Harvard | January 24, 2013 at 4:50 am

Long Overdue

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On August 30, 2012, Harvard University released a public statement about a cheating scandal “unprecedented in its scope and magnitude” that took place among 125 accused students during the spring 2012 academic term in the government course “Government 1310: Introduction to Congress.”

In response to the scandal, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust suggested, “There is work to be done to ensure that every student at Harvard understands and embraces the values that are fundamental to its community of scholars.”

450px-Harvard_college_-_memorial_churchDespite such initial calls for reform by Harvard administrators, public action has been all but indiscernible after nearly five months of internal deliberation.

Thoroughness, but at what cost?

Instead of using the period immediately following the public disclosure of the scandal to communicate Harvard’s academic expectations to the student body, the Administrative Board took an entirely different route. The disciplinary body has opted for allowing faculty members and student publications like The Harvard Crimson to drive the dialectic process and to speculate about its proceedings during what has become a secretive, overly deliberative and arduous process. Indeed, even its most recent announcement about the status of the investigation was delivered via the student newspaper.

Though Administrative Board Secretary John “Jay” Ellison refused to comment on the ongoing investigation as per standard policy, the Board’s opaqueness throughout this protracted process is nonplussing. For example, its refusal to set a deadline for decisive action sent mixed signals to students (especially those accused of academic dishonesty) about its prioritization of the issue and intent to enhance the clarity of its collaboration policy across the university.

One such consequence has been the voluntary withdrawal of an undisclosed number of students from the College for a year during the fall term; meanwhile, countless others tentatively planned to return to campus to start the spring term for Wintersession, still awaiting a final verdict. With the verdicts delivered in private to those implicated, the emotional toll impelled by the Administrative Board’s timing remains immeasurable.

Undergraduate Council President Tara Raghuveer ’14 acknowledges that such a “painfully extended process” has exacted a steep emotional toll on implicated students and their families and may have made some feel “alienated by Harvard.” Tara cautions: “It is so important that Harvard remembers that these students remain parts of our community, and they should be treated as such.”

Next Steps Forward

Honor Code

Although President Faust and the Administrative Board continue to underutilize a shrinking window of opportunity to engage in a community-wide conversation about academic honesty and to delineate collaboration from cheating, measures will eventually be taken to ensure a scandal of this size never sullies the university’s reputation again. Seeing as how the scandal revealed lack of understanding of institutional standards among students and faculty alike, those two avenues are most outstanding and likely to be redressed by administrators.

First, the university can modify what it expects of its students. The option most in vogue in the media is the imposition of a university-wide honor code, joining the ranks of Princeton and Dartmouth as Ivy League institutions with an explicit system of ethical standards.

What can be expected if an honor code is ratified? An honor code can take on several variant forms. First, it may be administered by a student committee, faculty committee, or some hybrid arrangement of the two. Second, it may either strictly govern actions in the academic domain or also apply outside of the classroom, as at the U.S. service academies, though this latter option is admittedly less likely given the context of the scandal.

Either way, the implementation of an honor code raises several challenges.

Prof. Harry R. Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College and Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science, opined in the Huffington Post that an honor code would protect faculty, while keeping the onus on students, when it should be a shared burden. When asked by the Harvard Political Review for comment, Prof. Lewis elaborated on two issues he saw with a supposed honor code:

“Such codes impose on students the burden of turning in their peers, and I don’t think that is their job; this expectation imposes another stressor at a time when students should be focusing on their studies. Also my impression, from conversations I used to have with deans of other colleges when I was dean, was that honor codes are vulnerable to catastrophic failure – they work OK as long as students generally think the course is being run in a fair and honorable way. When the general sentiment is that students are not being fairly treated, they are reluctant to blow the whistle on each other, and in fact feel they have to take the same liberties they see others taking. This compounds until suddenly a large number of cases come to light at the same time.”

Moreover, the university would have to contend with the difficulty of teaching an undergraduate population how to conduct itself in the classroom, an ostensible affront to students who have hitherto lived by Harvard’s credo and were admitted based on their presumed respect for learning. How would the university brand and market such a code in a way that does not seem like it is micromanaging or policing student activity?

According to Darragh Nolan ’15, Education Committee Chair on the Undergraduate Council and member of the Academic Integrity Committee, students must be “involved in the process the whole way through” if should Harvard choose this route. The Academic Integrity Committee is further exploring the culture of academic integrity that might be cultivated should this be the case.

Faculty Standards

As Prof. Lewis indicated, members of the faculty are not guiltless for conducting classes like Government 1310 in such a lackadaisical manner, either. Another more modest measure the university will likely consider is the approval of baseline measures for faculty members in how they structure and administer their courses.

Immediately after news of the scandal broke, the university required all faculty members teaching a course in the fall term to outline their collaboration policies and made them visible on all course websites and syllabi. Nolan ’15 noticed that “professors were much clearer last semester about what their expectations were for each assignment,” for example.

While praise is deserved for administrators for acting decisively early on, subsequent developments undermined the move’s efficacy. Shortly following shopping week, the collaboration policies were erased from all course websites, and many faculty members ceased talking about it altogether.

Aside from clarifying collaboration policies, central administration officials are likely to advise faculty to adhere to conventional final exam scheduling in lieu of alternative types of test taking, like take-home exams. As Prof. Lewis believes, the decision to administer a take-home exam last spring in Government 1310 “was almost an invitation for some dinner table conversation, at least about what the questions meant.”

Starting the Conversation

Harvard University prides itself on being a historically decentralized institution, so administering either a faculty- or student-driven initiative to rectify academic honesty concerns might best be done at a local level, either in Departments or by an undergraduate council of sorts.

Raghuveer ’14, for instance, plans to take the initiative as President of the UC. She sees this as an issue extending beyond academic honesty, but encompassing, “our disciplinary procedures, and even our support mechanisms, like house-based advisors and mental health services.” She, like Nolan ’15 on the UC’s Education Committee, plans for the UC to engage students and the Administrative Board in a discussion of this broad range of issues in the future.

As Rahm Emanuel once famously said, “You never want a good crisis to go to waste.” Harvard administrators had an opportune chance to address this crisis of confidence at the outset of the fall term, and it remains to be seen whether it can still capitalize on it now that time has attenuated its urgency.

Photo Credit: WikiMedia Commons

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