You've got to wonder why the chiefs of higher education are upset by companies that peddle term papers and other ''study aids'' to their students.

Does the thriving market in academic contraband say something about the inspirational level of the instruction that universities are providing?Does it tell us something about the ability of professors to recognize the intellectual equivalent of muscle-building steroids?

Last year, Villanova University, near Philadelphia, banned the on-campus sale of Cliffs Notes, which specializes in distilled versions of great books, accompanied by analyses and insights that might ease the strain of composing a term paper.

A Villanova vice president denounced Cliffs Notes as an academically inappropriate ''crutch.'' He said that other schools have banned the widely sold black-and-yellow jacketed publications, though with less public fuss than Villanova, where Cliffs' exclusion was preceded by a campus debate.

Boston University recently sued eight companies, in seven states, that provide term papers over the Internet, at $5 to $35 per page. Custom services for specialized papers are also available.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Boston University's president described the Internet sale of papers as ''an insidious game that results in harm to all students and to the public, which expects that a diploma represents genuine achievement.'' Urging other universities to take similar legal action, he promised, ''We will take whatever steps are necessary to preserve the integrity of the academic process.''

One certainty in this case is that the judicial outcome, whatever it may be, will have no effect whatever on the integrity of the academic process. The Internet, that super efficient, uncontrollable fount of all things, foul and fair, is merely another delivery system in a trade that has long flourished in higher education.

Fraternities and sororities have traditionally maintained files of successful term papers as perks of membership - perhaps as a relief from onerous scholarly tasks to liberate time for partying. The commercial side of sham scholarship is evident in ads offering for sale term papers and other assistance in magazines that appeal to youth.

And prohibiting on-campus sales of Cliffs Notes and similar literary products is meaningless, since they're easily available at nearby bookstores and other shops that cater to students.

Some teachers claim that they can always recognize a term paper based on illicit borrowings or on boiled-down editions and canned commentaries on great literary works. But continued sales and the efforts to ban these products indicate that detection is no sure thing. And that raises troubling questions about the milieu in which these academic shortcuts are thriving.

Teachers who have come to know their students during a semester should be able to recognize the disparity between a dim classroom performance and a bright term paper. The two rarely go together.

But the mass-production methods employed by many big universities do not nurture the personal acquaintanceship that would make fakery easily detectable.

Academe's chieftains regularly anguish over the neglect of teaching in favor of research, and they earnestly vow reforms. However, they've taken the pledge so often that the commitment to reform long ago became suspect.

The reality of college instruction, especially in big schools, is that harried, poorly paid teaching assistants bear most of the load of lecturing and grading papers, while their tenured superiors concentrate on more interesting and rewarding matters, such as the conference circuit and research and writings that bring professional glory.

Every now and then a university will publicly bestow honors upon a professor who devotes a good deal of attention to undergraduates - as though in recognition of a feat that exceeds the call of duty. The attention given such performance is testimony to its rarity.

The drive to stamp out the trade in term papers and other academic contraband is both commendable - and futile. The real question is what's going on the classrooms that permits this stuff to thrive.

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