"I felt hopeful... similarities did not imply cheating... correlation did not imply causation."

In an exposé worthy of the best investigative journalism—one that should rock the academic world (if it hasn’t already)—a top-notch double major in chemical and biomolecular engineering and Spanish language and literature shares her gut-wrenching experience of being falsely accused of cheating on a homework assignment. Her riveting memoir begins a month into Wagner’s sophomore year when a student grader flags one answer on a homework assignment as being “similar” to another student’s, a situation that could have been cleared easily with a modicum of science and common sense. Statistically speaking, it was highly likely that many more students had similar answers for the same question in the 189 homework papers submitted due to the STEM formatting and terminology issues inherent in the question and answer and because there were limited ways to answer the question. However, although the engineering department claimed early on that all these papers were checked against each other, Wagner’s calculations show it would take an extraordinary amount of hours to compare just this one answer in all 189 assignments.

After following “authorized aid” guidelines and discussing just one facet of the question flagged, Wagner and a student (identified throughout the book only as Student Z) would be assaulted by an academic integrity system that “bit by bit, would drag me into a dark underworld... and nearly swallow me whole.” Wagner and Student Z entered a down-the-rabbit-hole conundrum in which their similar answers, in reality, had different mathematical conclusions. Though Student Z’s final figure was correct, Wagner’s was not. Bit by bit, Wagner pulls back a veil to reveal a corrupt system engineered by three academics ironically seeking acclaim for their work in academic integrity, a scheme that subjected at least 2,000 students for over a decade to clandestine research that they did not give their permission to participate in. In other words, the system introduced to promote academic integrity at North Carolina State University was itself not adhering to the levels of integrity demanded of students. Plus, it was guilty of railroading young students with little life experience into submission.

Readers will quickly be drawn into the meticulously detailed, highly-researched, and well-written narrative, which has extensive supporting notes, an appendix, and an index. From the very first chapter, the emotional stakes are high. One can easily imagine the shock and subsequent shockwaves of receiving an academic warning email. For all but a small fraction of students, the system was either literally impenetrable or too intimidating to deal with. The university boasted of its 90% rate of deeming students responsible for academic cheating, another statistical anomaly that points to an unfair process. As it turns out, one hundred students had been accused of cheating by the department in a span of years, and 100% were deemed responsible. As Wagner dropped a course and gave less attention to her studies to deal with the paperwork and preparation for an initial hearing, the absurdly targeted pressure mounted. Wagner chose therapy to help deal with the situation, knowing full well that most students likely signed off on the paperwork as responsible to end the ordeal. But she had aspirations to enter medical school after completing her BA, and any academic strike against her would make admittance nearly impossible. And indeed, why should she accept responsibility when she was innocent of wrongdoing? As it turns out, academia dispenses justice far less often than real-world judicial systems.

As often happens in non-academic world judicial systems, the ideal of being presumed innocent is far from how an accused perp is treated in reality. Early on, Wagner’s hopes swelled and were dashed repeatedly as she found that her presumed innocence and actual innocence meant little in a system that was calculated to defeat as many students as possible. Worse, Wagner’s book provides ample evidence of gaslighting, outright lying by gatekeepers, and inherent system protocol making it nearly impossible to separate the innocent from the guilty. Only her dedication to thorough research helped her navigate the ordeal. She spoke to experts in academic integrity and statisticians outside her university system, collecting eight authoritative statements. Her jaw-dropping attention to detail as she readied herself for hearings clearly shows her expending as much energy as she would invest in a difficult academic course or two.

Wagner eventually found that her suspicions about how her case was handled were correct. Her university was conflating acceptable collaboration as cheating. What began as a quest to demonstrate her innocence took Wagner deep into an examination of NCSU’s academic integrity system, a system that simply was not what it appeared to be. Wagner’s meticulous study of all facets of her ordeal is impressive, especially while dealing with a hearing loss. Her account vividly illustrates how she could just as easily have earned degrees in investigative journalism or law with all the work she did to absolve herself and write this book. At the time, Wagner had to drop classes and, at one point, drop out of university entirely to regain her bearings and prepare for an appeal before being admitted again. It is genuinely a pleasure and a relief to see the author reach the end of her quest with her sanity and degree intact. By writing this book, Wagner provides an invaluable service to any university student unfairly flagged for academic cheating.

A 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Short List book

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Return to USR Home