University announced its investigation of about 125 undergraduates who are
believed to have improperly collaborated on a take-home final examination last
spring. It is tempting to use this case to generalize about an Ivy League sense
of entitlement, declining student morals in general, or perhaps the failure of
Harvard and other universities to teach character and a sense of honor to its
students along with their academic subjects. For now, though, we should focus on
the specifics of this cheating incident, or at least what we know of them,
since many of the precise details of the scandal have yet to emerge:
1. The class in question,
“Introduction to Congress,” enrolled more than 250 students. If
Harvard’s suspicions are correct, this means that half the class thought they
could get away with violating a specific instruction in the exam itself:
“[S]tudents may not discuss the exam with others–this includes resident
tutors, writing centers, etc.” Most college cheating rings are relatively
small groups of trusted friends. Not this one.
2. The cheating appeared
to be careless and blatant. A graduate-student teaching fellow grading the
exams uncovered the alleged collaboration on noticing that several of them
contained the exact same words or strings of ideas in answering some of the
exam questions. The students allegedly involved didn’t bother to disguise what
they were doing very artfully (surprising for clever Harvardians)–because they
thought they could get away with it.
3. Many students didn’t
like the class very much. According to Harvard Crimson reporter Rebecca D.
Robbins, Harvard’s “Q Guide” of student course evaluations gave “Introduction
to Congress” a score of 2.54 out of a possible 5. Robbins noted that the
average score for social-science courses at Harvard was 3.91. Some of the
student evaluators took the course to task for lack of organization and
difficult exam questions. One student wrote that she and about 15 other
students, most of whom had stayed up all night working on the exam, gathered at
a teaching fellow’s office for clarifications a few hours before the deadline because
they didn’t understand one question worth 20 percent of the grade. “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,” the student wrote.
None of this excuses in
the slightest what went on last spring. Students found to have collaborated on
that exam deserve not just to be suspended for a year–which is apparently
Harvard’s maximum punishment. However, there’s a lot here we just don’t know.