Conducive to Cheating

Academic dishonesty is situated in Harvard’s out-of-class culture

The Gov 1310 cheating scandal, implicating 125 students in allegedly illicit collaboration on a final exam, has been national news for over two weeks. The most recent episode in the evolving saga occurred on Tuesday, when it was reported that basketball co-captains Kyle D. Casey ’13 and Brandyn T. Curry ’13 were both involved in the scandal. Casey has apparently withdrawn for the semester, and Curry may reportedly follow suit. Similarly, many on the football team are bracing for changes in lineup as a result of the scandal. What’s more, assistant professor Matthew B. Platt indicated to the Ad Board in a letter early this summer that several of the students under investigation were members of the baseball team.

Indeed, one source has suggested that athletes make up a disproportionate number of those 125. While we know that many athletes were implicated, it is equally likely that dozens of non-athletes are also under investigation. There is no value in drawing generalizations from insufficient evidence; nor is there any cause to excuse the academically dishonest or minimize their transgression. Rather, we ought to ask ourselves what circumstances, contexts, and pressures are most conducive to dishonest behavior, so that we can diminish them.

One of Harvard’s defining characteristics is the intensity with which we approach extracurriculars. Be it in the context athletics, journalism, social organizations, or political groups, we often give ourselves over entirely to our organizations. Academics, for many, become a distinctly secondary priority for much of our careers at school. It is not hard to imagine how, in this environment, benign instances of cutting corners like sharing study guides over an email list may make actual actions of academic dishonesty that much more feasible. Most listserves serve as exchanges of all kinds of information on courses, books, and professors. They facilitate collaboration, and without proper self-discipline, people may use them as channels for illicit collaboration.

While we cannot be sure whether it played a role in this particular scandal, it is worth noting the undue pressure many Harvard students place on themselves to get impossibly high grades. In a community where anything less than a B is frequently considered a mark of failure in a class, and grade point average is thought to be one of the main determinants of future happiness, individuals may be more inclined to cheat than they otherwise might.

None of this is to excuse those who broke the crystal-clear prohibition against “discuss[ing] the exam with others.” It is, however, useless to deny that a campus culture and certain circumstances might be more conducive to upright behavior than others. As a student body, we should be aware of the negative consequences of treating academics as a second-tier responsibility, while still holding our academic success as vital. It creates a game where the stakes are a lot higher than the amount of effort we are willing or able to put in. Being busy is never an excuse for dishonesty.