An earlier post this week on what I wish they’d taught me in vet school prompted a comment on ethics from a vet student. Though I seldom address comments so directly in a follow-up post, I thought this one merited a reprint for fuller discussion.

Here’s the question (and my answer). Feel free to follow up with your own solution to the dilemma:

Q. Speaking of ethics--I'm a second year vet students and earlier this week I became aware (I'll omit the details, but yes, I'm absolutely sure) that one of my classmates cheated on an exam. What I found especially distressing was that said classmate didn't go out of her way to hide it, giving me the impression that she thinks everyone does it.Is she right? Or is she just one bad egg? Well, someone helped her to cheat, so that would make it at least two bad eggs... How pervasive is this? Any other vets/vet students want to comment? Because I'm really quite horrified to think that these people will one day treat patients.-witness

A. On cheating on examinations: In my class cheating would have been immediately exposed within our ranks and the perpetrators ostracized.

Though the administration might never have been informed (we were a very tight bunch and we all know that cheating means expulsion) I'd like to think we would have put an end to it ourselves.

In my class, however, we were extremely competitive. This dynamic can have negative effects (as it did in our case) but it does help curb cheating.

In your case, witness, I would make sure as many of your fellow classmates find out about the cheating event as possible. Let the cheaters hear how outraged you all are as their colleagues and let them ponder the implications of their cheating as your whole class slowly catches wind of it.

If your class is as appalled as you are the situation will probably sort itself out without expulsion. If the breeze makes it up to the administration, however, and these students are ousted it might be temporarily stressful for you. There’s no doubt that’s what’s keeping you from turning them in.

Regardless, I promise that you won't be thinking you did the wrong thing ten years from now when you have a better perspective on the implications of cheating among your fellow professionals (which you already seem to have a pretty good grasp of).

Here’s a story of mine I hope will help:

I was in a similarly uncomfortable position in vet school with respect to a faculty member during our first year. Uncomfortable sexual remarks were made in an anatomy lab by a male instructor to three female students (myself included).

I never had to turn the guy in. I simply registered my outrage among my classmates and let the chips fall where they may. Yes, I was called into the dean’s office where I was asked to explain the situation and it was absolutely unpleasant but I remained vague enough so that this man received a mark on his record for which there was no clear mandate to oust him.

For the record, the other two women classmates were angry with me at the time. We were never close after that but I know I did the right thing—as I’m sure they’d agree if you asked them about the incident today.

The moral of the story: Ten or twenty years from now you won’t be stressed or fretting about this, whatever you decide to do. Moreover, exposing your classmates after they’ve done something unethical (and technically illegal, by the way, as cheating is considered fraud) is your responsibility: “aiding and abetting” is wrong, too.

Consider this incident a trial for real-world practice, in which “cheating” can happen at almost all levels. Training your stomach to handle the very personal ethical struggles that occur in a classroom is excellent experience for what you’ll doubtless encounter in practice. Best of luck to you.