Hi-networth giving in America : a symptom of another gilded age?

Felicity Huffman’s sentencing to 14 days in jail this week could be a turning point in American charity. It is among the few indictments of a rich person who used their money or influence to gain an advantage for them/their family.

But a change in American attitudes towards charity and a turning point? How so, you might ask.

Huffman, a celebrity and well known figure is among the few who ever get punished for using their money to unduly influence processes. In this case, it was for getting her daughter admitted to the University of Southern California.

At a time when income inequality is a hot button issue and corruption among the elite is a topic that gains attention, the issue of philanthropy and the corruption is breeds is also gaining traction, and for good reason.

I suspect that this case may establish not only a legal precedent but also a moral one that may start questioning the benefits of hi-networth giving and the actual benefits that the giver receives. While the assumption (which holds true in many cases) is that rich folk give money to fulfill some sense of mission or obligation, there are many cases where the motives are not as pure.

Besides, may be living in yet another ‘Gilded Age’, where the rich and mighty bought favors, got laws written in their favor and basically gamed the system. This has happened in the past, with the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Fords.

With several dozen other rich and famous people accused of misusing their money and influence to help their kids get into this top-ranked university, the question naturally arises : Are Americans becoming tired/ jaded of a certain strand of philanthropy :that of the super-rich?

It may be too soon to say that this is a major shift, but there are indications that more people are paying attention.

For sure, there has been a decline in public confidence in public institutions, as this study points out. There has always been a skepticism of hi-networth philanthropy, among the informed segments of American society.

The philanthropic landscape in the US is quite complex, with people’s understandings, motivations and trust varying across levels. While almost 1/3 of philanthropy takes places towards religious institutions, one can see how confidence in religious institutions remains somewhat high, despite various scandals.

However, given the individualistic nature of giving in the US, there seems to be some skepticism of hi-networth giving.

While this scandal involving philanthropy and education may pass, it may awaken a new understanding among people (and perhaps the elite philanthropists too) that buying your way into anything may have consequences. And that hard work may after all, count for something!

Honesty, hardwork and the academic life

New York Times published this article recently that talked about writing companies offering essays, academic papers and the like, as services to American college students. I have seen examples of this in my own classroom, though have been handicapped in proving that this work is completely written by someone else. This goes to the heart of an issue in academic integrity : You cannot detect plagiarism if it is someone else doing your entire work. For that, you need good old commonsense.

The authors of the story, Stockman and Mureithi point out that “The essay-for-hire industry has expanded significantly in developing countries with many English speakers, fast internet connections and more college graduates than jobs, especially Kenya, India and Ukraine. A Facebook group for academic writers in Kenya has over 50,000 members.”

What this means is that many American and international students get help and an unfair advantage over others.

I have seen this in my classroom and it makes me sad that students resort to this sort of behavior. What this does is make learning purely an instrumental idea, something purely done for the sake of earning that degree/ diploma.

The statistics are not positive. As the article in NYT points out, “A 2005 study of students in North America found that 7 percent of undergraduates admitted to turning in papers written by someone else, while 3 percent admitted to obtaining essays from essay mills.” I would hazard a guess and say that this number is possibly higher, given the difficulty in getting accurate responses on such sensitive topics.

This sort of ‘contract cheating’ is harder to detect, point out folks from Turnitin, a software that catches plagiarism. However, the same company is coming up with another product called Authorship investigate, that will determine if the said author actually wrote a piece.

There are no federal laws against contract cheating in the US, the authors point out. Such laws have come into effect in Australia and the U.K.

So, what can universities do to address this? What can professors do, to eliminate such practices?

There are no easy answers. While it is easy to accuse someone of contract cheating, it is very hard to prove it.

I have tried to institute inclass work, to see how much of their work matches with what is turned in – I tend to have writing heavy courses – so this is a real problem for me.

I have also interviewed students suspected of this practice. I talk about plagiarism and related issues regularly in class, not to shame anyone but to let them know that it is not ok!

But I still wonder, how can I teach someone the value of putting in the effort, of actual learning – that is supposed to enhance one’s life and quality of thinking? That is a tall order indeeed.