Students Disciplined in Harvard Scandal

Richard Perez-Pena, New York Times, February 1, 2013

Harvard has forced dozens of students to leave in its largest cheating scandal in memory, the university made clear in summing up the affair on Friday, but it would not address assertions that the blame rested partly with a professor and his teaching assistants.

Harvard would not say how many students had been disciplined for cheating on a take-home final exam given last May in a government class, but the university’s statements indicated that the number forced out was around 70. The class had 279 students, and Harvard administrators said last summer that “nearly half” were suspected of cheating and would have their cases reviewed by the Administrative Board. On Friday, a Harvard dean, Michael D. Smith, wrote in a letter to faculty members and students that, of those cases, “somewhat more than half” had resulted in a student’s being required to withdraw.

Dr. Smith, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote, “Of the remaining cases, roughly half the students received disciplinary probation, while the balance ended in no disciplinary action.” {snip}

The Administrative Board’s Web site says that forced withdrawals usually last two to four semesters, after which a student may return.

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The episode has given a black eye to one of the world’s great educational institutions, where in an average year, 17 students are forced out for academic dishonesty. It was a heavy blow to sports programs, because the class drew a large number of varsity athletes, some of them on the basketball team. Two players accused of cheating withdrew in September rather than risk losing a year of athletic eligibility on a season that disciplinary action could cut short.

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While Harvard has not identified the course or the professor involved, they were quickly identified by the implicated students as Introduction to Congress and Matthew B. Platt, an assistant professor of government. {snip}

Matthew Platt

Matthew Platt

In previous years, students called it an easy class with optional attendance and frequent collaboration. But students who took it last spring said that it had suddenly become quite difficult, with tests that were hard to comprehend, so they sought help from the graduate students who ran the class discussion groups and graded assignments. Those teaching fellows, they said, readily advised them on interpreting exam questions.

Administrators said that on final-exam questions, some students supplied identical answers, down to, in some cases, typographical errors, indicating that they had written them together or plagiarized them. But some students claimed that the similarities in their answers were due to sharing notes or sitting in on sessions with the same teaching fellows. The instructions on the take-home exam explicitly prohibited collaboration, but many students said they did not think that included talking with teaching fellows.

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