A two-year-old reform to Harvard’s disciplinary body will give the board members more options when they decide how to penalize any students found guilty of academic dishonesty in Government 1310: “Introduction to Congress.”
The Administrative Board is currently investigating about 125 students—nearly two percent of the student body—for allegedly plagiarizing answers or inappropriately collaborating on a final take-home exam in assistant professor Matthew B. Platt’s spring government course.
Before the reform, students found guilty of academic misconduct by the Ad Board would have faced three possible punishments: a warning, a probationary period, or a requirement to withdraw from the College, typically for two to four semesters.
But due to a change approved by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in May 2010, the Ad Board has two additional, arguably less severe, ways to punish students which it may use for anyone found guilty of illicit collaboration in Government 1310.
In cooperation with the board and the chairs of their department, professors now have the power to dole out “local sanctions” to students guilty of academic dishonesty, including required tutoring, a mandatory re-do of the assignment in question, or a grade penalty.
The Ad Board also now has the power to “exclude” guilty students from Government 1310, a transcript notation equivalent to failing the course.Matthew L. Sundquist ’09—a former Undergraduate Council president and member of the Committee to Review the Administrative Board, which recommended those and other changes to the Board in a 2009 report—said his committee’s recommendations were intended to fix a one-size-fits-all approach to punishing cheaters.
“[The committee] wanted to have more nuanced abilities to use meaningful outcomes in the educational process,” Sundquist said. “People should be given a second chance—we thought that was the most educational way of doing it.”
In the 2010-2011 school year, the first year after the changes went into effect, disciplinary cases spiked by 150 percent. Secretary of the Administrative Board John “Jay” L. Ellison attributed the increase to the reform, saying that those who notice academic dishonesty may be more likely to turn students in since they know they are not necessarily dooming them to required withdrawal.
Sociology professor Bruce Western said that though he has not recently dealt with any academic integrity violations in his own courses, he is happy to have the option of issuing local penalties if he encounters cheating in the future.
“As a matter of principle, I think it’s probably good to have the flexibility, because I think the facts of these case can often be quite complicated,” Western said. “So I think we have to be able to deal with them in a variety of different ways.”
But professors interviewed for this article said they did not necessarily expect Harvard to issue penalties lighter than required withdrawal in such a large cheating investigation.
Robert H. Bates, a professor of government and of African and African American studies, predicted that the school would choose strict punishments for students found guilty in this case.
“This cuts to the core of integrity,” Bates said. “It will be very costly to the institution and to the students, but the costs of not appropriately re-educating ourselves...would be even greater, enormously greater. This gets down to who we are, as academics and as students and as an institution of high culture.”
Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who focuses on higher education law, also said he expects Harvard to react harshly.Lake said he thinks Harvard is unusually positioned to be able to survive the financial blow of issuing what he predicted could be dozens of verdicts requiring guilty students to withdraw from the College for a year. In such a scenario, Harvard would lose what could be millions of dollars in tuition all at once. But unlike other schools, Lake suggested, Harvard could afford this loss.
“Of all the schools out there, Harvard certainly has the resources to weather that kind of storm,” Lake said.
Lake said Harvard administrators may also reason that if they let guilty students off lightly, Harvard’s reputation as a peerlessly rigorous leader in academia could be jeopardized.
For schools like Harvard, Lake said, “it’s worth it to take a hit to preserve your brand.”
—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at email@example.com.