Harvard Rocked by Mass Cheating Scandal in Intro Course

Harvard University’s student newspaper The Crimson is reporting that nearly half of the 279 students enrolled in last year’s Introduction to Congress course are currently under investigation for cheating. The university’s administrators are looking into accusations that the students plagiarized some of the work they handed in as part of their course assignments and that some collaborated inappropriately on a take-home final exam.

The Dean of Undergraduate Education, Jay. M. Harris, called the scope of the allegations “unprecedented.”

Although Harris declined to offer specifics, those familiar with the case said that it involves the section of the courses headed by Professor Matthew B. Platt offered last spring semester. It was Platt himself who brought the issue to the attention to the Administrative Board late last spring after similarities were detected in up to 20 handed-in exams. A further examination over the summer uncovered issues with nearly 125 exam papers handed in in May.

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.”

Students who are found guilty of academic misconduct could be forced to leave the school for at least a year — and may face additional sanctions. The entire faculty of Harvard was notified of the investigation via an email from the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Michael D. Smith. An email to the entire student body from Harris soon followed in which he indicated that those suspected of misconduct have already been contacted by the school.

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 student from the course interviewed by The Crimson — who is not one of those being investigated — said that once she got Harris’s email, she suspected that the fault was with Platt’s course, as its grading policy made this kind of collaboration particularly inviting. Only four take-home exams were used to determine the final grade and the format was of a typical in-class exam. In their reviews of the course after its completion, there were complaints of a lack of structured support such as professor and teaching assistant office hours for students who needed assistance.

In an opinion piece for Bloomberg View, Naomi Schaefer Riley suggests that these events should bring Harvard to re-evaluate its admissions policies.

09 4, 2012