The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Harvard Engulfed in Major Cheating Scandal

Last year, a massive cheating scandal at an elite New York high school prompted closer scrutiny of alleged cheating elsewhere. This year, it’s happening again, but at a higher level: the New York Times reports that more than 100 students at Harvard University are suspected of cheating and plagiarism on exams in a class on government (sadly, it was Introduction to Congress):

Harvard University revealed Thursday what could be its largest cheating scandal in memory, saying that about 125 students might have worked in groups on a take-home final exam despite being explicitly required to work alone. . . .

When final exams were graded in May, similarities were noticed in the answers given by some students, officials said, and a professor brought the matter to the administration immediately. Over the summer, Harvard’s administrative board conducted an initial review, going over the exams of all of the students in the class for evidence of cheating. It concluded that almost half of them showed signs of possible collaboration.

Like Stuyvesant in New York, Harvard is (obviously) one of the best schools at its level, if not the very best. If so many students in one class at America’s top university believe that cheating of this sort is acceptable, it is hard to imagine that the problem is not considerably more widespread than this report indicates.

This speaks volumes about the moral problems we are facing as a country. Some of these students will eventually become the leaders and businesspeople of the future, and the values they learn as students in school will shape the adults they eventually become. Something needs to change, and soon.

Published on August 31, 2012 5:00 pm
  • Mike

    Future leaders, what about the current crop. Some how this country has been hoodwinked into the idea that an Ivy League education is some how better than any other. Just take a look at the problems in this country and how many of the leaders in those decisions have an Ivy League education. Ivy League schools have no ethics or morals and don’t begin to know how to teach them. The root of our national problems rest in the Ivy League.

  • bobby b

    It’s okay. It was “Intro To Congress.”

    Just means they were paying attention.

  • http://inthisdimension.com alex scipio

    How is Harvard going to churn out tomorrow’s Congresmen and women if they aren’t taught to lie, cheat and steal? That’s what Congress DOES, for goodness’ sake: Lie to the public, cheat the voters and steal America’s future to buy votes.

    Next you’ll tell us that the Columbia School of Journalism is teaching dishonest reporting.

    Are you trying to take-down the foundations of modern American governance?

  • Anthony

    Perhaps, it speaks volumes to societal pressures to perform (even at Harvard, maybe especially at Harvard) and what the society ostensibly esteems.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    A take home final exam? Yeah, that’s the ticket, that will test what the students have learned.

    What is really being tested here? Why would a Professor have a take home final exam? Is he trying to hide the fact that he failed in his job to actually TEACH? Is this a technique to blame the students for the Professor’s failure to teach them the subject matter?

  • Kenny

    More fallout from the secularization of America.

    How so?

    When a person believes in the God of the Bible as Christianity teaches, they are less incline to lie & cheat as they know that they’ll eventually be held accountable even if they skate free in this life.

    Did I say it right, Mr. Mead?

  • Corlyss

    Priceless!

    Art imitating life!

    Perfect training!

    Irony to the nth power.

  • WigWag

    “This speaks volumes about the moral problems we are facing as a country.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    No it doesn’t; it speaks volumes about the tendency of critics to make a mountain out of a mole hill. It’s hard to imagine a post more self righteous than this particular offering from Via Meadia; how full of yourself can you get.

    Working in a group is not cheating just because some lazy good for nothing of a professor supposedly told his students not to. If s/he didn’t want the students collaborating then the professor in question should have hauled their sorry tuckus into a class room and given the examination in a proctored setting. It’s not the students who should be criticized it’s the lazy college faculty member who despite standing in front of students for six hours a week or less (depending on whether they teach one course or two; virtually no one teaches three) still couldn’t bear the thought of wasting a couple of hours of their incredibly valuable time watching their students take a test. I wonder whether the Professor in question even graded their own test or had one or more graduate students assigned to that job that I am sure they consider menial.

    The scandal here is not the fact that students collaborated; they are encouraged to do that all the time; even if they were warned not to in this case, they can hardly be blamed for engaging in activity that they are routinely advised to engage in. The scandal here is that the teacher in question was such a lazy good for nothing that he wanted the test administered in a manner that made his job as easy as possible. The this tool of a professor announces that he is shocked, just shocked when the students collaborated.

    Give me a break. Don’t punish the students; fire the Professor.

