Did Harvard Sacrifice Its Own Integrity In Fight Against Cheating?

In the nearly 400 years since Harvard’s founding, America’s oldest and most storied university has produced eight U.S. Presidents, 48 Nobel laureates, and one massive cheating scandal that refuses to roll over and die.

In August, the university announced it had been investigating nearly 125 undergraduates for inappropriately collaborating with and plagiarizing their peers on a take-home exam earlier that spring. The incident tipped off a media feeding frenzy, and Harvard administrators scrambled to maintain face in light of the national embarrassment. And now, nearly six months later, their plight isn’t getting any better: last week, the Boston Globe reported that Harvard administrators had secretly accessed the email accounts of 16 deans without their knowledge, searching for whomever had leaked the scandal to the media. As we learn the extent of the lengths Harvard has gone to maintain face, the rest of us inside the world of higher education and out are stuck wondering, how far are universities willing to go in the crusade against cheating?

This might be the wrong question. Harvard’s greatest improprieties aren’t in the pursuit of academic justice, they’re ethical compromises in the name of institutional damage control. Harvard isn’t taking cheating too seriously. Rather, the scrutinizing public eye has shifted administrators' focus on maintaining external face over internal considerations of conduct. So far, Harvard’s efforts have backfired, and the scandal is back in national headlines. For Harvard and all its institutional peers — big or small, state or Ivy — this should be a wake up call.

I like to imagine Harvard’s administrators are pretty smart folks. They know Harvard is a brand. It has its recognizable color, crimson, its pithy catchphrase, Veritas, its even got its own signature effected pronunciation, equal parts Brahman and Bostonian — Haaahvehhd. Throw in a dollop of exclusivity and historical relevance, and you have a name that’s globally synonymous with academic excellence. Cheating, normally an inevitability of education, has no place in the picture Harvard paints of itself. For many students, this is exactly why Harvard publicly announced the cheating scandal in the first place: one anonymous senior told Salon, “Harvard chose to go public with this story to first and foremost save their own asses. They wanted to get the version that they wanted out to the public first.” The sentiment’s not wrong. For a name so closely associated with intellectual rigor and integrity, word of such an impressive lack of either would get out sooner or later, especially as students began dialing their lawyers. By announcing the scandal themselves, administrators could play ball by their rules, at least at first. Though students attributed cheating to a variety of factors — that course instructor assistant professor Matthew Platt had allegedly encouraged collaboration, that Teaching Fellows provided improper assistance, that ambiguous instructions offered no concrete guidelines for conduct, and so on—but, by offering the scoop in the administration’s terms, the blame rested squarely on the students themselves, not the institution. Subsequent editorials attacked students for lacking a love of learning, the inability to cope with failure, and over-reliance on structure. For millennials, it got personal.

Unsurprisingly, administrators dolled out disciplinary action like Halloween candy with little emphasis on what caused the abundance of dishonesty in the first place. Despite the need to scrutinize each case independently and meticulously lest they make a procedural mistake, opening the university up to legal suit, all convicted students got one of two things—forced withdrawal or disciplinary probation. Dean Michael D. Smith told students and faculty that “somewhat more than half” of convicted students were require to leave. The institutional side of the equation — cultures of collaboration and ambiguous guidelines — went largely unobserved in the disciplinary process. Harvard seemed to want the scandal behind them as quickly as possible, regardless of the implications for future academic integrity.

And while it might be a stretch to expect or hope the university to take such considerations into account, we would assume that such a scandal wouldn’t push administrators to violate their own rules. That’s what’s most troubling about The Globe’s recent report — like those exam instructions, Harvard’s faculty privacy policy leaves for a lot of gray area. Professors’ electronic privacy is protected under a Faculty of Arts and Sciences policy, and while the deans who had their emails searched are not officially professors, they do teach. It all begs the question, why didn’t administrators just ask first? In an effort to reduce damaging the university’s reputation further, administrators managed to do just that.

Harvard’s cheating scandal came as a slap in the face to administrators — it revealed serious shortcomings in the way students approached their studies as well as the guidelines the university offered them. But like all good face slaps, there was a lesson to be learned. But instead of taking a serious look at its collaboration and exam policies, Harvard placed maintaining its reputation for academic integrity above its actual academic integrity. It’s not my intention to defend cheaters, and while the notion that all forms of cheating are not created equal is certainly arguable, its besides the point. Cheating isn’t some overarching moral law; it’s rooted in what this or that institution deems to be right and wrong — with an episode as huge as the Harvard scandal, both students and administration are at fault. But as long as institutions prioritize external face over internal honesty, they’re not going to fix any problems. When it comes the academic integrity, they’ll have to get serious.