Harvard Says 125 Students May Have Cheated In ‘Introduction To Congress’ Class
Harvard University is being rocked by one of the biggest academic cheating scandals I’ve seen in a long time:
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Harvard University revealed Thursday what could be its largest cheating scandal in memory, saying that about 125 students might have worked in groups on a take-home final exam despite being explicitly required to work alone.
The accusations, related to a single undergraduate class in the spring semester, deal with “academic dishonesty, ranging from inappropriate collaboration to outright plagiarism,” the administration said in a note sent to students.
Officials said that nearly half of the more than 250 students in the class were under investigation by the Harvard College Administrative Board and that if they were found to have cheated, they could be suspended for a year. The students have been notified that they are suspected and will be called to give their accounts in investigative hearings.
“This is unprecedented in its scope and magnitude,” said Jay Harris, the dean of undergraduate education.
Administrators would not reveal the name of the class or even the department, saying that they wanted to protect the identities of the accused students. The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, reported that it was a government class, Introduction to Congress, which had 279 students, and that it was taught by Matthew B. Platt, an assistant professor.
Professor Platt did not respond to messages seeking comment.
When final exams were graded in May, similarities were noticed in the answers given by some students, officials said, and a professor brought the matter to the administration immediately. Over the summer, Harvard’s administrative board conducted an initial review, going over the exams of all of the students in the class for evidence of cheating. It concluded that almost half of them showed signs of possible collaboration.
The Harvard Crimson provides additional details:
If found guilty of academic dishonesty, students could be required to withdraw from the College for a year, among other possible sanctions.
The final examination in ”Introduction to Congress,” which included three multi-part short answer questions, a bonus short answer question, and an essay question, came with the instruction: ”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.”
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith sent an email to all faculty members about the case, and Harris also sent a message to the student body and their parents on Thursday. That letter said that all students who are under investigation have been contacted.
Harris said the College’s unusual step of announcing the investigation was intended in part to launch a broader conversation about academic integrity.
“It’s something that I think was obviously not going to stay secret, clearly, and nor do we want it to,” Harris said. “I think it’s important for us to be able to take an event like this and teach it, treat it as a teaching opportunity.”
A junior government concentrator who took the class last spring said she suspected that Government 1310 was the course in question when she received Harris’ email Thursday. Though she said she followed the exam instructions and is not being investigated by the Ad Board, she said she thought the exam format lent itself to improper academic conduct.
“I can understand why it would be very easy to collaborate,” said the student, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because she said she did not want her name associated with plagiarism allegations. “It was almost like a science exam that you take in person, but at home…. Many of the questions were, ‘Find the answer and basically say why this is the way it is.'”
I can’t honestly say I’ve ever seen an academic cheating scandal that involved this many potential violators ever before. However, I can see how in this day and age it would be very easy for a large group of people to collaborate and trade answers on a take home exam like this quite easily using electronic methods like e-mail, text messages, and Twitter Direct Messages. It also makes one wonder just how prevalent cheating like this is on these kind of “take home” exams.
Furthermore, I don’t recall ever having this kind of exam when I was in college back in the late 80’s. Occasionally, exams would be replaced by end-of-term paper or research project, which would sometimes be optional so one could either take the exam or do the paper, but never an actual exam. The same thing was true of law school. Is this a new development in academia? I’d almost be interested to see this test to see exactly what the students were being asked to do, because it often seemed to me like those “open book” tests tended to be far less rigorous than they probably needed to be.
The other question that arises is, assuming these allegations are true, what exactly these students were thinking when they were doing this. They’re at Harvard University, so they’re all obviously highly intelligent.This appears from the description to be an introductory level Political Science course, difficult perhaps but not exactly Ph.D. level either. They’ve obviously got to be aware of the consequences they could suffer if they’re caught cheating, including penalties that would be a permanent stain on their academic record even if they ended up going to another school. They’re taking a test where they’re permitted to consult any source material, including the Internet. What in the name of all that is holy would compel as many as 125 Harvard students to not only cheat, but to apparently do it in such a manner that it could be so easily detected? It really does defy logic.
The other point to keep in mind, of course, is that these are merely allegations at this point and that none of these people has either admitted to cheating or been proven to have done it. However, the fact that the university made the matter public, albeit without identifying those accused for obvious reasons, would seem to indicate that they believe that they have a fairly strong belief that there was cheating involved here. If that’s true, I’ve got a feeling some of these students are going to be at Harvard for very much longer.