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Laurie scandal troubles college officials

Monday, December 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:35 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

A national expert in college cheating says he has never heard of a case as extensive as the one alleged against Wal-Mart heiress Elizabeth Paige Laurie.

“It took a significant risk to involve another student so extensively in the cheating,” said Donald McCabe, president and founder of the national Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University. “I think both the extent of it and that it just involved one other person are somewhat surprising. … Certainly you hear instances of somebody paying someone else to take a test or buying a paper off of the Internet, but it’s the fact that it was such an extensive amount of work over such a long period of time that is surprising.”

In an interview on the ABC news program “20/20,” Laurie’s former roommate, Elena Martinez, said Laurie paid her $20,000 over 31/2 years to do Laurie’s schoolwork at the private University of Southern California.

While it has yet to be determined whether Laurie did as Martinez alleged, the consequences have been felt at MU. Laurie, who attended Rock Bridge High School, is the daughter of Bill and Nancy Laurie, who recently donated $25 million to MU for construction of the $75 million arena. The donation earned them naming rights to the arena, which they dubbed the Paige Sports Arena. After the “20/20” report, the Lauries transferred the rights to the University of Missouri Board of Curators, which changed the arena’s name to Mizzou Arena.

In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Michael L. Jackson, vice president of student affairs at USC, said he had encountered smaller examples of academic dishonesty, such as plagiarism or cheating on a test, but never anything of this level.

“In 15 years at Stanford and 10 years at USC, I’ve never heard anything like this,” Jackson said in the article published Nov. 23.

Jackson said in the Daily Trojan, USC’s student newspaper, that he has appointed Raquel Torres-Retana, director of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards, and Denzil Suite, director of Residential and Greek Life, to conduct the investigations. On Thursday, Usha Sutliff, associate director of media relations at USC, said that there were no new developments in the investigation and that USC would not comment further on the case.

Jackson said Torres-Retana and Suite will look into Laurie’s actions and those of Martinez. Martinez said she wrote papers and speeches for Laurie and sent e-mail to professors and group members on behalf of Laurie.

During the “20/20” broadcast, Martinez showed piles of papers and projects she said she completed for Laurie. In an interview with the Kansas City Star, she said she did not save the papers with the intent to expose Laurie.

“I am a pack rat,” Martinez said in an article published Nov. 23. “I haven’t even thrown away any of my high school papers. That was more of a thing of chance.”

Torres-Retana and her department handle most of the academic integrity complaints at USC. She has a staff of three full-time professionals and three graduate students who investigate cheating accusations. Torres-Retana said students often confess after the professor has made the accusation, but if they haven’t confessed, the staff members review the case.

“We really do case by case,” Torres-Retana said. “If the evidence we have is so overwhelmingly in favor, or really kind of obvious, that wrongdoing was done, we let them know that this is wrong.”

While there is a clear procedure outlined for cheating allegations against current students, looking into the case against Laurie will be more complicated due to the extent of the accusation. The conduct code at USC states students will be punished for handing in work that is not their own, but it does not cover the magnitude of the allegations against Laurie. She was awarded her bachelor’s degree in communications in the spring of 2004.

McCabe, a professor at Rutgers University, said this particular case is made more difficult by the way Laurie is accused of cheating. By using Martinez she eliminated the possibility of professors tracing her work on the Internet at sites like turnitin.com.

“There’s not many ways that you could detect this easily,” McCabe said.

The University Conduct Code states that expulsion, loss of credit, revocation of admission and revocation of degree are all possible punishments. If Laurie is found to have cheated, her degree could be rescinded. McCabe said that if the allegations are true, it could be a fitting punishment.

“I think it being so extensive and having gone along for such a long period,” McCabe said. “They would have to seriously look at rescinding her degree. If the allegations are true, it’s clear she didn’t earn the degree.”

Martinez could also face consequences, which according to the conduct code include removal of credits or being barred from taking classes at USC. Martinez said her reasons for coming forward were morally motivated, not due to financial incentives.

“I haven’t been paid off by anybody,” she said in the Dec. 4 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I still have a leaking roof in my house; I invite anyone down to see. It hasn’t been something that’s benefited me greatly.”

Martinez said in the Kansas City Star that she hopes to be a professor someday. But her confession places her academic career in jeopardy. McCabe said that it is possible she could be hired by a school unaware of her background, but that institutions who know of her history should not hire her.

“I would hope that she never reaches that point,” McCabe said. “It would be disappointing if she did.”


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