Harvard Students Accused Of Cheating Respond To Allegations
Some of the Harvard students accused of cheating are speaking out, and making allegations of their own.
Some of the students who are being accused by Harvard University of cheating on a take home exam in an introductory Political Science course are speaking out, and denying any allegation that they cheated while also complaining about the manner in which the class was run:
Harvard students suspected in a major cheating scandal said on Friday that many of the accusations are based on innocent — or at least tolerated — collaboration among students, and with help from graduate-student teachers who sometimes gave them answers to test questions.
Students said they were tripped up by a course whose tests were confusing, whose grading was inconsistent, and for which the professor and teaching assistants gave contradictory signals about what was expected. They face the possibility of a one-year suspension from Harvard or revocation of their diplomas if they have already graduated, and some said that they will sue the university if any serious punishment is meted out.
In years past, the course, Introduction to Congress, had a reputation as one of the easiest at Harvard College. Some of the 279 students who took it in the spring semester said that the teacher, Matthew B. Platt, an assistant professor of government, told them at the outset that he gave high grades and that neither attending his lectures nor the discussion sessions with graduate teaching fellows was mandatory.
“He said, ‘I gave out 120 A’s last year, and I’ll give out 120 more,’ ” one accused student said.
But evaluations posted online by students after finals — before the cheating charges were made — in Harvard’s Q Guide were filled with seething assessments, and made clear that the class was no longer easy. Many students, who posted anonymously, described Dr. Platt as a great lecturer, but the guide included far more comments like “I felt that many of the exam questions were designed to trick you rather than test your understanding of the material,” “the exams are absolutely absurd and don’t match the material covered in the lecture at all,” “went from being easy last year to just being plain old confusing,” and “this was perhaps the worst class I have ever taken.”
The students said they do not doubt that some people in the class did things that were obviously prohibited, like working together in writing test answers. But they said that some of the conduct now being condemned was taken for granted in the course, on previous tests and in previous years.
Dr. Platt and his teaching assistants did not respond to messages requesting comment that were left on Friday. In response to calls to Mr. Harris and Michael D. Smith, the dean and chief academic officer of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the university released a statement saying that the university’s administrative board still must meet with each accused student and that it has not reached any conclusions.
“We expect to learn more about the way the course was organized and how work was approached in class and on the take-home final,” the statement said. “That is the type of information that the process is designed to bring forward, and we will review all of the facts as they arise.”
The class met three times a week, and each student in the class was assigned to one of 10 discussion sections, each of which held weekly sessions with graduate teaching fellows. The course grade was based entirely on four take-home tests, which students had several days to complete and which were graded by the teaching fellows.
Students complained that teaching fellows varied widely in how tough they were in grading, how helpful they were, and which terms and references to sources they expected to see in answers. As a result, they said, students routinely shared notes from Dr. Pratt’s lectures, notes from discussion sessions, and reading materials, which they believed was allowed.
“I was just someone who shared notes, and now I’m implicated in this,” said a senior who faces a cheating allegation. “Everyone in this class had shared notes. You’d expect similar answers.”
The students also claimed that despite the exam instruction that students were not allowed to discuss the exam with “others,” consultation with the Teaching Assistants over the questions on the exam was commonplace and accepted, although some T.A.’s were apparently more helpful with students than others.
It’s difficult to know what the truth is here, that will be what the investigations are for obviously. However, one thing that stands out to me is that this class was obviously viewed as one of those famous “easy” classes at Harvard. All of us who went to universities with large student bodies have experience with these kinds of classes. For me, it was an introductory Astronomy class I took as a Sophomore. There were at least 250 people in the class, which was held in one of the largest lecture halls on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus, and it became eminently apparent that one barely needed to attend the class lectures. There were assignments that were due every week or so, but they could easily be completed just be referring to the written material. Since it was a subject that actually interested me, I attended the lectures (well, most of them) but after about a month the number of students in attendance was noticeably smaller once people figured out that there was no penalty for not showing up.
Assuming what these anonymous students are saying is true, then it’s apparent that this “Introduction To Congress” course was viewed by students as one of those “easy” classes at Harvard, and that the Assistant Professor who ran the class pretty much viewed it the same way. It strikes me that this says something rather important about the state of education at our upper-level Universities. I’m not contending that Harvard is an “easy” school, far from it as a matter of fact. However, if the institution that, along with Yale, has produced several of our recent Presidents, not to mention a sizable portion of the Supreme Court, is providing classes like this, then what does that say about what’s coming out of other institutions of higher learning?
There’s been much discussion in recent years about the value of a college degree, especially in light of the skyrocketing costs of a college education and the fact that so many recent graduates remain either employed in jobs where the skills they learned aren’t being fully applied, or completely unemployed. Part of that discussion includes the question of whether students are getting the value of the dollar that they spend for their education, especially in the social sciences. The description of Harvard’s “Introduction To Congress” in this article just adds to that debate.