Caught Cheating?

September 14th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

A cheating scandal rocks Harvard, but some say it was due to conditions at the school.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

A massive cheating scandal that rocked Harvard College has found its way into recent headlines, as Harvard’s disciplinary board is investigating nearly half of the 279 students that took last spring’s Government 1310 – “Introduction to Congress” – after evidence of plagiarism and cheating arose.

According to The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, when the professor received the course’s final exams for grading, he noticed questionable similarities in 10 to 20 of the tests. After he brought the case to the Administrative Board, they reviewed all of the final exams submitted and found about 125 of them to be suspicious. Those found guilty of academic dishonesty face punishment as severe as being required to withdraw from the College.

The final exam included three multi-part short answer questions, a bonus short answer question and an essay. The test, says The Crimson, came with this instruction: “The exam is completely open book, open note, open Internet, etc. However, in all other regards, this should fall under similar guidelines that apply to in-class exams. More specifically, students may not discuss the exam with others – this includes resident tutors, writing centers, etc.”

Harvard officials say that they are bringing the issue to light because they intend to spotlight academic integrity in the coming year. But some others are saying that the test itself gave rise to the wave of plagiarism and cheating.

Some students complained – as quoted by The Crimson and other publications – that the professor had canceled his office hours the morning before the exam was due; another wrote that 15 students had congregated in a teaching fellow’s office in a panic on the morning the test was due because they didn’t understand one of the questions – which was worth 20 percent of the grade. “On top of this,” the student wrote, “one of the questions asked us about a term that had never been defined in any of our readings and had not been properly defined in class, so the [teaching fellow] had to give us a definition to use for the question.”

It wasn’t just the exam itself that led students to cheat, however. At academically high-pressure schools like Harvard, there appears to exist a culture that fosters cheating. Considering that the exam was not only take-home, but also open book and open Internet, you might wonder why the students felt the need to break Harvard’s academic honor code. In an interview with ABC News, Eric Kestor, a 2008 Harvard grad and author of “That Book About Harvard,” shed some light on the issue, talking about his own struggles with academic honesty while at Harvard.

“There’s a lot of pressure internally and externally to succeed at Harvard and when kids who are not used to failing feel these things, it can really bend their ethics in ways I didn’t expect to see,” said Kestor. It comes down the responsibility of students as individuals, he said, who know that cheating is wrong and are generally bright enough to be able to succeed without cheating. But with so much pressure “to become the next Mark Zuckerberg,” Kestor says he’s somewhat sympathetic.

What about you? Do you think the circumstances and ambiguities make the cheating accusations less of a black-and-white issue, or are pressure and confusion never reason enough to break the rules? Weigh in here.