Ad Board's Educational Mission Under Scrutiny

Part I of a four-part series analyzing how successful the 2009-2010 reforms have been in making the Administrative Board’s disciplinary process more educational, transparent, and empowering for accused students. Part IIPart III, and Part IV were published Oct. 24-26.

Nearly five years before Harvard’s current cheating scandal brought its disciplinary process into the national spotlight, a small committee was tasked with reforming the College’s enigmatic disciplinary body: the Administrative Board.

As they drafted their recommendations on issues ranging from advising to fact-finding, members of the Committee to Review the Administrative Board strived to create “a more educational process, rather than one that leaves people cynical and jaded,” recalled Matthew L. Sundquist ‘09, a former Undergraduate Council president who served as the committee’s only student member.

The committee’s emphasis on pedagogy was nowhere more apparent than in their recommendation to introduce new, less severe penalties for academic integrity cases. These “local sanctions”—which could range from tutoring to a failing grade on the assignment—were designed to remedy an approach that many criticized for linking educational wrongdoing with a punishment of questionable educational value: the requirement to temporarily withdraw from the College.

But now, two years after the reform was approved, new data raise questions about how effective the new local sanctions have been in aligning the Board’s punishments with its pedagogical mission.

The Board’s 2005-2012 records for academic integrity cases show that as faculty report far more students for academic dishonesty since the reform, the Board is issuing forced withdrawals for only a slightly smaller percentage of the cases that come its way. As a result, more cheaters are being asked to leave Harvard in the wake of the reform that many hoped would reduce the number of forced withdrawals.

This fall, some of the roughly 125 students accused of improperly collaborating in Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress” will likely be forced to take a year off from school, a punishment that some say will dog them long after their undergraduate years but teach them nothing about appropriate academic practices.

MORE OPTIONS, MORE WITHDRAWALS

In the years before the reforms, a reported perception among faculty members that the Board’s penalties were overly harsh generated concern among College administrators that professors were underreporting academic dishonesty.

In this climate, the committee proposed in its 2009 report that the “limited range of sanctions” then available to the Board be expanded to include penalties for academic dishonesty incidents that “could best be treated as teaching moments between the student and faculty member.”

For such cases, the committee advocated the creation of new options in an effort to remedy what they perceived as a one-size-fits-all approach, Sundquist said. These new local sanctions include required tutoring, a course warning, a required re-do of the assignment in question, a grade penalty, or a failing grade for the assignment. Students could also be “excluded” from a class, which would leave a mark on the transcript equivalent to a failing grade.

Now, after two full academic years with the reforms in place, Jeff Neal, a spokesperson for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote in an emailed statement that the local sanctions have been “very successful.” Neal declined to speak about the Ad Board in person or over the phone.

Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Lecturer Andrew Berry, who has informally advised students going before the Ad Board for academic dishonesty cases, said he thinks local sanctions have led students to view the Board less fearfully than before.

“The email from the Ad Board does look like the end of the world, but it’s less associated with hellfire than it used to be,” Berry said.

Last spring, Berry said, several of his students in Life Sciences 1b went before the Board for academic dishonesty infractions in a process that Berry thought reflected the nuances of the individual cases.

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