice we don’t need to start running amuck. With composure, logic and science it is possible to counter the forces arrayed against us, no matter how formidable and frightening they might be.
This book certainly deserves five stars, our highest rating. It is a very well written account of an innocent girl who is catapulted out of her sweet dreams into a fearsome world. In this world of adults she demonstrates amazing courage and intelligence.
We promise that this page turner will keep you absorbed from the first to the last page.
How to Buy
Author: Catherine Wagner