Harvard Could Face Student Lawsuits in Fallout of Cheating Scandal

After Harvard issues verdicts to the roughly 125 undergraduates being investigated for academic dishonesty in Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress,” several lawyers predict that the University could face a slew of lawsuits from students facing punishment.

One student currently under investigation said he may consider suing Harvard, depending on the outcome of his case. He said that he has already contacted a lawyer and has spoken to about ten others accused of academic dishonesty who have done the same.

“Harvard has created this war between the students and the fricking school, and this is a war that I am willing and very eager to fight,“ said the student, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he did not want it known that he is accused of cheating.

Lawyers and experts who specialize in higher education law said they expect that any students who choose to sue the University are most likely to claim that the Administrative Board did not properly follow its procedures as listed in the student handbook during the Government 1310 investigation.

These lawsuits could have merit if Harvard “substantially” deviates from its delineated processes during the investigation, said Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law. While administrative mistakes, such as misnumbered pages in procedural documents, will be unlikely to generate successful lawsuits, he said, students could have a valid legal case if administrators make more egregious errors, such as the denial of promised hearings.

Lake added that he thinks problems could arise from the unusually high volume of students implicated in the investigation.

“Particularly with 125 matters to resolve, it takes a lot of diligence to make sure that [all of the students] get what they’re supposed to get,” Lake said. “It gets that much more likely that you’re going to make a mistake.”

Harvard could also face a number of lawsuits from punished students claiming that their future job prospects have been jeopardized, said Michael R. Schneider, a Boston lawyer who has acted as a consultant for students in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Medical School, and Law School facing Ad Board processes.

Potential punishments issued at the conclusion of the investigation, such as withdrawal, will always appear on students’ transcripts and may impact their likelihood of being accepted at graduate schools or hired for a job.

“I think the University needs to realize that it is really making it difficult for some really solid students who may have had one lapse in their academic careers,” Schneider said.

Students who say they have lost jobs or other opportunities as a result of being falsely accused of plagiarism could also sue the University for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, Boston education lawyer Laura E. Gillis said.

But it will be difficult to prove that the University was sloppy in carrying out its investigation, or that Harvard intentionally caused emotional harm, Schneider said.

Experts interviewed for this article also said that Harvard can take preventative measures while the investigation is still ongoing to defend itself from these possible suits.

In response to these possible lawsuits, the University should be careful to draw a clear line separating collaboration from cheating, said Robert Holmes, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administrators.

“There’s a difference between similar answers and copied answers,” Holmes said.

The Ad Board should also ensure that each student is investigated and prosecuted as an individual, Schneider said.

—Staff writer Nathalie R. Miraval can be reached at nmiraval@college.harvard.edu.

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

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