Possible ‘Unprecedented’ Cheating Scandal At Harvard

BOSTON — Harvard University is investigating what it calls an “unprecedented” case of cheating after college officials discovered that around 125 students may have shared answers and plagiarized on a final exam.

In a message to the school community, Jay Harris, the dean of undergraduate education, said the students “may have committed acts of academic dishonesty, ranging from inappropriate collaboration to outright plagiarism.”

WBUR’s Deborah Becker spoke with WBUR’s Curt Nickisch about the scandal on Friday.

Deborah Becker: What makes this case of alleged cheating “unprecedented”?

Curt Nickisch: Cheating of course happens at Harvard like it does at other Ivy League schools and other colleges. Sen. Edward Kennedy famously got suspended for finding a doppelganger to take a test for him.

But this is on an entirely different scale. It’s pretty much the biggest cheating scandal in memory. Roughly half of a single class of 250 undergraduates allegedly worked together on their take-home exams, when they were explicitly told it had to be individual work.

A teaching assistant noticed consistencies in scores of the exams, such as the exact same strings of words in scores of the exams. The Harvard Crimson reports this was a government class: “Intro to Congress.” The professor contacted university administration back in May.

If this incident happens during finals back in May, why are we only hearing about this now?

Harvard of course is legendary for being tight-lipped about the dark spots in its reputation. You can chalk part of it up to folks being out for the summer as this process was under way. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Harvard is acknowledging this with some strong statements from its president and undergraduate dean just as incoming freshmen have arrived on campus for the fall semester.

What is going to happen to the students whose work is being questioned?

The students and parents have been notified. The students have to appear before a review board and explain things. The punishment could be as severe as a yearlong suspension. Do realize that’s 125 students, or 2 percent of the college’s enrollment.

Could this case lead to a different approach to take-home exams or new rules at Harvard?

Very possibly. While Dean Harris says that cheating is not widespread at Harvard, it certainly appears widespread in this course. Some students have been murmuring about unfair expectations and a poorly structured take-home exam.

What seems likely is that Harvard is going to renew its look at an academic honor code. The college has toyed with a voluntary pledge. Many Ivy League institutions sort of pride themselves that the high standards are understood.

But on the other hand, look at the service academies and their high standards. A cadet at West Point has to pledge not to lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do. Try talking yourself out of that simple clear code like that. You can’t cheat. You can’t look away when other people cheat.

Harvard President Drew Faust condemned this alleged cheating in a statement, and said Harvard does need to do a better job of emphasizing academic integrity.

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  • Guest

    I feel I must repeat and paraphrase myself from a previous article.  It’s a take-home test… and you’re surprised when you find out they cheated?  Either the Harvard professor(s) are just plain stupid or this is a simple case of entrapment.

    • bethbrady

      Entrapment?…wow, is there no self dignity left in this world?

      • Guest

        Yes, entrapment.  Not in the legal form of the word, but a generalized form.   It may be a bit of a false dichotomy, but still… 
        Choice #1: If the professor(s) didn’t think people would cheat, they’re obviously very wrong.  That so many students would stoop to cheating despite what the professor(s) believe means the school was so very wrong that holding such a belief could be considered stupid. 
        Choice #2: The alternative is that they’re not stupid and that they expected to see cheating.  If that’s the case, they intentionally gave a test where they expected cheating and now are punishing the cheaters.  While the students may have committed a moral error, the professor(s) still committed entrapment.  That doesn’t mean the students should avoid punishment, but neither should the professor(s).
        From wikipedia: “Entrapment is conduct by a law enforcement agent inducing a person to commit an offense that the person would otherwise have been unlikely to commit.”  If you care to argue that the students were not induced, don’t bother.  Courts have already upheld that enticing someone is sufficient to be considered inducing.  Hence why a police sting where an unlocked $1000 bike is left at a bike rack is not considered entrapment but a similar sting of leaving a $100,000 gold bar on the ground is.
        Of course, this does not fit a legal form of entrapment because the legal definition requires the government to perform the act of inducing the behavior, but this is also not a legal setting.  A generalized form of the word would reference someone in a position of authority instead of the government.  If it were a legal form, entrapment is an affirmitive defense.  In the generalized form, not necessarily
        The solution is simple.  If you want to curb cheating, do so by avoiding take-home tests.  If you want to induce cheating, utilize take-home tests.  Go ahead and punish the students for cheating AND punish the people that authorized a take-home test as well.  Or, let everybody off scott free, change the policy, and chalk it up to “lessons learned”.

        • Davido

          Of course it was not their fault, forget about honor,integrity and accountability. Lets just blame the school and the system.

          • Guest

            You can choose to limit blame them if you wish.  I prefer to look at everybody’s conduct when apportioning blame.  In my time in the Army, we had something called an “AAR” — an After-Action Review.  Once you finished maneuvers, the leadership of a group would sit down and list all the things that went right and all the things that went wrong.  There would then be a discussion on how things could’ve been done better.  In theory, no blame would be meted out, just honest critique (in reality, pride could get in the way and someone with  a needed improvement would get defensive).  This situation needs an objective AAR from the school’s leadership.

            A witch hunt only wants to find someone to call a witch, justice requires accountability on everyone’s part.

  • Davido

    What do we expect? The majority of our politicians come from there.

  • Richard

    So much for the best and the brightest. Half of them probably cheating in high school in order to get in.

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