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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Aftermath of Harvard cheating scandal brings few repercussions

Published: September 27, 2013
Section: News, Top Stories

The dust is beginning to clear after dozens of students suspended during Harvard University’s cheating scandal have returned to the school. Nearly one hundred and twenty five students enrolled in “Government 1310: Introduction to Congress” were investigated after a teaching fellow noticed similar answers on the take home final exam, including some with verbatim responses. The incident brought up questions related to staff privacy, academic collaboration and honesty, transparency and the handling of student incidents.

In December 2012 punishments were handed out to nearly half of the students in “Introduction to Congress,” a course that was notorious for being an “easy A.” Punishments ranged widely: students that met with others but wrote their own answers were given a stern lecture, while those that used others’ answers were forced to withdraw from the class. According to the New York Times, one accused student claimed that Professor Matthew Platt even stated at the beginning of the semester, “I gave out 120 A’s last year, and I’ll give out 120 more,” as well as saying that attendance is not essential. Past students said that student collaboration was tolerated and in some cases encouraged in the course as well as across the school despite the proceedings that took place after the incident began.

Since the initial investigation’s conclusion, the school is taking steps to prevent such a situation from occurring again. Professors have been instructed to be clearer about ethical standards and presentations about cheating will now be given to incoming freshman. Course syllabi must now include detailed information about what sort of group work is allowed. Administrators are also discussing the possible implementation of an honor code. The case brought up issues of privacy as there was a gray area in searching the emails of university staff. A separate investigation is underway to draft a new policy to protect the privacy of employees.

Despite the changes, some students and faculty have shown skepticism toward the practical effect of these alterations. Students point out that it can be difficult to implement an honor code and to quickly remake the culture of an entire university. Some students have noticed that cheating policies were discussed more during the first class meeting, but others have said that this is not the case for all classes.

An undisclosed number of students have returned to campus. One of the anonymous returning students stated, according to the New York Times, “It’s weird because I think everybody knows why I was gone, and it’s what they were talking about the whole time, but nobody says anything to my face.”

Many of the students and their advocates feel resentment toward the school for not publicly acknowledging Professor Platt’s role in the incident.

After the privacy invasion of staff emails, Harvard commissioned an independent review which concluded that the email searches were done in good faith and that only the subject lines of emails were read. The review also concluded that those who ordered and conducted the searches believed that they were following proper policies. Changes will need to be made, though, as the report cited inadequate university policies governing the privacy of email communications which in some cases overlapped and contradicted one another.

Cheating by college students has become more common with the surge of pressure and technology according to experts such as Donald McCabe, professor at Rutgers University Business School and Howard Gardner, professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. A survey done by the Yale Daily News found that the majority of students have witnessed cheating during college but that only fifteen percent of students admitted to knowingly cheating themselves. Most of the students surveyed were found to have not read the university’s regulations on academic honesty and many were not aware of some situations that constituted cheating.

Harvard faculty members have stated that Professor Platt has been denied promotion from assistant to associate professor since the incident and will likely have to leave Harvard. The course has not been offered since the Spring 2012 semester. Despite some students having legal aid, none have brought suit against the school for the punishments given.