Thoughts on the Harvard cheating scandal

This blog seems to be turning into a real-time ethics course.  What are we to make of the Harvard cheating scandal?

When news of the scandal broke on Friday, there was much wringing of hands and clutching of pearls, along with a lot of schadenfreude. Here‘s one typical response. My initial thoughts were:

  • There’s got to be more to this story.
  • The professor was probably an idiot.

I can easily imagine Harvard pre-med students cheating on some important required course like Organic Chemistry (if Orgo gave them the opportunity, which I doubt it does). And they shouldn’t do that! But no Harvard student would have to cheat on a well-run intro Gov course, and there should be no incentive to.  And so today some of the complexities have started coming out.

Students said they were tripped up by a course whose tests were confusing, whose grading was inconsistent, and for which the professor and teaching assistants gave contradictory signals about what was expected.

Here are the rules for the exam:

But the instructions on the exam said students should consider it “completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc.” The professor had encouraged students to collaborate in their other course work.

A lawyer could drive a truck through that “etc.”.  Also:

Instructions on the final exam said, “students may not discuss the exam with others.” Students said that consulting with the fellows on exams was commonplace, that the [teaching] fellows generally did not turn students away, and that the fellows did not always understand the questions, either.

One student recalled going to a teaching fellow while working on the final exam and finding a crowd of others there, asking about a test question that hinged on an unfamiliar term. The student said the fellow defined the term for them.

The impression the articles give is that this had been an exceptionally easy course for years, the professor was trying to tighten it up, and he went about it the wrong way, by creating a confusing test with confusing rules.  And the result was chaos.

How does Harvard clean up a mess like this? They’ve got to say the right things about not tolerating cheating and upholding the ideals of the university and blah blah blah.  But if they really try to punish those students, they’re in for a fight, as well as for a ton of bad publicity.  I’ve got to imagine that a bunch of the students have parents who can afford high-powered lawyers, or who are high-powered lawyers themselves.

[Students] face the possibility of a one-year suspension from Harvard or revocation of their diplomas if they have already graduated, and some said that they will sue the university if any serious punishment is meted out.

Remind me never to become a university president; it’s not worth the hassle.  Drew Gilpin Faust will probably appoint a faculty commission to look at standards for take-home exams and what-not. But I’ll be very surprised if any of those students get anything more than a warning to go forth and sin no more.  And, based on what we know so far, that’s about all the punishment they deserve.  This isn’t a plagiarism scandal; it’s a bad teaching scandal.