Government Department Reacts to Scandal in Congress Class

"Introduction to Congress" Final Exam
Crimson News Staff

Shockwaves are reverberating in the government department following the revelation that Harvard is investigating about 125 students in Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress” for alleged academic dishonesty.

On Thursday, the College took the unusual step of announcing it was investigating the students for allegedly plagiarizing responses or inappropriately collaborating on a final take-home exam in an undergraduate class, which The Crimson reported was assistant professor Matthew B. Platt’s spring government course.

Government department administrators have slated the Government 1310 case for discussion at the department’s regularly scheduled faculty meeting on Tuesday, government professor Stephen D. Ansolabehere said.

Department chair Timothy J. Colton and Director of Undergraduate Studies Cheryl B. Welch did not respond to requests for comment on the case.

Robert H. Bates, a professor of government and African and African American studies, said that to his knowledge, government department administrators have not started any internal review to investigate cheating in the department or considered any rule changes related to academic integrity.

But Bates said he expects University administrators to issue “a very explicit statement of how much cooperation and sharing for preparation for exams is allowed.”

In the wake of the Government 1310 scandal, Bates said, “that’s got to be unambiguous.”

Ansolabehere said faculty members are looking to University President Drew G. Faust for leadership as Harvard moves toward a broader conversation about academic integrity—the reason that Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris said Harvard publicly announced the investigation.

“For 125 students to do this, I think it raises big questions that the University needs to deal with,” Ansolabehere said.

But he said that he is worried that appropriate collaboration, a valuable learning tool, will become a casualty of the scandal as professors and departments move to institute new rules prohibiting cooperative work.

“The reason that [study guides] existed in the first place was that they were actually helpful to students,” Ansolabehere said. “What's going to happen in chemistry when you can’t take in some study guides that help you remember the periodic table?”

Harvard’s Committee on Academic Integrity—a group of faculty members, administrators, and resident deans that has been meeting since October 2010—has been discussing the possibility of instituting an honor code at Harvard and will likely present recommendations to the College sometime this academic year, said Harris, who chairs the committee.

But several professors interviewed in light of this week’s announcement said they did not think the establishment of an honor code would curb cheating.

Bates said he thinks honor codes only work at academic institutions with a strong sense of community where students feel that if they cheated, they would be shamed by other classmates. Harvard may not fit that mold, he said.

“I don’t know if Harvard is intimate enough and tightly knit enough to support that kind of system,” Bates said. “It seems to me it’s probably too big and too segmented by the Houses.”

And when Harvard asked freshmen to sign a document stating that kindness was on par with academic accomplishment last fall, the simple pledge drew angry responses from professors who said that such a public declaration was inappropriate at Harvard. Eventually, the College cut the signatures and did not ask students to sign such a statement again this year.

—Jane Seo contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at rrobbins@college.harvard.edu.

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