On Friday, Harvard University announced that it had imposed academic sanctions on dozens of students involved in a cheating scandal. The back story tells you a lot about the state of modern education — even at an exalted academic institution like Harvard.
The incident involved an undergraduate course called “Introduction to Congress” that was seen as a gut course — that is, an easy A. The scandal came to light when a teaching assistant for the course noticed that students may have shared answers to the “take home” final exam. After an investigation that took months, Harvard’s academic integrity board announced that a number of students were required to withdraw from the school for several terms, others were put on probation, and others received no disciplinary action at all. The President of Harvard’s Undergraduate Council says that the withdrawing students shouldn’t feel “alienated” from Harvard and should be embraced when they return.
A letter from a Harvard alum about the scandal raises some interesting questions. According to his letter, the professor teaching the course had previously encouraged “open collaboration” on his exams. He then changed the rules to say that the students couldn’t collaborate with professors, teaching fellows, “and others,” the letter alleges, but some teaching fellows for the course nevertheless went over the exam in open sessions with students. The vaguely defined rules, the letter suggests, led students to engage in lots of collaboration — although even the letter writer concedes that some students “went too far, literally cutting and pasting their answers.”
What does this incident say about Harvard? For one, it tells you something about its academic rigor. A class called “Introduction to Congress” that encourages “open collaboration” and features a “take home” final exam that TAs discuss with students beforehand sounds more like a community college course than an Ivy League offering. It also tells you something about Harvard students. Even with a basic subject area that is taught in every American high school and the luxury of a take-home final, some students were so dim-witted and unprincipled they thought they could get away with cutting and pasting answers of other students. The students don’t exactly come out of this sounding like the cream of the crop, do they? And finally, it tells you something about the hidebound nature of colleges, and the general atmosphere on campuses, that the investigation of a cheating scandal takes months and even students who blatantly cut and pasted answers are only required to withdraw for a few semesters, to be “embraced” on their return.
If Harvard, and other American colleges, don’t want to be seen as diploma mills, how about taking this approach: have a meaningful honor code, offer challenging courses, require students to appear in the classroom for the exam and write their answers on paper, act promptly when potential cheating is detected, and punish those who violate the rules rather than telling them they will be welcomed back with a hug.