Harvard Cheating Scandal: Elite University Tackles Issues of Academic Dishonesty

On Thursday, the Boston Globe reported that Harvard University is investigating around 125 students on charges of academic dishonesty — the largest Ivy League cheating scandal in recent history, possibly in the history of the college. According to the Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris said that the size of the case was “unprecedented in anyone’s living memory.”

PolicyMic spoke with several recent Harvard graduates, who commented that the class in question was purportedly Government 1310: Introduction to Congress. Allegedly, several diplomas were not handed out during last year’s graduation to some students involved in the scandal. The Government department class was very popular amongst athletes, and some athletes may be involved in the scandal. Those athletes, if found guilty and asked to take a year of disciplinary leave, will lose their eligibility to play the next year according to college rules.

The Globe reports that “nearly half the students in a class of more than 250 are suspected of jointly coming up with answers or copying off one another” for the take-home final exam. While no one appears to have used outside text from books or articles in the final, several students’ answers closely resembled one another. 10 to 20 of the exams had very similar answers, enough to tip off the teaching assistant that students might have been collaborating on answers, in violation of the terms of the exam. Over the summer, after perusing all of the final exams, the Administrative Board found that 125 of them were suspicious.

Harvard administrators have notified all of the students in the class whose exams caught their attention. Some of these students included recently graduated seniors. Harris has refused to comment on whether or not these graduates would lose their diplomas if found guilty, but sources close to PolicyMic suggest that students who were involved have been told that they may be at risk of having their degree revoked.

While Harvard decided to go public with the incident so that it can be used, in the words of Jay Harris, as a “teaching opportunity,” it may have been common knowledge even before the news broke. The students involved were contacted at different times throughout the summer, as the investigation processed, and many people may have known about the scandal well before Harvard announced it.

Harvard has struggled with issues of academic integrity in recent years. The number of cases reported to the Ad Board increased 150% in the 2010-2011 school year. In the fall of 2011, the College introduced a highly controversial — and highly public — “freshman pledge” to combat the problem.  (The pledge was abandoned for the newly-arrived class of 2016.) In March, the Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) discussed different ways that the college could discourage academic dishonesty by using existing resources, like course websites and House tutors, to promote the academic values of the institution.

But given the number of students allegedly involved, it looks like solving the problem of academic dishonesty will require more than just cautionary statements on syllabi.

PolicyMic will be updating this article as more details emerge.

5:58 P.M.

Update: Salon has released an email from Dean Michael D. Smith, the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, to the faculty.

"The fact that the Administrative Board is investigating such a large number of cases from a single class is deeply disturbing. At the same time, we must not forget that the vast majority of our students complete all their assignments honestly, diligently, and in accordance with our regulations and practices. Allegations of inappropriate collaboration and plagiarism in a single class should not be allowed to diminish the good work or reputation of our outstanding student body."

6:41 P.M.

Update: The Crimson confirms that the class in question is Government 1310:  "Instructions for the final examination in 'Introduction to Congress,' which included four multi-part short answer questions and an essay question, read: 'The exam is completely open book, open note, open internet, etc. However, in all other regards, this should fall under similar guidelines that apply to in-class exams. More specifically, students may not discuss the exam with others—this includes resident tutors, writing centers, etc.'"