Past Cases May Shed Light on 'Introduction to Congress" Investigation

Large-scale cheating scandals at the University of Virginia, the U.S. Naval Academy, and Dartmouth may offer insight into the approach Harvard may take in doling out punishments to students found guilty of academic dishonesty in Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress.”

On Thursday, the College announced that it was investigating about 125 students for allegedly plagiarizing answers or inappropriately collaborating on a final take-home exam in a spring course, which The Crimson reported was assistant professor Matthew B. Platt’s government class.

Harvard administrators may look to a similar case uncovered in 2001 at the University of Virginia, which resulted in a 20-month investigation of 122 students accused of cheating in a physics course. That probe ultimately ended in the dismissal of 45 students and the revocation of three degrees.

Louis A. Bloomfield, the physics professor who discovered several strings of identical words in the term papers for his class, “How Things Work,” said that he hopes that Harvard will keep in mind that these students are still maturing when deciding their punishments.

“If they misbehave, you don’t execute them, you teach them,” Bloomfield said. “I think that whatever Harvard decides to do, it should be very careful to have an educational purpose to the punishments it doles out. These are educational institutions, they should educate.”

At Virginia, a still-standing “hallowed” honor code put in place during the mid-1800s dictates that the only punishment for violations, including plagiarism, is dismissal from the university—a stipulation that Bloomfield called “a death penalty” for students.

Harvard does not have an honor code, though the introduction of one is currently in discussion by the College's Committee on Academic Integrity.

Although 122 students were initially implicated in the scandal at Virginia, the number was later reduced to some 70 students. Roughly 20 of those students ultimately did not receive a punishment because the degree of plagiarism did not warrant dismissal from school, which suggests that the number of students implicated in the allegations at Harvard may decrease as investigations continue.

Although Bloomfield still teaches the class, he decided to make certain changes to the course following the scandal, including decreasing the class size by half and no longer assigning take home exams, choices that Platt could consider as the spring semester of the course approaches.

Bloomfield predicted that the investigation process could be messy and extremely taxing for Platt.

“No good will come of this to the professor who found it,” Bloomfield said. “I lost two years of my life to that honor mess...It may be hard to survive.”

Platt has declined or not responded to repeated requests for comment on the case.

Bloomfield said Virginia pressured him to remain silent while in the public eye, adding that when he did not chose to do so, he “got a lot of heat.” He said that he went from being highly respected in the administration to being “invisible,” an experience he described as “very painful.”

Harvard could also look to precedent set in a 1992 scandal at the U.S. Naval Academy in which students in an electrical engineering class illicitly distributed an advance copy of an exam.

The Academy, which also has a longstanding honor code, conducted a 16-month investigation into 125 students that ended in the expulsion of 24 midshipmen from the school. Sixty-two others found guilty of violations of the school’s honor code lost certain privileges, including access to certain areas of school grounds.