    And then we have Professor Mead’s hypocrisy to deal with. How long ago was it that someone he knows pretty well was caught up in a scandal; a plagiarism scandal looks a lot like cheating to me. Professor Mead wrote two posts on the subject; the first one made excuses for Zakaria; Mead insisted that for someone as talented as Zakaria to plagiarize it must have just been a regrettable mistake. In his second post on the Zakaria scandal, Professor Mead announced how relieved he was that an investigation by Zakaria’s employer, Time Warner, exonerated the journalist.

    I guess it didn’t occur to Professor Mead that Zakaria’s exoneration came after a brief (two day) investigation by the very company that earns big profits from Zakaria’s work and has an ongoing financial interest in Zakaria’s reputation remaining intact.

    It’s hard to know which is worse; the self-righteousness of this post or Professor Mead’s blindness to his own double standards while he was penning it.

  • Jim.

    Harvard produces groupthink despite orders not to… wow.

    @thibaud-

    So a professor is at fault for allowing the possibility of collaboration?

    How much more anti-personal-responsibility can a point of view possibly get? Have you ever considered how anti-freedom and pro-nanny-state the implications of that thought have to be?

    So the professor was “asking for it”?

  • f1b0nacc1

    Jim,

    That was WigWag, not Thibaud….though in truth, it is hard to tell them apart…

  • http://fat-city-usa.blogspot.com/ Walter Sobchak

    “Harvard is (obviously) one of the best schools at its level, if not the very best.”

    A 250 student class with a take home exam?

    That is not a good education, let alone one of the best.

    That is second tier state university like Cal State Fullerton, UT Dallas, or Kent State.

    Just because Harvard’s students are rich, and some of them did well in high school (although some of them are just real rich), doesn’t mean that they are getting a good education.

    Opposition to cheating is a moral issue and we all know that Harvard hasn’t taught bourgeois morality for many years now.

    If you want to know why our elites are so bad, just look at Harvard. It represents the privilege of wealth and BoBo groupthink. Nothing more.

  • WigWag

    For anyone who may be interested, here is the home page for the knuckle head who was shocked after his students collaborated on a take home test that he says he asked them not to collaborate on.

    http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~mplatt/

    No wonder, Professor Platt couldn’t take the time to spend a couple of hours proctoring a test for his students in a classroom setting; as anyone can see from the research page of his site, he’s obviously preoccupied conducting his incredibly important research activities. It’s surely a matter of national concern for Professor Platt to be devoting every spare minute to his research activities instead of wasting time tending to his teaching responsibilities.

    In response to your question, Jim, yes, the Professor was asking for it. Students at Ivy League Institutions are routinely encouraged to collaborate on course work. In fact, in today’s day and age, collaboration between students is the default position routinely encouraged by faculty. I’m not defending or criticizing this reality, but it is the reality nevertheless, especially in the social sciences and humanities.

    Students are routinely asked to collaborate on class presentations, writing projects and even on graded assignments. This approach has become so ubiquitous, especially at Harvard, that these students can be forgiven for not taking Professor Platt’s admonition about not collaborating seriously.

    By the way, collaboration is not only the default position for class assignments, it’s also the default position for studying. Study groups are a ubiquitous part of student life and these groups are frequently facilitated by the college or university; social networking has encouraged this process still further.

    If the Professor is so lazy that he’s going to assign a take home test (in my day they were called “open book tests”) what’s the harm in student collaboration anyway? Does it really matter if the student looks at his notes and his texts while answering the test questions himself or does it as part of a group?

    The class in question was a Government class. If the test was designed to be taken at home, would the students have been cheating if they consulted the internet? What about if they called their Congressman to ask a few questions? What if they called Professor Mead to solicit his help? If none of these things would have been a violation of the rules, why was collaborating a violation of the rules?

    Most of the blame here resides with the Professor, the Institution and the culture that pervades contemporary academic institutions. I don’t know anything more about the situation than Professor Mead does; like him, I only know what I read in the New York Times. My guess is that many of the students didn’t realize that they were doing anything wrong and that they had little reason to believe that they were doing anything wrong. I also suspect that Professor Platt is mostly to blame and is reaping the results of his own laziness. If he is really so shocked that students collaborated on a take-home examination, maybe he should be in another line of work.

    Am I absolutely sure that all of the students in question are blameless? Of course not. But what I am sure of is that Professor Mead’s breathless claim that the incident “speaks volumes about the moral problems we are facing as a country” is little more than hysterical hyperbole.

