Michael Moffatt, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University, had been an innocent about student cheating. But that was before he surveyed students and discovered, as he put it, that the New Jersey state school "sounds like a place where cheating comes almost as naturally as breathing, where it's an academic skill almost as important as reading, writing and math."
Rutgers is not alone, according to Mr. Moffatt's new and controversial study, which suggests that most large, impersonal universities in the United States are hotbeds of dishonesty. Grade-crazed students, he contends, should share blame with uncaring bureaucrats and remote professors who create an alienating atmosphere in much of higher education in the United States.
Experts across the country are divided in reaction to Mr. Moffatt's survey. Some say that the '90s appear to be a new era of ethics on campuses, with less obsession with the idea that grades are the only key to a good career. Others say that the Rutgers sampling confirms their own research.
About 45 percent of the 232 students in Mr. Moffatt's survey reported that they had cheated occasionally, and an additional 33 percent admitted cheating more regularly. In anonymous essays, respondents described elaborate cribbing and copying techniques.
Among hard-core cheaters, the most prevalent method was copying answers from another student's test either by plan or chance. Next came studying with the help of old tests, on the assumption that professors change multiple-choice exams little, if at all, between semesters. Using cheat sheets, plagiarizing term papers and stealing tests in advance also were popular methods.
Members of fraternities and sororities appeared more likely to cheat than non-members because of the pressure to share answers with Greek brothers and sisters. Economics majors were the worst offenders, leading Mr. Moffatt to ask whether such dishonesty is "anticipatory socialization for modern American business life?"
The study cited many motives, including keeping up with competition for entrance into prestigious graduate schools and simply wanting to party, not study. But the most damaging to academia's reputation is the widespread motive of revenge against large lecture classes and professors who value their own research more than teaching.
A national survey in 1987 conducted through the University of California, Los Angeles' Graduate School of Education, found a smaller but still worrisome problem: Eighteen percent of college sophomores admitted to cheating on an exam, 29 percent copied homework and 36 percent did either or both.
In her doctoral dissertation based on that study, Ann Craig Hanson linked the most frequent cheaters to the materialism that overtook campuses and society in the '80s.
Ms. Hanson, now associate dean at Middlebury College in Vermont, found also that cheating was less common at schools with explicit and well-publicized honor codes, where students pledge not to cheat and teachers do not monitor exams.