An Ethics Scenario: 'The Dorchester Paper'

I am speaking to a high school group later today about ethical dilemmas. I prepared this scenario to illustrate the four types of right-vs.-right ethical dilemma paradigms:

Photo by 'dok1' (Flickr)

The Dorchester School was a private boarding school in Fairbrook, Delaware that accepted students from sixth grade through senior year in high school. Founded by a husband-and-wife team of educators who fled the horrors of Nazi Germany, the school was famous for its humanistic philosophy and progressive values. It was also held up as an exemplar of academic success and good ethics.

Students from Dorchester were high achieving, honest and empathetic people. The Dorchester ethics code was a simple one, borrowed from West Point: “A Dorchester student does not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do.”

Megan Allen and Jane Friedman were Dorchester juniors. Megan had attended Dorchester since sixth grade. Jane, on the other hand, started in tenth grade. She found the transition very difficult at first, but Megan took her under her wing and made her feel welcome. Jane, who was a naturally shy person, credited Megan with turning what could have been a very lonely time into something that was beginning to show promise. Jane also found herself drawn to Megan’s charisma, as many in the student body were – she had that certain something that just made people want to be with her.

So Jane was crestfallen when she was looking for a stick of gum in Megan’s backpack and saw a printout of what looked like an Internet term paper. They had just submitted their first of two major papers for English. Looking at the paper in Megan’s backpack, it appeared that she had copied it pretty much word for word.

Jane was stunned. This seemed so unlike Megan. They studied together frequently, and Jane knew her not to be a cheater. Yet here was what looked like proof. She built up her courage and finally confronted Megan with what she had seen, hoping there was some logical explanation.

There was a logical explanation, but it did not make Jane feel any better. Megan had indeed purchased an online term paper. She was under so much stress, she said, with nightly lacrosse practice and so much other homework – she just cracked. She knew it was wrong. She promised that it would never happen again.

Jane wondered what she should do. On the one hand, this was an aberration and she felt sure that Megan would not do it again. And, she owed so much to Megan. On the other hand, the school’s rule was very clear: Not only was it wrong for Megan to plagiarize, but the school ethics code suggested that it was now Jane’s duty to tell the school what she knew.

While Jane pondered, Daniel Cray had his own decision to worry about. He was Megan’s English teacher. He knew Megan well, and he knew her parents well. They were generous donors to the school, athletic boosters, and always showed up at school meetings and functions. Yet, something about Megan’s recent paper did not seem right. He could not put his finger on it, but it seemed off. He pasted a particularly unique sentence into a search engine just to see what he would find – hoping that he would find no hits.

Unfortunately, he found a hit on an overseas online term paper site. Megan’s paper had clearly been purchased from a paper mill.

Cray pondered his next move. He certainly was within his rights to fail Megan. In fact, school policy suggested that was what he ought to do. However, he did have some leeway. He knew Megan well, and knew that this year she had been under a great deal of stress. She had never done something like this before.

Cray confronted Megan, and she confessed, giving the same explanation she had given Jane. In fact, she asked if Jane had told, and Cray said no, that he had figured it out himself.

Cray ultimately decided to give Megan a zero for the paper, but allow her to write another one at half credit. It was possible, if she did perfectly for the rest of the semester, that she could get a B. She was normally an A student, so this was not a small punishment. But Cray could have failed her for the whole class.

Cray wrote Dorchester’s head of school a memo about what he had decided. Cray felt that this was the kind of issue the head would want to know about.

Holly Blackwell now had her own problem to contend with. Blackwell was the Dorchester lacrosse coach. While Dorchester was a real success in many respects, it was not known as an athletic school. Truth be told, most of its teams fielded losing seasons. That was OK with most members of the community. However, this year the lacrosse team was different. Headed by Megan, who had innate skills and athleticism, the team was just a few games away from winning their regional championship. Dorchester was set to play a semifinal match against a tough team two days after Cray sent his memo.

Blackwell knew that, above all, Dorchester students and faculty were expected to do the right thing. And there was a policy that if a student is suspended for cheating they could no longer play sports for the remainder of the season. On one hand, Blackwell knew that, at a minimum, she should probably not allow Megan to play in the semifinal match.

However, on the other hand, Megan had not been suspended. She had gotten a different form of punishment. And, weighing even more heavily on Blackwell’s mind, was the fact that it would mean a great deal to the team – and to the Dorchester community – if they could say that they had at least made it to the finals. Without Megan they did not have much a chance.

Frank Shanahan also had a decision to wrestle with. As head of the Dorchester School, it was his job to set the right tone at the top. He strongly believed he had to lead by example. He always worked hard to figure out the right thing to do.

In this case, Shanahan thought Cray’s decision was right. Plagiarism could not be tolerated, but there were unusual circumstances. It was not right to be strict all the time in every case. He thought Cray had found a good middle ground.

However, Shanahan was worried about another facet of the issue. It seemed clear that Jane Friedman had known about the cheating and had not reported it.  The part of the school’s ethics code about “not tolerating those who do” was meant to cover just such a situation. Students are not supposed to put up with unethical behavior from their peers.

But, the episode had been handled and everyone was now moving forward. Cray had confronted Megan possibly before Jane had a chance to tell anyone. It would be easy to just move ahead and in many respects that would be the right thing to do. Shanahan made it a point to know as many students as well as he could – he knew Jane and knew that any punishment he could administer would likely be devastating to her. She was a person who had needed nurturing when she arrived and had begun to thrive as a result. Punishment for an ethics code violation would be a big step backwards for her.

However, Shanahan was worried about the precedent, too. That last part of the ethics code was tough to live up to – if he started to cut corners he could imagine that pretty soon it would be the piece of the code that everyone ignored.

The four dilemma paradigms are:

  • Truth vs. Loyalty
  • Justice vs. Mercy
  • Individual vs. Community
  • Short Term vs. Long Term


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