    I am also sure that Farid Zakaria’s plagiarism is far more emblematic of the moral problems that we are facing as a county than the incident that transpired at Harvard. Yet Professor Mead waxes eloquent about the situation at Harvard while celebrating the whitewash of the Zakaria scandal after a short investigation by Zakaria’s employer who had every motivation to cover up his wrong doing.

    My question for Professor Mead is, why the double standard?

    Professor Mead doesn’t need to respond for us to know the answer; Zakaria is a colleague of his while the students at Harvard represent little more than a juicy target for his moral indignation.

  • WigWag

    Good news, Professor Mead. Just as I suspected, the New York Times is now reporting that they type of collaboration alleged to have taken place in this class in “violation” of the rules was not only common at Harvard but commonly encouraged by faculty. It seems that the students in question may not be the moral troglodytes you thought they were but were instead just confused by Harvard’s inconsistent standards.

    Whew! What a relief; it looks like the moral problems faced by our country aren’t quite as serious as you thought.

    Are you feeling as good about this as I am?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/01/education/students-of-harvard-cheating-scandal-say-group-work-was-accepted.html

  • Mahon

    Take-home exams are a bad idea. Most people are generally honest, but all are potentially susceptible to temptation, peer pressure, etc. Trust, but verify. Institutional laziness should not be passed off as an “honor system.”

  • Rebecca

    I teach at a considerably less lofty college than Harvard, and I have given take home final exams. They take longer to grade than standard classroom exams, so the professor wasn’t saving any time. The class had around 275 students in it – in order to write a test that actually forces the students to think, you need more than one professor to grade it – that’s what teaching assistants do (in addition to teaching discussion sections). It’s pretty easy to tell if students have colluded in writing a take home exam in a small class – since the same person does all the grading, it becomes apparently pretty quickly that students have cheated. It would be harder in a larger class with several people grading, because each grader wouldn’t see all the exams and see the patterns of similar answers. That said, I do wonder what the instructions were for the exam, and how clear they were that students were not supposed to work together on the exam. It’s true that students in all types of colleges have to do group projects where they are supposed to cooperate. As a teacher, it’s important to stress when collaboration is NOT called for.

    I’d also like to point out that students can be quite inventive in cheating. I had a couple of cases in two different classes where I received very similar papers, including whole paragraphs that were the same (including spelling errors!). I couldn’t figure out how this had happened, so I called in the two students and confronted them. It turned out that one student (the better one) had lent his paper to the other student so that the other student could get ideas for his paper. The weaker student instead just took whole paragraphs from the stronger student. Sharing was done via computer file – that’s why there were identical spelling errors.

  • Marvin Warren

    WRM seems surprised by this news. Hate to sound like a scold but, Sir- where you been for the last 30 years? Ever heard of relativism, or postmodernism, or “find your own values”? C. S. Lewis wrote about it 50 years ago in “Men Without Chests”. We mock virtue in academia, and then we’re shocked (shocked!) to find that the kids are scoundrels. I agree with Mike, who said never mind the future, our current crop of morally challenged leaders/ businesspeople act in accordance with their education. I wish I could believe the problem is confined to the Ivy League.

  • http://diaryofagolddigger.blogspot.com/ The gold digger

    I went to a top-tier school and we had take-home, unlimited time exams, which were far worse than in-class exams. At least in class, the horror would be over in three hours.

    My husband the engineer (who went to the same school) had take-home exams as well. His were open book. I don’t remember if mine (I was an English major) were open book, but probably.

    This was in our upper-level classes, where we weren’t being tested simply on solving equations. It wasn’t in Physics or Calculus 101. If you can take as much time as you want and the test is open book, that means you actually have to know the material to do well.

    We were expected to sign and follow the honor code on every piece of work we submitted.

  • http://www.jamesgraham.bz JamesG

    Harvard’s most famous faculty member for many years was SJ Gould now recognized (by all except his fellow marxists) as a cheat.

  • CNC

    “Harvard is (obviously) one of the best schools at its level, if not the very best”??
    REALLY? For over 25 years, I’ve worked with engineers & scientists from ivy league schools. Most have had trouble working with others in the “real world” because of their hyper-inflated egos. Not sure what things they learned in these best schools but getting the job done doesn’t seem to one them.

  • Nagesh K Ojha

    If this is “Harvard”, what about the unisities of developing nations? This is not sad but a matter of surprise. These dream institutions must keep their sanctity. We can only wish for the same.