The Hamilton Spectator
Wednesday, April 14, 1999

Mac exams go ahead on schedule

Grade tampering possible goal of office break-ins

by Mark McNeil

McMaster University officials say exams are going ahead as normal this week despite a bizarre string of break-ins on campus that may have led to the leaking of some exam papers.

McMaster security services say they still don't know for certain what motivated the dozens of break-ins of professors' offices. They believe the culprits were after exam papers, but yesterday officials said they could also have been trying to tamper with grades inside computers.

Professors who have had break-ins are being asked to double-check their records to make sure grades haven't been changed.

Three charges of break and enter were laid against three students last month. But the break-ins and attempted break-ins continue. The most recent was Monday night in the university's life sciences building. Security officers found magnets had been placed in the receiving chamber of a dead-bolt lock in an attempt to prevent the lock from working properly.

The magnets prevent the bolt from fully locking and a credit card can be used to open the lock. Like dozens of other cases reported to McMaster security, there was no clear evidence of anything having been stolen.

McMaster University Student Union president Fayez Quereshy said he has not been kept apprised of the investigation by the university's administration. He has only heard rumours. "If there is fear that exams have been removed, then I think the department or professor concerned should look at reissuing the exam," he says.

But associate vice-president academic Fred Hall says there are no plans to reissue exams and the university is following "regular security measures."

He noted exams for most courses are worth 20 to 50 per cent, rather than 100 per cent. "That is a control factor." He added professors were warned in early February to take precautions.

Instructors, he said, will be suspicious of students who suddenly score a great exam result after lacklustre performance through the term.

In some courses, an exam being released would be of little value because the students already have a good idea what to expect anyway, he said. In a few rare cases, students are told exactly what is on the exam by their instructors because the exam is more a test of reasoning ability than memorization.

McMaster Faculty Association president Leslie King, who is a geography and geology professor, said, "We all acknowledge the pressure students are under these days to complete their programs successfully.

"And we are operating in a new environment because of computers," he said. "We used to make sure draft copies of exams were safely locked in filing cabinets. Now they are on computer hard drives. There is a whole new set of issues."

He said professors have to be especially careful of students buying essays over the Internet.

However, Doug Welch, chairman of the department of physics and astronomy at McMaster, noted where technology creates problems, it sometimes helps to solve them.

One trick professors have learned, he said, is to take a quote from a suspicious essay and use a "search engine" to see if it can be found on the Internet somewhere.

Some staff members and students believe more should be done at McMaster in the wake of the break-ins.

"I'm concerned the university is not dealing with this in the most effective manner and the problem of the break-ins is continuing," said Nick Pound, a teaching assistant in the university's psychology department. He says the administration should have been more forthcoming with information about the investigation.

"I wish I knew how many exams are getting out. It's all circumstantial evidence."

Student Mark Mudde, 21, said if exams have leaked out, it could affect the university's reputation and "your marks won't be worth the paper they're printed on. But I feel confident. If three people (have been charged), it will frighten others away from doing it."

Saira Mian, 19, a first-year science student at McMaster, said the problem with cheating is "the students who do nothing and are lazy do well. It's not fair that people like that move up and take up places that should be going to students who really deserve them."

Quereshy says: "I have heard of exams being offered for sale. But I have never actually seen one."

Students, he says, have been kept in the dark about the McMaster security investigation.

"I think it would be in the best interests of everybody if all students were made aware of what is happening. Students are against academic dishonesty. If they knew what was happening, more would probably come forward with information that would help the investigation."

However, Mary Keyes, associate vice-president of student affairs, noted "it's all supposition. No one knows for sure why the break-ins are taking place.

"We have two security officers working on it full-time. I think we are treating it seriously."

-- with files by Laura F. Cassiani

Copyright © 1999 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.