A Harvard Student Writes In on Cheating Scandal

harvard1 A Harvard Student Writes In on Cheating ScandalAfter we posted on the cheating scandal embroiling Harvard University yesterday, a student implicated in the investigation wrote in to offer another side of the story.

If you haven’t been following, the university said yesterday that nearly half of the 279 students in an undergraduate course—later identified by the Harvard Crimson as Government 1310: Introduction to Congress—were being investigated for academic dishonesty on a take-home final exam.

According to press reports, the inquiry was opened after a teaching fellow, or TF for short, noticed that students collaborated on the exam despite instructions that such collaboration was prohibited, and that some students used “same long, identical strings of words.”

But our source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that while collaboration may have been expressly forbidden*, it was widely practiced by students and even teaching fellows.*We’ve seen a copy of the test, which spells out the policy on collaboration as follows: “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 specifi cally, students may not discuss the exam with others—this includes resident tutors, writing centers,
etc.”

“I can personally attest that my TF collaborated on every single exam with me,” the student said in an email. “He pointed me in the right direction, gave me some answers, gave me some insights, and some quotes to use.”

The source also sent us a review of Introduction to Congress from the university’s Q Guide—which compiles students’ comments on courses they’ve taken—and in which a student described seeking help from a teaching fellow on the eve of the final exam. (While we don’t have access to the Q Guide, The Crimson reproduces a portion of the review in the article linked above.)

At those office hours were about 15 kids, some of whom were not even in my TFs section. Almost all of them had been awake the entire night, and none of us could figure out what an entire question (worth 20% of the grade) was asking. On top of this, one of the questions asked us about a term that had never been defined in any of our readings and had not been properly defined in class, so the TF had to give us a definition to use for the question.

Take these two anonymous comments for what you will. (You might take them the attempts of entitled adolescents to shift blame, for instance.) And note that we don’t know the extent of the collaboration (or plagiarism, or cheating) identified by the university. But from the outside looking in, it’s not so hard to imagine a scenario in which students sharing answers thought their behavior was acceptable—because their teaching fellows were supplying the answers in the first place, or because sharing answers had become the done thing.

It’s not the only explanation. After a summer long on cheating scandals—from the apparently widespread manipulation of interbank lending rates, to the Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria imbroglios and the continued slow-and-steady fall of Lance Armstrong’s reputation—there’s no cheating scandal so terrible to surprise us. Certainly, the 70 or so Stuyvesant High School students charged with sharing test answers via text message understood they were doing wrong.

Read More: Our Cheating Hearts: Honor, Integrity and Playing by the Rules are All Out of Style

But if you go along with our source’s explanation, at least for a moment, you can imagine a Harvard administration in a tricky situation. The school has said penalties may range from formal admonishments to forcing students to withdraw from the university for a year. Coming down heavy would send the message that cheating is unacceptable, a good message for one of the world’s elite educational institutions to send. But what if administrators determine it’s unfair to punish students for behavior that was tacitly sanctioned—if the school puts this group of students in the clear, what kind of message does that send?